Lane Taylor might be this year’s Don Barclay.
The Green Bay Packers signed both offensive linemen as undrafted rookies — Barclay last season, Taylor this season.
Neither is the kind of athlete who impresses at their position in workouts or offseason practices in shorts and T-shirts. But when the pads go on, they seem to have the fight, strength and savvy to adapt to the speed and power of the NFL.
Barclay last summer was one of four undrafted rookies to make the Packers’ opening-game roster. He finished the season as an injury replacement starting at right tackle, and this year will be either the starter in that spot or first offensive lineman off the bench.
Taylor, a four-year starter at Oklahoma State, could be working toward a similar position. He had a shaky first week of training camp, even after the pads went on, but made a jump last week in practice. Then he was one of the Packers’ young players who clearly helped himself in extensive playing time in the preseason opener last week against Arizona.
“I remember last year I came in and tried to do as much as possible to get my name out there, do something to stand out,” Barclay said Monday. “I think Lane has done that. That last game he was putting some people on their backs and on the ground. That’s one way as a lineman to stand out.”
The Packers paid Lane the highest signing bonus ($7,000) of their 2013 undrafted rookie class, so from the start they considered him a prospect with a decent chance of making their final roster or at least the practice squad. But developments in the offseason and training camp have stripped them of depth on the offensive line and improved Lane’s odds immensely for making the team and possibly getting on the field if a couple of injuries hit in the regular season.
A little more than two weeks into camp, the Packers’ have grown thin on the line because they’re missing three players of note.
One, starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga, sustained a season-ending knee injury last week.
Another, fourth-round draft pick JC Tretter, probably will miss his rookie season because of a broken ankle sustained in May.
And a third, former first-round pick Derek Sherrod, hasn’t passed his physical 20 months after breaking both bones in his lower leg. Sherrod appears in danger of missing at least another half season and possibly the whole year after also sitting out 2012.
So what last spring appeared to be a position group of increasing depth with two draft picks (Tretter and David Bakhtiari in the fourth round) and the hoped-for return of Sherrod has become perilously thin.
Bakhtiari now is the likely starter at left tackle and one of seven linemen who are essentially locks to make the team. The other starters are Josh Sitton at left guard, Evan Dietrich-Smith at center, T.J. Lang at right guard and either Marshall Newhouse or Barclay at right tackle. The top backups will be whoever loses at right tackle, and Greg Van Roten, a second-year pro who has been working recently as the No. 2 center and a backup at both guards and right tackle.
The Packers generally keep at least eight or nine offensive lineman on their final 53, though they finished last season with only seven. So chances are at least one and possibly two roster spots are open, with Taylor the most impressive player in a group that also includes guard-tackle Andrew Datko, center-guard Garth Gerhart, center-guard Patrick Lewis and tackle Kevin Hughes.
Taylor is strictly an inside player — he’s been working at both guard positions and in some individual drills at center. There’s a good chance the Packers in the next two or three weeks will add a tackle cut by another team. But either way, Taylor has become a front-runner to make the Packers’ final 53.
“It’s a good spot to be in,” Van Roten said of Taylor, “because obviously we don’t have a lot of linemen right now. He’s playing real well, and he’s young and he’s big and he’s strong, and he’s doing a lot of things well. He looks like he doesn’t let anything get to him, which is good — a lot of guys will fold under the pressure of the mental part of the game. I think he’s handled himself very well so far.”
Taylor did nothing to distinguish himself in the first week of camp — he was only 5-7 in one-on-one pass-blocking drills the first four padded practices combined. But starting last week, his play took a noticeable jump, including going 10-2 in one-on-ones the last three padded practices. On Friday night against the Cardinals, he played all but the first offensive series and gave up no quarterback hits or sacks, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
At 6-foot-3 and 324 pounds, he’s not a long (only 32¼-inch arms) and athletic player who functions well in space. That’s the biggest reason he wasn’t drafted. But he has a thick build and after a week in pads adjusted enough to the strength and quickness of the NFL game to give himself a fighting chance.
“He’s physical,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said, “has a mean streak, pretty good feet, strong. Good player.”
Said Taylor: “(My head) was spinning a little bit, there was a lot going on at first. Everything’s new, even the practice schedule. But I got comfortable after a week and really started coming into my own.”
Taylor played Friday after spending back-to-back nights at a hospital with his wife and then their newborn daughter.
Kasey Taylor’s water broke Wednesday night, shortly after Taylor’s work at the Packers’ offices at Lambeau had ended. He rushed her to a hospital, but their daughter, Bryleigh, wasn’t born for another 22 hours.
So Taylor missed meetings and practice Thursday, then spent Thursday night in the hospital with them before attending meetings Friday morning. He then took a nap and played in the game Friday night.
“It wasn’t difficult at all,” Taylor said of switching gears from new fatherhood to competing on the field. “Just to have my daughter here finally was a great motivation to go out there and play well.”
— pdougher@pressgazette media.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.