Packers deprived of opportunity to evaluate offensive line
GREEN BAY - Reflexively, Justin McCray dropped to his knee in a quick prayer. It’s what teammates do when comrades fall.
Jason Spriggs, the Green Bay Packers' second-year right tackle, was down on the field writhing in pain. He’d soon be carted to the locker room, scrapping an entire week of preparation on the right side of the Packers' offensive line. All it took was one snap for their plan to dissolve.
Which is why McCray could’ve used some beseeching on his own behalf, too.
At the onset of Saturday night’s 16-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, everything McCray thought he’d see against one of the NFL’s top defenses changed. McCray spent four days anticipating a spot start at right guard. One play. One injured teammate. And McCray was blocking again on the perimeter.
“I don’t know if people understand how hard that is,” center Corey Linsley said, “and how much discipline and focus it takes. Not only right then, but during the week. Because Justin is going from a different position. Not only is he making a spot start, but he’s moving to a different position.”
It wasn’t nearly enough for the Packers to win. No, their patchwork offense — no Aaron Rodgers, no Davante Adams, even Jordy Nelson left with a shoulder injury midway through — was shut out at home for the second time this season. It’s the first time that’s happened in 11 years. Add another milestone to a season that will end without a playoff bid for the first time since 2008.
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This debacle was hardly on the Packers' offensive line, much less McCray. That doesn’t mean he was pleased with how the night went. His disappointment went deeper than another loss in a season in which outcomes have become mere formalities, or his concern for Spriggs.
For McCray, Saturday was a missed opportunity. He knows there’s a potential job opening brewing next season at right guard, what he calls his best position. For the first time this season, McCray expected to play a full game at his natural home on the offensive line. It was an open audition with 2018 in mind.
In one play, the audition was over.
“I was thinking about it like that,” McCray said. “Just being able to showcase what I could do at a different position, and going forward I might be able to show something. But that’s just how the ball goes sometimes. It just is what it is.
“If I was asked to do something else, I’ll do it gladly. Still got a chance to play.”
The Packers, wanting to evaluate their young players, also missed an opportunity.
Jobs on the right side of their offensive line are up for grabs this offseason. With Bryan Bulaga recovering from a torn ACL, the Packers wanted to gauge over the final two games whether Spriggs can be their future right tackle. The severity of his knee injury wasn’t announced Saturday, but coach Mike McCarthy didn’t sound optimistic.
“I’m more concerned on a personal level for Jason,” McCarthy said, “because that really looked like a pretty bad injury.”
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It’s likely the Packers would need to draft a right tackle this spring even if Spriggs played well. He has been too inconsistent this season to be handed the job outright.
The Packers would like to avoid right guard becoming another draft need. They have a decision looming this offseason on what to do at the position. After signing a one-year deal this spring, veteran Jahri Evans has an uncertain future. He has played well enough to warrant returning on another low deal, but at age 34 the Packers will have to determine how much good football he has left.
If they choose to move on, McCray would be the logical first choice. But they haven’t seen McCray play a game at right guard this season. Each of the three games he has taken extensive snaps at guard came on the left side, where Lane Taylor is entrenched as the starter.
“He’s our utility guy,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “He’s been great all year. His ability to see him play center, left guard, left tackle, right guard or right tackle speaks on his character, speaks on his preparation. Very fortunate to not only share a locker room with him, but share a meeting room with him, and you’ve just got to tip your hat to those kind of guys.
“He’s had an amazing journey, and he definitely has made himself a home in the NFL.”
McCray is a rare Packers player who has exceeded expectations whenever called upon this season. Already, he has secured a roster spot in 2018. His versatility is an important commodity for any offensive line, something the Packers were expected to lose when JC Tretter signed to be a starting center in Cleveland last spring.
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Naturally, he’d like to be more than a utility guy. The chance to be a full-time starter at a predetermined position is every NFL player’s goal. McCray had a shot at an audition Saturday night, but it lasted only one snap.
If Spriggs can’t return in a week, McCray might again find himself in more of a utility role.
“I definitely was super excited this week just to get a chance to play somewhere I felt the most comfortable,” McCray said, “but it’s not my call. It just is what it is. I’m going to do what I’m asked, and I’m going to try to do it to the best of my ability.
“Hopefully, going forward, I may get more opportunities. Still glad I’m out there. I could be not playing. Still great that the coaches trust me to be versatile enough to play everywhere. So I still get a chance to play when things like that happen.”