GREEN BAY - For the second time in as many years, starting center Corey Linsley is nothing more than an observer as the Green Bay Packers near the end of their offseason program.
Linsley, 25, began last season on the physically unable to perform list with an injured hamstring. Now he is recovering from ankle surgery to fix a problem dating to 2015. He would not discuss a timetable for his return.
“Just rehabbing and trying my best to get back as quick as I can,” Linsley said in May. “I’m looking to be back as soon as I can, whenever that is.”
In moments like these, offensive line coach James Campen had grown accustomed to JC Tretter filling Linsley’s shoes with aplomb. Tretter was a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2013 after first-team All-Ivy League honors at Cornell. He started three games in 2015 and seven games in 2016 before his rookie contract expired in March.
Having proved himself a capable starter, Tretter inked a three-year deal with the Cleveland Browns worth $16.75 million. The contract included $10 million guaranteed, a number the Packers never would have touched.
Instead, general manager Ted Thompson re-signed utility man Don Barclay to a one-year deal worth $1.3 million. Barclay has played all five positions during the first five years of his career, and now he counts backup center among his responsibilities. The Packers gave him a vote of confidence by releasing Jacob Flores earlier this week, the only true center on the roster aside from Linsley.
“Donnie is always wanting to learn more about the position,” Linsley said. “This is his second year kind of playing it, although last year he filled in a lot at guard and not really center. So he’s kind of got his foundation set and he’s getting a lot better at different things. We have a great working relationship.”
Having Linsley available for OTAs and minicamp is certainly preferable, especially as the linemen build chemistry with newcomer Jahri Evans, but there is an important silver lining to his extended absence: More and more reps are allotted to Barclay, who has run with the starters all spring.
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“It’s been good,” Barclay said. “The more and more you do something, you get more comfortable with it. This is my sixth year, so I feel like now I have a good grasp of the offense and everything. That’s one less thing I really have to worry about at the position because I’ve seen so many looks over the years. I’m comfortable with the offense to where I can really try to just focus in on my technique right now.”
Barclay’s familiarity with the scheme is a reflection of his jack-of-all-trades deployment since making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012. His 24 career starts have been split between right tackle and left tackle. He has made relief appearances at right guard and left guard. He has manned multiple positions within the course of the same game.
He played 196 snaps last season with portions at left guard (52), center (one), right guard (137) and right tackle (six). Such an existence can be unenviable, according to Campen, and Barclay never complains.
“He’s been in some really tough spots as a freshman, his rookie year and he came flying through,” Campen said. “Now he overcame a bad injury, flying through. This will be the second year off of (the torn ACL). I have all the confidence in the world in Donny Barclay. Donny is a pro’s pro. Love him.”
But Barclay has become a punching bag of sorts for fans, especially on social media. He is arguably the most criticized player on the roster among non-starters, and every poor performance is met with a Twitter skewering.
His reputation could not be more different among teammates and coaches, many of whom enjoy his easygoing personality and soft-spoken demeanor.
He played golf with Jordy Nelson, Mason Crosby and Bryan Bulaga at Erin Hills earlier this spring. He attended the Kentucky Derby with David Bakhtiari and a number of other Packers. Once, during 2016, Mike Daniels shouted down a hallway at Barclay just to praise his work ethic and the way he approaches the game.
Collectively they respect a player who fights with everything he has, even when everything he has might not be enough.
“Don Barclay has so many excellent attributes,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “You look at someone who can play all five positions and has played tackle, guard and center in our system, so his versatility, his work ethic, he’s a great locker room guy. Most importantly he’s from Pittsburgh. That goes a long way around here.”
So do the words of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who spoke glowingly about Barclay earlier this spring.
“Bringing Don back was a big thing for us,” Rodgers said. “He stepped into the backup center role and has done a fantastic job in the IPWs and now in the OTAs. He has really improved his game. You’re looking at a guy who has started at tackle for us, started at guard for us and now is in line to be our backup center. That’s fantastic. I give him a lot of credit. He’s had a great approach, he’s a great teammate and I think this is an important offseason for him to continue to show this team how valuable he is to it.”