Longtime NFL offensive line coach Mike Solari believes there comes a time in every training camp when you need to check a player’s versatility.
For Don Barclay, that test could come as soon as Sunday, when the Green Bay Packers travel to Pittsburgh for their second preseason game.
Starting left tackle David Bakhtiari hasn’t practiced since last Thursday’s 22-11 win over New England because of a knee injury. Barring a new development, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said before Wednesday’s padded practice that it’s unlikely Bakhtiari will play against the Steelers.
That scenario would leave the Packers’ starting offense without the man responsible for protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blind side for the past two seasons. With Bakhtiari watching, Barclay has taken reps at left tackle with the first-team offense so far this week in practice.
“David Bakhtiari, he’s on a program that’s going to pretty much keep him out all week,” McCarthy said. “If it’s up to me, unless the information is different, he’ll be a stretch to play in Pittsburgh.
“Donnie’s going to work there, he worked there Monday, he’ll work there (Wednesday). It’s important for him to get that work. We may look at a couple other guys there, too.”
Barclay’s greatest value has been his versatility. He can play both guard positions and started 21 games (including playoffs) at right tackle during his first two seasons in place of an injured Bryan Bulaga before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last August.
The one position the 6-foot-4, 305-pound lineman hasn’t worked in Green Bay is left tackle, which also happens to be the spot on the line where the Packers don’t have a proven backup.
Barclay returned in time for the start of the offseason program and training camp, but doesn’t appear to be back to full strength from reconstructive knee surgery. He gave up a 10-yard sack of Brett Hundley after getting beat by Patriots linebacker Rufus Johnson in the third quarter. He also was flagged for holding while trying to prevent another earlier in the game.
Barclay hasn’t been available during this week’s media availability, but said after the Patriots game that it provided him with something to build on despite there being “a couple of plays I didn’t like and would like to have back.”
Bulaga has been in Barclay’s position before. He missed 26 consecutive games spanning the 2012 and 2013 seasons because of season-ending hip and knee injuries. Once he returned, Bulaga admits there was a mental hurdle he had to get past in addition the physicality.
A player can take all the reps in organized team activities, but the game changes once the pads come on and another 300-pounder is rushing with all his might.
“Kicking the rust off, which I think is the toughest thing,” said Bulaga, who started 17 games last season. “For me, you trust it during workouts and non-football (activities). It’s getting the trust back with doing football movements. Trust bracing on it so it feels strong and just having that trust in that knee. That took for me probably all the way through training camp to really trust (it).”
Barclay started his final three years at West Virigina at left tackle, protecting current New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith’s blindside during his final two seasons. However, all but one of his NFL regular-season snaps have come on the right side of the offensive line.
The Packers have other options at left tackle, but hardly anyone with regular-season experience. First-year tackle Jeremy Vujnovich has worked at left tackle with the second-team offensive line, while fellow practice-squad holdover, Josh Walker, took reps there during Wednesday’s practice, as well.
They could swing Bulaga to the left side and insert Barclay at right tackle, but the Packers would prefer to not displace multiple linemen. One of the things that made Barclay valuable as an undrafted rookie in 2012 is that his presence allowed T.J. Lang to remain at guard instead of playing out of position.
Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton says he’s comfortable lining up next to Barclay, especially after pairing with him on the right side during the final six games of the 2012 season.
“When somebody goes down, you always want to have one moving part — you don’t want two,” Sitton said. “Any time you have two, you’re going to have two people not necessarily playing out of position, but two guys who maybe didn’t get a lot of reps at that position. Anytime it’s just one guy, it’s going to be a lot better.”
It’s important that reserves are versatile enough to play multiple spots when only six or seven offensive linemen are active on game days. The Packers felt so strongly about Barclay that they tendered him a one-year, $1.54 million contract this offseason despite his knee injury.
Solari is in his first year as the Packers’ assistant offensive line coach, but appreciates what Barclay brought to the table his first two seasons. He was encouraged by what he’d seen from Barclay during practice leading up to the Patriots game.
“The key thing initially is the confidence that that leg is OK,” Solari said last week. “He’s done a great job in the offseason coming back. He’s getting better. As he kind of gets the rust off, so to speak … he’s got to grow. The nice thing is the competition because again the guys on either side of him, he sees them and he’s competing.”
The Packers have four reserves — Barclay, JC Tretter, Lane Taylor and Garth Gerhart — who have at least one accrued NFL season. Tretter, a fourth-round pick in 2013, was listed as the backup left tackle last season, but coaches agree his best position is center.
Walker (6-5, 328) has shown some versatility in his bid for a 53-man roster spot. The Middle Tennessee State alum first signed with Indianapolis as an undrafted rookie after the 2014 draft. He signed onto the Packers’ practice squad and remained there the rest of the season.
There could be a lot on the line Sunday. Rodgers and the first-team offense played three series against the Patriots and could be in for just as much work against the Steelers. Keeping him clean will be paramount.
If Barclay gets the call, his teammates are confident he can handle the job.
“I think one of the things that we’ve needed to find is someone to be able to back up Dave,” Sitton said. “Donnie’s come in and done a nice job. I think he feels pretty comfortable at left tackle. He’s done a nice job. I’ve felt pretty comfortable with him the last few days. I think it’s given him an opportunity to show what he can do on that side and I think he’s taken advantage of it.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.