Oh, Canada: Guard Gray 'good get' for Packers

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – Of the 16 rookie free agents accumulated by the Green Bay Packers, guard Geoff Gray, a rare prospect from Canada, appears to stand out.

Former University of Manitoba guard Geoff Gray signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent.

An executive in personnel for an NFL team said Gray was the only one of the 16 to have a draftable grade on his club’s draft board.

“We had a sixth-round grade on him,” the personnel man said. “That’s a good get. Like him. It’s going to take a year but, if he hits it, they got one.”

Gray, who played at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, has ideal size (6-feet-5½ inches, 315 pounds) and impressive athleticism.

At a pro day March 30 that was attended by eight NFL teams (including Green Bay) and two CFL teams, Gray posted a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. Both would have tied for second best among all offensive linemen at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

“Jumping is a great indicator of how explosive you are,” Gray said this week. “I compete in Olympic weightlifting in the offseason. That definitely helps my (jumps).”

More importantly, Gray displayed a competitive temperament that must have been appealing to the Packers.

“Aggressive to a fault,” said an NFL scout. “Likes to wear defenders out during a game.”

Gray played both right tackle and guard for the Bisons, who are one of 27 collegiate teams in Canada.

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Although Gray has the size and arm length (34 inches) to play tackle in the NFL, he expects to be tried first at guard, where the Packers have lost Pro Bowlers Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang in the last eight months. He also has been working at center.

Now the question becomes, will Gray have any more success than tackle-guard Steve Morley and tackle Josh Bourke, the Packers’ last two offensive linemen from north of the border?

Morley (6-6 ½, 330) was handed a $100,000 signing bonus in February 2004. After a high-school and collegiate career in Nova Scotia, the baby-faced Morley played one season in the CFL before arriving in Green Bay.

Morley started the first two exhibition games at left guard for injured Mike Wahle before spending the entire season inactive. The demands and speed of the U.S. game shocked Morley initially, and on Sept. 3, 2005 the Packers were able to trade him to the Jets for a seventh-round draft choice in ’07.

Cut several times by NFL teams, Morley went back to the CFL and played from 2007-14.

Unlike Morley, Bourke (6-6 ½, 314) crossed the border from his home in Windsor, Ont., to play in high school (Orchard Lake, Mich.) and college (Grand Valley State).

Signed by the Packers as a rookie free agent, Bourke spent all of 2006 on injured reserve (back) before being released in June 2007. Then he signed with the CFL Montreal Alouettes and became a star.

From 2008-14, Bourke was an Eastern Conference all-star. In 2011, he was CFL offensive lineman of the year. In ’14, his $215,000 salary was the highest in the league for a non-quarterback.

The model for Gray would be Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the Kansas City Chiefs’ sixth-round draft choice in 2014 from McGill University in Montreal. He also played as a prep in Quebec.

Duvernay-Tardif didn’t play as a rookie before becoming a starter at right guard in 2015. He played so well that the Chiefs signed him to a five-year, $43.06 million extension in February.

Two other Canadians that became solid starters at guard in the NFL were Mike Schad (1985-’93) and Ian Beckles (1990-’98).

In both the pro and collegiate game in Canada, defensive linemen must line up a full yard off the ball. In the NFL, centers can tell what nose tackles ate for breakfast because of the close proximity.

“You have more time to react in Canada but also the defender has more space,” Gray said. “You don’t have to play more passively but you have more ground to protect and you have to be a little more conservative in your angles.”

Gray’s first exposure to American football was playing in the East-West Shrine Game. He and James Campen, the Packers’ offensive line coach, watched East-West and Manitoba footage during his pre-draft visit to Green Bay.

“He was happy with my body position and knee bend on a lot of blocks,” Gray said. “I asked him what I did wrong. He definitely sees the amount I can grow. The skills are all transferable.”

The CFL will conduct its draft Sunday, and Gray should be selected fairly high despite his contract in Green Bay because a team drafting him would hold his rights for years.

Neither Morley nor Bourke made it in Green Bay before going back to Canada and enjoying long careers.

“Right now the Packers and the NFL are my primary focus,” Gray said. “I’m going to pursue that as far as I can and hopefully get a spot.”

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