Ryan Wood and Aaron Nagler discuss the latest developments from Wednesday afternoon's Packers practice. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – The hardening perception of the Green Bay Packers’ distinct lack of depth along the offensive line crashed into reality Wednesday as veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga lay face down on Ray Nitschke Field.
Bulaga, who has held a starting spot since taking over for Mark Tauscher in Week 5 of the 2010 season, crumpled to the ground with an ankle injury during a nine-on-seven drill focused on running the football. He remained down for a couple of minutes before limping heavily on his way to the Don Hutson Center. He did not return to practice and was not in the locker room while reporters were present Wednesday afternoon.
“I’m concerned anytime someone goes out of practice,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said, “but I’ll have to find out (about the injury) just like everyone else.”
Prior to training camp, conventional wisdom presupposed second-year tackle Jason Spriggs as the obvious backup for either Bulaga or Bakhtiari. The Packers traded up to select Spriggs in the second round of last year’s draft and parted with a fourth-round pick to do so.
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But Wednesday the coaches opted instead for Kyle Murphy, a sixth-round pick in 2016 who had nearly twice as many appearances on the inactive list (15) as he did snaps from scrimmage (8) during his rookie year. No matter. Murphy has been the player showing signs of a legitimate second-year jump while Spriggs, whom the Packers are grooming as a swing tackle, has floundered to spark questions about his reliability.
“Kyle has that ability to play inside and out there at tackle,” coach Mike McCarthy said before Wednesday’s practice. “I think Kyle’s having a heck of a camp. I thought he played very well against Washington also.”
So Murphy trotted onto the field with the starting offensive linemen during the first Bulaga-less team periods of Wednesday’s practice. And as he took his spot alongside right guard Jahri Evans, who arrived earlier this year in free agency, a unit that had become a model of consistency for the Packers suddenly brandished a new right side, with Murphy and Spriggs alternating for the remainder of practice.
It’s a look the coaches likely will carry into the weekend, when the Packers travel to Denver for their third exhibition game Saturday night. Even with Bulaga’s prognosis unclear, the idea of risking him against the Broncos would be shortsighted with the regular season approaching. The potential benefits of building continuity with Evans and growing the Packers’ unfledged running game fail to outweigh the cons.
Instead, Murphy and Spriggs will be prepped like starters.
“You’re always going to have that mentality of next man up and be ready,” Murphy said. “Whether it’s going into the game or whether you’re on the sideline just being a backup, you might not play for three games or you might be up the next play. I’ll be ready to go.
“Everyone in the offensive line room has that mentality of always being prepared to start, being prepared to play an entire game, go against whatever pass rusher, whatever defensive lineman, any kind of scheme, any stunts they’re going to bring at us. Whatever happens, happens. I’m sure (Bryan) will be all right. I’m ready for whatever.”
That the coaches preferred Murphy to Spriggs is a reflection of the former’s growth as much as the latter’s struggles. At 6-6½ and 305 pounds, Murphy has been described by teammates as a road grader whose strength and quickness are obscured by a softer exterior. His athleticism shows up on film, Spriggs said, and outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert described him as a technician in pass protection.
Though he hardly saw the field as a rookie, Murphy settled in at right tackle during practice while Spriggs was earmarked for left. Murphy played the position as a junior at Stanford and, by the end of last season, felt comfortable in his primary role on the second-string offensive line. The coaches cross-trained him at guard, and Murphy has taken sporadic first-team reps on the interior over the last few days of camp.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole myself as a ‘best spot,’ really,” Murphy said. “Since I got in Green Bay, I’d say (right tackle) is where I’ve taken 90 percent of my reps, so I’d say I’m probably the most effective there right now, just out of a comfort level and working with our right guards and being in that stance. When I get thrown in at right guard, left guard, left tackle every now and then, I still feel comfortable. It always takes one or two reps to get back in the swing of things but, when it comes down to it, fundamentals are fundamentals and offensive line is offensive line.”
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Murphy’s steadiness is eye-catching when juxtaposed with the repeated stumbles for Spriggs. In practice, where Spriggs has worked almost exclusively at left tackle, he has been beaten frequently in the one-on-one pass-rush drill against outside linebackers, sometimes evoking epithets from offensive line coach James Campen. In the exhibition games, where Spriggs is the No. 2 left tackle behind Bakhtiari, he has yielded sacks to defensive end Derek Barnett of the Philadelphia Eagles and one apiece to outside linebackers Pete Robertson and Chris Carter of Washington.
“I’m not in the position to play who is it on,” Spriggs said of the sacks. “If it was on me, it was on me. That’s not my concern. (Washington) hit us with a couple of blitzes that we weren’t really expecting. They hit us with a couple of different deals. It wasn’t my best game, but you live and you learn and you move on from there.”
Said Bakhtiari: “With him, I think it’s just being able to forget, learn from your experiences and continue on. I’m not really worried about it. I think he’s a very physically gifted tackle. He’s still working with us, Coach Campen puts him in the right position. I’m not concerned. The No. 1 thing is just blocking out the outside noise. If you guys want to write articles and say things, that’s fine. I just tell him don’t read it.”
A year ago, the Packers viewed Spriggs as their unquestioned No. 6 offensive lineman by the midway point of the regular season. He was the top backup at four positions along the offensive line — left tackle, right tackle, left guard and right guard — and his final snap counts were sprayed accordingly: 31 snaps at TE, 34 at LT, 183 at RG and 29 at RT. Veteran Don Barclay had filled a similar role in recent years.
But Spriggs’ days of four-position versatility may be drawing to a close as the Packers come to grips with the limitations of his body type relative to the guard position. Instead of sliding across the line, Spriggs has been told to focus on tackle for the immediate future as a number of other players compete for backup roles along the interior.
“You’d like to keep the player’s flexibility suited to his talents,” McCarthy said, “so they’re all different. But at the end of the day, if you’re the sixth lineman or the seventh lineman up obviously you have to have versatility to be in that position. That really reflects on the other guys, but ultimately I’d like to keep Jason at tackle — both left and right — because that’s where he is best suited.”
Yet when the opportunity arose, the Packers called on Murphy to replace the injured Bulaga. Spriggs might be best suited for tackle, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be competition.