Jason Avant has never been a blazer. Coming out of college at Michigan in 2006, there were reports that he was timed in the 4.8 range in the 40-yard dash at his pro day.
But Avant, the Chiefs’ newest receiver, does have some real gifts, namely reliable hands and a knack for running solid routes. That’s why he’s managed to stick around in the NFL for the last nine years, and in his second go-round under Chiefs coach Andy Reid, he is eager to prove he’s still got more in the tank — and can still beat man coverage.
“(I’ll do it the) same way I always have,” said Avant, 31. “There’s guys that beat it by running fast, but guys in this league are fast too. So if you learn the game the right way, if you take the finer points your coaches teach you with setting up a guy, knowing when to use your speed — speed up, slow down — and learn how to play the game, when you get older, the game doesn’t change.”
Avant, who caught 21 passes for 201 yards in 11 games prior to his release by the Carolina Panthers last week, even offered up an impressive cross-sport comparison during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
“You see Tim Duncan still play at a high level because he was a fundamental person,” Avant said of the star power forward for the San Antonio Spurs. “So when his talent or speed kind of diminished, he was still able to play at a high level because he learned the game the right way. That’s what I want to be as a pro — learn the game the right way and as I get older, I’m still able to perform at a high level.”
It’s obvious Avant believes Reid is the man to help him do this. During his eight-year tenure in Philadelphia under Reid, Avant, a former fourth-round pick, used his veteran savvy to average 37 catches, 455 yards and almost two touchdowns per season, primarily as a slot receiver.
His last productive year came in 2012, during Reid’s last season in Philadelphia. That year, he caught 53 passes for 648 yards in 14 games and finished with a Pro Football Focus grade of 11.1, which ranked 20th out of 111 receivers who played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps.
But his production fell off some last year, his first under new coach Chip Kelly, and while he caught 38 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns, he finished with a Pro Football Focus grade of negative-2.7, which ranked 89th out of 111 eligible receivers.
When it became clear Avant would not return to the Eagles this season, he made it clear that he wanted to reunite with Reid this offseason.
“The Chiefs always were my No. 1 choice,” Avant said. “Everything doesn’t always work out the way you want it to.”
So Avant signed with the Panthers, and was expected to add some experience to a thin group that lost franchise mainstay Steve Smith, Jr. Avant’s PFF grade was worse this year through 11 games (negative-4.6), but he might have caused his release by criticizing Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s decision to attempt a field goal (which ultimately failed) following a 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
“In hindsight, you never know what happened, for sure,” Avant said of his Carolina release. “I just want to make sure I make the best of my opportunity here. The truth of the matter is I’m happy about being here.”
And the biggest reason for that, he said, is the presence of Reid and receivers coach David Culley, who also coached him in Philadelphia.
“I’m glad to be able to come here on the second go-round,” Avant said. “This is where I always wanted to be. I always wanted to play for coach Reid and coach Culley. It’s a dream come true for me.”
Avant said the biggest thing he appreciates about Reid is his ability to make the most of the personnel he has.
“He’s had big receivers like Bowe, smaller receivers like DeSean (Jackson)... and he’s able to use guys in the right way,” Avant said. “He looks at everybody as having an ability. Everyone has a strength and he tries to find that strength and use it to their ability and also to the team’s best interest.”
In his own case, Avant said, that means working the middle of the field out of the slot position, though he is not sure where or how much he’ll be used yet.
“I’m pretty sure coach Reid is going to move me around as he sees fit,” said Avant, who estimated that he knows roughly 65 to 75 percent of the playbook. “I believe in what he’s preaching. I believe in everything he’s about, so I trust him in whatever that decision is.”
A big reason for that trust, Avant said, dates back to his appreciation for the way Reid handles people. Avant said Reid is known for checking in with his players via text.
“He really cares about his people,” Avant said. “Whether it’s me or anybody else, we can always receive a text message from coach Reid at anytime just to say, ‘I’m thinking about you, hope everything is well with your family, that type of thing. It goes a long way.
“When you have guys that want to follow you places — most of the guys from the Eagles staff followed him here — you want to be around that kind of person. He’s infectious. And he’s always positive thinking.”
Much like Avant is about his chances of making an impact with the Chiefs, 7-4, who are banged up at receiver prior to their massive Sunday night home showdown against the Denver Broncos.
“I don’t just play this game for me, I play for people that watch me on south side of Chicago,” said Avant, a Chicago native. “I play his game for the coach that coached me in high school and also my coach in college, to prove them right, to prove the people that drafted me right.
“I always have a chip on my shoulder, I’m always trying to prove I’m still a good player. I know what I am. I know I can still play ... I’m a very competitive person. I like to prove those people right that acquire me.”