GREEN BAY - Exhibition games are best thought of as a steady decay into unpredictability. They begin — sometimes — with the most talented players on each team shuffling through a handful of plays to shake off seven months of rust since the end of last season. They end with a flurry of rookies and undrafted free agents running pell-mell across the field as learning and desperation form an intoxicatingly chaotic cocktail.
Nowhere is this more applicable than in the trenches, where youth on both sides raises the heart rates of inexperienced quarterbacks. By the third and fourth quarter, it can appear like these young passers are running for their lives.
“Oh, it’s going to happen,” said Alex Van Pelt, quarterbacks coach for the Green Bay Packers. “It’s preseason football, so there’s a lot of guys that are out there for the first time with big eyes. We’re prepping them right now about running. Hey, if you get the opportunity and things break down, use your legs.”
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Whether things break down is due in part to the blocking on a given play, and gauging the development of backup quarterbacks is often difficult with offensive lines that are more porous than protective.
For the Packers, plenty of attention will be paid to their second-team offensive line, which is likely to play the majority of the exhibition games with quarterback Brett Hundley behind them. And fortunately for Hundley, who missed the majority of last year’s training camp with injury, the backups in Green Bay are rich with experience. In fact, left guard Kofi Amichia is the only rookie on the second-team line.
“We’ve kind of got to have that dominating mindset of we’ve got to go out there and lock stuff down,” right tackle Kyle Murphy said, “make sure our quarterback is clean, whether it’s for three seconds or 30 seconds, kind of whatever they need. … We’ve got a good O-line group where even though we’re moving a lot of stuff around with the ones, the twos, the threes and kind of interchanging a center here or a tackle here just to kind of get guys different feels, I think we all have enough trust in our technique and our scheme to go out there with whoever and feel pretty good about it.”
From left to right, the most popular combination of backup linemen has been Jason Spriggs at left tackle, Amichia at left guard, Don Barclay at center, Lucas Patrick at right guard and Murphy at right tackle. They entered training camp with eight years of experience between them, led by Barclay, 28, who has settled in as the backup center behind starter Corey Linsley.
But offensive lines are often judged from the outside in, and with Spriggs and Murphy the Packers have two former draft picks serving as understudies to left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, respectively. General manager Ted Thompson traded up to select Spriggs in the second round of the 2016 draft before using a sixth-round pick on Murphy the same year.
“It’s just like the poor man’s version of Bulaga and Bakhtiari, honestly,” outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott said. “Murphy is the big pound-and-ground you; Spriggs is the more athletic one trying to protect the backside. I think both of them are great young talents. Both very hard to beat at times. It’s fun to go against those guys.”
Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles begins an important stretch for Spriggs, who played all across the line last season: 34 snaps at left tackle, 183 at right guard, 29 at right tackle, 31 at tight end. The Packers are counting on him to be a swing tackle capable of playing both left and right in the event of injury, and his rookie year left significant room for improvement.
Spriggs is naturally lean at 6-5 ½ and 302 pounds, and his weight dipped well below 300 pounds by the time he was needed at guard last season. Though he survived a critical stretch in place of the injured T.J. Lang, who suffered a broken foot, Spriggs was manhandled at times on the interior. His future is at tackle, and the Packers are expecting him to handle the backup role on both sides ahead of Barclay and Murphy.
“My goal is to be able to show that I can play wherever I’m needed,” Spriggs said. “To be able to go out and show that I can play left tackle very well, it just goes to further prove that if they need me at left or whenever the situation comes — if I need to go in at left versus right — that I can do that. Really more so just gives the versatility to where you can play.
“For me, not ever playing right (tackle) in college until I got here, having success on the right side means a lot to me because I’m not used to playing right. My technique and my overall feeling of (being) comfortable isn’t as much at right as left. So to me, being able to play well at right is just as important.”
Elliott and fellow outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert have noticed improvements.
“He’s looking a little more comfortable, a little bit more stout,” Elliott said. “It looks like he put on some good weight. He’s always been athletic so he’s done a good job of keeping his athleticism while putting on weight. That’s one thing I think he’s done well.”
Said Gilbert: “I feel like he’s grown a lot, just from being more physical. I always thought since day one he had great feet and everything like that. But I honestly think he’s grown getting his run-blocking skills, so he’s definitely more competitive during that.”
Murphy resides on the opposite end of the line. He is, at 6-6 ½ and 315 pounds, a different type of player from Spriggs, who relies on different tools to do the job.
Where Spriggs is a tremendous athlete — his vertical leap (35 inches) and broad jump (9 feet 7 inches) were the best of all tackles at the scouting combine last year — Murphy plays with more strength. He is a traditional road grader who loves to maul, and teammates say his less-defined physique belies impressive quickness.
“Kyle is a lot stronger of a player I guess, or he plays stronger,” Spriggs said. “I don’t want to say he’s stronger than me or I’m more finesse than him because we’re both just as good as each other. But I think Kyle tries to play a little bit stronger.
“Kyle is as good of an athlete as any of us, whether he looks it or not. He can move well, he has great feet. … He’s not lacking in strength, that’s for sure, and he’s not lacking in athleticism. Whether people see it or not, once you turn on the tape people find out.”
Added Gilbert: “For me, Spriggs, he kind of likes to play games with you. You’ve really got to attack him and dictate. Whereas Murphy, he’s like more of a technician.”
In the middle of it all is Barclay, whose career has taken him through all five spots along the line of scrimmage. His newest venture is center, and the fact that Thompson chose not to draft or sign a center during the offseason reflects a certain level of trust in Barclay’s abilities — especially given Linsley's injury history.
So far, Barclay has been involved in several bobbled exchanges during team reps in training camp. Nonetheless, he feels confident as the leader of the second unit.
“Especially being at center now, you try to just take control, take leadership, make sure everyone is on the same page, get everyone going in the right direction, and that’s what I try to do,” Barclay said. “ … I feel great. It’s nice to kind of settle in trying to work at one position, and I’ve gotten the majority of my reps at center. It’s gone great.”