Can Packers' sole Milwaukeean save their struggling secondary?
Milwaukee native Marwin Evans is a late bloomer who hits hard. The Packers, who have a depleted and deficient defensive backfield and are under .500 this late in a season for the first time since 2008, could really use a bloom – and a bang.
The undrafted rookie safety has taken a circuitous route to the NFL. But given time, Evans has met every challenge and ultimately always exceeded expectations. As Green Bay, which has lost its last three games while allowing 111 total points and nine passing touchdowns, searches for answers on defense – and healthy players for its injury-ravaged secondary – perhaps the gradually developing but ultra-athletic Evans is now ready to help his home-state team turn its season around, starting Sunday against Washington.
The Oak Creek High School product from the North Side had to play two years in junior college before landing at Utah State, where he started only one season in 2015. He had one of the most impressive workouts of any collegiate player at his Pro Day, but still went unpicked in the draft, eventually signing with the Packers on May 9 as a free agent.
During offseason activities and then training camp, Evans continually turned heads with his natural abilities. And in the preseason, he proved he belonged in the NFL. A sound tackler who packs a punch in run support, he was also capable in coverage, showing good range and instincts with a pass defensed and an interception against the 49ers.
When the Packers announced their 53-man roster in September, Evans' name was on it. Going into the season, the secondary was considered one of Green Bay's strengths, filled with both talent and depth, but Evans – along with fellow undrafted rookie safety Kentrell Brice – had beaten the odds and showed enough promise that the team couldn't cut him.
At the time, head coach Mike McCarthy called it "the deepest safety group I've ever seen in my career in the NFL."
Reserved and low-key, Evans employs clichés often and is not an effusive talker, even when asked if it's a thrill to play for the team he cheered for as a kid. "It's nice," he says, noting there hasn't been a lot of attention on him, except from friends and family. "It's a fun experience to be back home, actually playing in the NFL, in your home state, so it feels really good." Though he grew up a Packers fan, Evans mentions that he was "a Brett Favre fan more than anything" and happy – "I wouldn't say star struck" – to meet the Hall of Fame quarterback in Canton, Ohio, in August.
For the first eight weeks of the season, Evans played exclusively on special teams, where he became a core contributor on the kickoff and punt units. But as the Packers' top cornerbacks began dropping with injuries – first to Sam Shields, then Damarious Randall, then Quinten Rollins – they scrambled to fill holes in the defensive backfield and just try to get by. In the past three games – losses to the Falcons, Colts and Titans – the smoke-and-mirrors pass defense was completely exposed.
In last week's blowout defeat in Tennessee, Green Bay allowed 284 throwing yards and five touchdowns to the league's 21st-ranked passing offense. Afterward, the Packers announced injuries to safeties Micah Hyde (shoulder) and Brice (possible concussion), further crippling their secondary.
So it is in that context – with only a handful of healthy players available and a perspective of "it can't get much worse; what have we got to lose?" – that Green Bay could finally turn in Week 11 to Evans, who's been preparing, studying the playbook and improving in practice for more than two months.
The 23-year-old played his first two defensive snaps a couple of weeks ago against Indianapolis, in addition to his 22 special teams snaps. At Tennessee, he again played two snaps on defense, as well as 20 on special teams. He hasn't recorded a defensive statistic yet, but he's third on the team in special teams tackles, with three.
Physically, there's never been a question that Evans could become a productive NFL player. He has good size (nearly 6-feet and 211 pounds) to be a hybrid safety and he's a gifted athlete. At his Pro Day, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds, bench-pressed 225 pounds 19 times and posted a jaw-dropping 42-inch vertical leap, all of which would have been among the top measurables of players who participated at the NFL Combine.
But Evans reportedly scored a 6 on the Wonderlic intelligence test, partially thanks to minimal preparation, which likely turned off many scouts. He wasn't always academically engaged in high school and college, but he still graduated from Utah State with his degree in sociology and a minor in criminal justice.
Evans is strong and fast, and his aptitude is now catching up to his athleticism.
"It's a little more mental than physical," Evans says of the speed of the professional game starting to slow down for him. "It's just more about retaining everything mentally, testing you mentally all day long. It's definitely different than the college level. Instead of being in class, you're up here (in the team facility) all day. Practice, meetings, it's a real job.
"I'm a city guy, so (Green Bay) is a little different, but I like it. There's not much here, but it's cool, I like it. A quiet town, it helps you focus."
Evans notes it was a challenge initially to learn and understand the playbook, but the veterans were helpful in meetings. As a rookie with only 10 real weeks of experience, he's now being thrown into the fire in practice due to the decimation of his position group.
"I wouldn't say it's fast forward. When we first got here, then it was boom, boom, boom, but now it's slower. I just try and do what I can do," he says. "Just improving every day on the little things is what I'm hearing (from coaches); that's my goal, just to get better every day, take one step forward, no steps back."
Evans may be quiet, but veteran safety Morgan Burnett says he makes his presence known on the field.
"I think Marwin, he's not a rah-rah type of guy; he's a very smooth, laid-back type of guy," Burnett says. "You see him walking around, he walks slow, but when he gets on the field, it's like he turns the switch on. He doesn't do no talking; he lets his play do the talking, and it shows up every time he steps on the field."
Burnett speaks highly about Evans and calls him "a smart guy." He seems to genuinely like and see potential in the rookie that, at first, he didn't believe was really from nearby Milwaukee.
"He has the athletic ability, which, for rookies, if you have the athletic ability, the biggest transition is just understanding the playbook, understanding how to practice, understanding the intensities of games," Burnett says. "But it seems like every time, no matter where you put him, he makes plays. I mean, he was making plays all through training camp, all through the preseason, and you see him now on kickoffs, making big hits inside the 20.
"I feel like we have a tight bunch in our meeting room, and we want to see each other succeed. And when you see those guys (Evans and Brice) come in and make plays, you feel proud – like, all right, they're setting the tone for us on kickoffs so now we've gotta go out there and hold up our end of the bargain. Marwin's a great guy, a great teammate, I have a lot of fun with him."
Evans, whose father, Marwin Sr., was murdered in a 1995 homicide in the city that is still unsolved, has been overcoming life adversity and football doubts his entire life. Not highly recruited after a high school career in which his highest achievement was being named first-team All-Conference as a senior, he played for two different junior colleges, Rochester (Minn.) and Highland (Kan.), then red-shirted at Utah State in 2013. He played sparingly for the Aggies in 2014, before starting in 2015, earning no postseason honors and going undrafted despite his monster Pro Day.
But anyone who discounts Evans runs the risk of becoming the latest to be proven wrong by him.
"I just don't forget what got me here," Evans says of his mindset. "Continue pushing, continue grinding, keep improving, try to get better every day."
Against the Titans, Brice played 21 snaps on defense and glaringly missed on a couple of bad tackle attempts. If the Packers are looking for more muscle and impact, and especially if Brice and Hyde are out this week, Evans could be the next man up at safety.
A few minutes after essentially encapsulating Evans as the quiet dude who delivers loud hits, Burnett jogs over to a reporter to mention one last detail about his teammate.
"His nickname is 'Money Mar,'" Burnett says with a grin. "He told us to call him that; he gave himself his own nickname. You have to include that in the story."
Some surprising swagger from the ostensibly modest Evans. His team's defensively destitute secondary could certainly use a deposit.
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