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GREEN BAY - It was a solemn locker room. A stunned silence usually reserved for moments after a big loss.
One year ago, the Green Bay Packers' offensive line tried to make sense of what they had just witnessed. Right guard T.J. Lang, since departed as a free agent, reduced the collective mood in that locker room to three words: devastation, confusion, shock.
Even now, left tackle David Bakhtiari hasn’t forgotten what it was like to watch the Packers release left guard Josh Sitton.
“It was really tough for me,” Bakhtiari said Monday. “I was really close to Josh. I still am and always will be, but it’s just kind of the nature of the business.
“You just have to understand that.”
The business can be cruel. But the thing about the NFL, this not-for-long league, is how quickly fortunes change.
A lot can happen in one year.
From locker to locker, the conversations that Labor Day afternoon in 2016 focused on what the Packers lost without Sitton, not what they still had. There was a good reason for that. At best, backup Lane Taylor was a mystery one year ago. Thrust into a starting role, nobody knew what to make of the formerly undrafted guard who was suddenly replacing an All-Pro.
Turned out, Taylor did just fine. Better than almost anyone could have expected. Now, he’s getting rewarded.
It was a much different Labor Day locker room Monday. Loud and celebratory, Bakhtiari entered from the back cafeteria and announced Lane Taylor’s arrival, like a jester presenting the king. Across the locker room, defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said what was on everybody’s mind.
“A lot of money over there!” he shouted in Taylor’s direction.
One year after being given his shot to start, Taylor cashed in Monday with a three-year extension worth $16.5 million. A source said Taylor’s new contract included a $5 million signing bonus and will pay $7.8 million in the first year. Taylor’s contract now extends through the 2020 season, when he’ll be young enough at 31 years old to potentially earn another lucrative pay day.
Taylor’s extension came one year after the Packers did the same with Bakhtiari. Now, they’ve ensured the left side of their offensive line is tied together for the next four seasons.
"Any time your players are rewarded financially," coach Mike McCarthy said, "that’s a very good day here. He’s done all the right things, he’s earned it the hard way. He was here all summer. I don’t think there was a day that I was here at work that he wasn’t here.
"He’s earned it. He’s put a lot into this, and I’m very happy for him and his family."
With the NFL’s annually escalating salary cap, Taylor’s extension could look like a team-friendly deal within a year or two. Good guards earn significantly more than $5.5 million annually. Taylor’s new money will pay the same average annual salary the Packers gave Lang in a 2012 extension, when the league’s cap was almost $50 million less than it is in 2017. At age 27, Taylor’s best football should be ahead of him.
But when the Packers approached with the idea of an extension early in camp, Taylor said he couldn’t wait to sign. His new contract dwarfs the two-year, $4.15 million deal Taylor signed in the spring of 2016. It also signifies the growth of a former undrafted guard who played little through his first three seasons but found himself with a major opportunity entering last fall.
Asked if he could envision this kind of pay day one year after getting his shot, Taylor tilted his head back and laughed.
“Not quite,” he said. “Especially since I was on a two-year deal, I didn’t think I could extend it so early. But I’m fortunate. I’m glad. It’s kind of been a quick couple years these past two years, but I’m glad. I was pumped.
“I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ There’s no doubt. I’m not trying to get every single penny out of free agency. I was like, ‘I want to stay here.’ I was pumped and ready to go. I look forward to the future.”
Taylor didn’t do anything special to win over his fellow offensive linemen. He showed up to practice. Kept quiet. After a sluggish 2016 preseason, it didn’t take Taylor long to show he belonged as a starter.
He impressed teammates early, Bakhtiari said.
By season’s end, Taylor started all 16 games. He missed only one snap, joining Bakhtiari to provide stability on the left side. Most impressive, the offensive line didn’t skip a beat without Sitton, becoming one of the league’s best units.
“For him winning us over,” Bakthiari said, “he had the intangibles. Just going out and proving it really was what we wanted to see. And he stepped up to that challenge. He didn’t say poor me or wait on me or anything. We were going, and he was coming along. He kept stride for stride, and then started exceeding his own strides. I think that put him in the position that he’s in today.”
In that solemn locker room last year, nobody uttered a negative word about Taylor. He was unproven, but Bakhtiari said he remembers his fellow veterans believing the left guard position was capably filled.
Taylor said he started believing he could be a starting-caliber NFL guard in his second season. He got a pair of starts in 2015 and played well, fueling himself with even more confidence. Regardless, the Packers could not have scripted a better transition from Sitton to Taylor.
Even Taylor admitted he surpassed his own expectations, if only slightly.
“A little bit,” Taylor said, “but I’ve always felt like I could be good. I never doubted myself or felt like I was a bad player. But I got on a good roll last year, and I felt confident and felt good. I got in there and just improved.
“That’s what I really did in the first few games to the end of the season, just improved each and every year."