GREEN BAY – Chris Harper isn’t getting comfortable. After what he went through last season, he’s too smart to do that.
But at least the Green Bay Packers wide receiver is unpacking.
Last season, Harper was on three NFL rosters. He began the year with the Seattle Seahawks, who’d taken him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft out of Kansas State but cut him at the end of training camp. As the 123rd overall pick, he was the second-highest draft pick in last year’s class to be cut by his team – only Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, taken and released by the Oakland Raiders at No. 112, was higher -- and to put his release in perspective, Harper was picked in between Packers center JC Tretter (No. 122) and reserve running back Johnathan Franklin (No. 125).
The Seahawks had hoped to sneak him onto their practice squad, but their NFC West archrivals, the San Francisco 49ers, claimed him on waivers. After seven inactive weeks on the 49ers’ roster, they cut him, too – just in time for Packers general manager Ted Thompson to put in a waiver claim on him on Oct. 18, after wide receivers Randall Cobb (leg) and James Jones (knee) had left the previous week’s game at Baltimore with injuries. (Harper wound up being the only player the Packers were awarded on waivers last season.)
Harper wound up seeing action in three games with the Packers, primarily on special teams – he played two offensive snaps last season, without a reception – and lived out of suitcases for the balance of the season.
“The moving part was probably the toughest part,” Harper admitted during a break in organized team activity practices last week – in advance of the mandatory minicamp, which kicks off Tuesday. “I have everything (now). I got cut in Seattle and then San Fran. I had all my Seahawk stuff sent to San Fran, and when I got cut from San Fran, I just shipped it all home (to Kansas). I just now got everything back up here like two weeks ago. I’m still unpacking stuff.”
Despite a challenging depth chart that has four shoo-ins (if healthy) for the 53-man roster – Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and rookie second-round pick Davante Adams – and battling a gaggle of other roster hopefuls for what might only be one roster spot (despite quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ hope of keeping six receivers), Harper hopes to stick around for quite awhile.
His nomadic football life dates back to college, having started at the University of Oregon as a quarterback before moving closer to his Wichita, Kan., home at K-State. There, he led the Wildcats in receiving each of his final two years, catching 40 passes for 547 yards as a junior and 58 passes for 857 yards as a senior.
Now, after a strong start during OTAs – he missed the final week after tweaking his hamstring but vowed to be back on the field Tuesday for the first minicamp practice – he’s hoping to recapture that form.
“Chris has really improved,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after watching Harper make several terrific catches during the June 3 open OTA practice. “I still go back to his K-State film. You talk about a very talented, powerful, young player. He looks more and more comfortable with what we’re asking him to do, and I don’t think that was the case last year when he came here. So he’s having a very good offseason.”
While part of Harper’s problem last year was having three playbooks rattling around in his head, he said he actually picked up the Packers’ offense relatively quickly. His greater issue was undoing what the 49ers had done to him, having worked him as a tight end and H-back in hopes that at 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds and with a less-than-blazing 40 time (4.55 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine), he might be better suited for that position.
“I play receiver. I don’t play tight end, which is what San Fran really had me playing,” Harper said. “I don’t even know how to get into a three-point stance. We had to work on getting into a three-point stance. In the NFL, you shouldn’t have to work on a stance. I had to go back to like Day 1 of football. It was kind of – I don’t know. I don’t want to say it couldn’t have worked out but it was during the season and I missed camp and all the basic stuff.”
Now, that’s exactly what he’s getting in Green Bay – and exactly what he needs.
“I learned the offense and all that, but during practice, I was just thinking. I couldn’t be out there and be natural,” Harper said of last season. “That was probably the biggest thing for me. I knew the plays and I knew a lot of the stuff, [although] not as well as I know it now. I know the intricacies of our offense now, but it’s just being natural. I don’t have to think about it anymore. I can just go for it. I know exactly what everyone is doing. I can just go out there and play.
“Getting the whole offseason, it’s a different world.”
He’ll need that kind of comfort to crack the 53-man roster. After the top four, the Packers are high on rookie fifth-round pick Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin and seventh-round pick Jeff Janis of Saginaw Valley State; while holdovers Myles White (nine receptions last season) and 2013 seventh-round pick Kevin Dorsey are in the mix, too. Even if the Packers keep six wideouts, Harper will still have to make an excellent training-camp and preseason impression to be among them. If he succeeds, he’ll get to line up against the Seahawks in the Sept. 4 regular-season opener.
“Yeah, that’ll definitely be something I use [as motivation],” Harper said.
And yet, Harper clearly doesn’t lack for confidence, as evidenced by what he told Rodgers when the two chatted during OTAs.
“[The number of receivers on the roster] pushes me, but I don’t really think about it like that,” Harper said. “Because like I said to ‘A-Rod,’ I’m not trying to beat anybody out to make the team, I’m trying to start. I’m trying to go for Jordy and Randall, I’m not trying to just play.
“I’ve done since this since I was little and I don’t feel like anything changing just the guys around me and the teams, it’s still football. That’s how I look at it. I’ve been good since I started playing so it’s definitely not going to change the way I feel about myself now.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.