When Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson made the jarring decision to release starting guard Josh Sitton, his message reverberated through the organization with different meanings for different people.
To the veterans, many of whom watched Sitton earn some form of All-Pro recognition in three consecutive seasons, Thompson’s move served as an announcement that not even the most talented players were assured of making the team each September.
To the coaches, whose job it was to overcome the loss of arguably their best lineman, it reinforced the idea that offseason plans are always subject to change.
And to the young players waiting for an opportunity, well, cutting Sitton demonstrated how quickly depth charts change. Just ask his replacement, Lane Taylor, who went from a spot on the bench to playing 96 percent of snaps in an instant.
“I thought it was a huge statement what Lane Taylor did this year,” said Lucas Patrick, a practice-squad guard, during a phone interview this past week. “I think I can be that guy who is the next to come in and play hopefully.”
The 23-year-old Patrick signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent from Duke on June 1, 2016. He fought through a significant hand injury in training camp to come within a whisper of the 53-man roster. The Packers rewarded him with a spot on the practice squad, where he spent the entire season.
But as Patrick prepares for another training camp in Green Bay, his exact location on the depth chart swirls with uncertainty. T.J. Lang, the starter at right guard, will become an unrestricted free agent in March. Don Barclay, a primary backup who played 50 snaps in the NFC championship game against Atlanta, is heading for free agency as well.
Should both players leave, Patrick and Taylor would be the only two full-time guards on the roster.
“There’s always opportunity whether the person has a four-year contract or is a free agent,” Patrick said. “That’s kind of my mentality I’ve had since I was young. If I’m not playing, I’m going to do everything in my ability for that person in front of me to feel the pressure of me trying to take their spot or make them better.
“Yes, there is opportunity with those guys, but also having them back would be great to learn under as well. It’s there. You see it. But it’s not something that I’m sitting there and counting and relying on.”
Still, the organization is high on Patrick, who at 6-foot-3½ and 317 pounds compares favorably to both Taylor and Sitton in terms of size. It’s well within the realm of possibility to think Thompson and the coaching staff might envision a larger role for Patrick next season, even if the move is a smaller one from practice squad to backup.
Their belief in Patrick was evident during training camp. Patrick, who competed with sixth-round pick Kyle Murphy for the final roster spot among offensive linemen, sustained a serious injury to his right hand in early August. He was forced to wear a club for the next four weeks and performed surprisingly well without the ability to grab, rip or pull.
It was the type of injury that often leads to an injury settlement and subsequent release for undrafted rookies — unless the organization is intrigued. That the Packers kept him around speaks to their long-term vision for his development.
“Clearly I was good enough to stay in some capacity,” Patrick said. “The one thing I like about Green Bay is the prestige along the O-line and kind of the track record they have of guys who just come in and work. They do respect guys who can come in and see a little bit of opportunity and keep getting better and better.”
So Patrick worked diligently to absorb information from Lang, Taylor and James Campen, the Packers' offensive line coach. He marveled at Lang’s ability to choose the right technique on almost every snap. He studied the way Taylor stayed connected to left tackle David Bakhtiari during the play. With Campen, he refined the movement of his hips to take his pass protection “to another level."
"I thought every week I was able to get better at one thing here and there," Patrick said, "which is great being on the practice squad because you can really focus on yourself."
A year ago, Thompson’s bold move resonated with backups across the roster, and Taylor rewarded him with steady play each week. There's no guarantee Thompson will double down on youth once more, but if he does, Patrick could be next.
“It’s a business,” Patrick said. “You do have to look out for yourself and plan for your future. I’ve got goals in my head that I want to reach. If those opportunities are at Green Bay, that’s a win-win for me.”