A $2,500 signing bonus and a chance to extend his football career were all Don Barclay needed to sign with the Green Bay Packers as a college free agent in April 2012.
Two years later, it’s looking like money well spent.
The make-or-break opportunity has swelled into 21 starts (including playoffs) in place of starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who has missed the last 1 1/2 years because of hip and knee injuries.
Bulaga has returned to his post with the first-team offensive line, but Barclay remains a central component to a unit never void of injury.
It’s why Packers coach Mike McCarthy views the 6-foot-4, 305-pound product of West Virginia as a starter even if he isn’t slotted in with the first-team offense.
“He’s earned the opportunity to compete for a starting position and, you know, him and Bryan will compete on the right side,” McCarthy said. “Donny has the ability to potentially play five positions on the offensive line. I don’t know how many guys you can say that about.”
All of Barclay’s NFL starts have come at right tackle, but he’s shown the ability to play either guard spot. His work at left guard during training camp his rookie season is largely what earned him one of two backup spots on the 53-man roster.
Barclay still received significant reps with the starting line this offsesason with Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton missing some time during organized team activities and being excused from last week’s minicamp.
Versatility wasn’t always Barclay’s specialty. He was the Mountaineers’ starting left tackle for three years and played a little left guard during his redshirt freshman season. The right side of the line was new territory.
When Bulaga went down the first time with a hip injury in 2012, the Packers first tried to replace him with starting right guard T.J. Lang. Barclay was thrown into action a couple weeks later when Lang exited with an ankle injury against Minnesota on Dec. 2, 2012.
“I think at first doing the right tackle thing was probably one of the hardest because I was a left tackle my whole life with a little bit of guard, but never did a bunch of right tackle sets,” Barclay said. “As far as playing a lot of games at right tackle, I think that was probably the most challenging.”
Barclay played well enough to hold the starting spot for the rest of the season and received the assignment over veteran Marshall Newhouse when Bulaga went down again with a torn ACL at last year’s Family Night scrimmage.
Pro Football Focus rated Barclay in the middle of the pack of NFL tackles in allowing eight sacks, six hits allowed and 36 total pressures on 546 passing plays. He missed two games with a knee injury and his absence was felt as Newhouse allowed four hits and nine pressures.
Barclay earned an extra $236,693 in performance-based pay for playing 85.9 percent of the Packers’ offensive snaps last season, the second-most on the team to rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari. The payment, which is deferred until after the 2016 season, was worked into the NFL collective bargaining agreement in an attempt to reward the NFL’s lowest-paid players who play the most.
Barclay can be prone to the bull rush and doesn’t possess the same intangibles as the 6-foot-5, 314-pound Bulaga, but seems to find a way. Derek Sherrod’s preference to play left tackle also should keep him as the top option behind Bulaga on the right side.
The Packers benefit from being able to plug Barclay in at three spots. It keeps things simple and doesn’t force the line to reshuffle when injuries occur. They even tried him at center last year in case of an emergency.
“He is not out of the starting position race, but if it ends up that way, it’s very, very good (for our depth),” offensive line coach James Campen said. “Especially when we dress seven, it’s nice to go 1-for-1. Don Barclay will earn his reps, earn his opportunities. He won’t give anything up.”
Barclay, who turned 25 in April, took three weeks off after the season to allow lingering nicks and bruises to heal, but picked up yoga to strengthen his core and loosen his hips. He also feels changes the Packers have implemented in their offseason program will benefit the players in the long term.
Barclay’s hoping it will help Bulaga regain traction on the right side. Although he doesn’t have a starting spot, he’s fine with being the sixth man. After all, it’s the same path Lang and Sitton took to being entrenched starters.
A permanent and established role is the goal for Barclay, but right now, it’s his job to stay ready.
“I’m not so much worried. It will all play out,” Barclay said. “I’m getting a lot of reps right now. It’s all good right now. Coach is doing everything he can to get me in at right tackle and left guard. If I could play two different positions, it’ll work out and help me out at the end.”
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