GREEN BAY – It wasn’t that Justin McCray had never played tackle in the NFL, although that’s a fine place to start.
Before last September, McCray’s ticket to the Green Bay Packers' roster was perfecting the art of backup center, another new position. At least at center, the lifelong guard had a fighting chance. It was along the interior offensive line, where lengthy, athletic edge rushers couldn’t exploit him.
It wasn’t that McCray took up right tackle early last season and ran with it, although that’s important. There were struggles, growing pains for sure, but McCray showed he could play in the NFL – at a position he had no rightful reason to play. “Just don’t be the weak link,” McCray told himself over and over again. Often, he wasn’t.
But the most impressive part of what McCray did last season, becoming the biggest, best surprise on a Packers roster with too many disappointments, was that he had almost no time to prepare. Not just preparation for a completely foreign position (or two), but for an NFL season. When McCray signed with the Packers in late March following a workout, he hadn’t played football in seven months. He was in terrific physical condition, but running wind sprints and withstanding a full season on an NFL offensive line are vastly different.
So while McCray shocked everyone with his ability to play offensive tackle serviceably, there was plenty he wanted to work on this spring.
“I thought that core strength was definitely something I struggled with,” McCray said. “I’d get on blocks, and whether it was seen or not on the film or during the play or to the naked eye, I felt like I sort of got loose on blocks toward the end of the play and stuff like that. And just working on hand placement, things that I wasn’t really working on last offseason, just because I didn’t know there was a real deficiency because I hadn’t been playing at all.
“I feel a lot stronger just because last year at this time, or before I got to Green Bay, I was juggling a job, working out and stuff like that. This year, this offseason, I can just focus on me, focus on my eating habits and working on things I need to work on. So I felt like it was more time invested in me, so I’ll get a better product this offseason.”
The offseason is still young, and there’s a long way to go before the Packers host the Chicago Bears for a prime-time kickoff in Week 1 on Sept. 9. The right side of their offensive line is open for competition, but through the first two weeks of organized team activities, right tackle appears much more available than right guard.
That’s because the Packers seem intent on rewarding McCray’s surprise 2017 season with the first look at his most natural position. Lucas Patrick, who has gotten first-team reps at left guard in Lane Taylor’s absence, and rookie Cole Madison could still get a chance, but for now, McCray is taking regular, first-team reps at right guard. The starting job could be his to win or lose.
Just don’t be the weak link.
“It’ll be fun to see him have that second year of the offseason program,” coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this offseason. “If he can take a leap there, because really in a lot of ways this is truly his second year, yeah, he’s definitely part of the conversation.”
There’s no question McCray is more comfortable at right guard than tackle. Even with his success blocking on the perimeter last season, McCray said most important was to retain his principles as a guard.
That meant engaging edge rushers as quick as possible before they had a chance to use their length to steer around him. The “high-risk, high-reward” tactic had a chance to backfire because edge pass rushers are quicker than a 6-3, 317-pound guard by trade. There were times McCray’s ultra-aggressiveness made him look silly, he admits, but being first to engage was how he survived on the edge.
Back at guard, McCray starts each snap lined up much closer to his assigned target. It’s easier to quickly engage blocks on the interior, allowing McCray to feel right at home.
“The quicker I get on people,” McCray said, “the better it is. I feel like I have strong hands and things like that. I was doing it at tackle as well too, just because I was used to playing guard. So I was trying to make it work for me. It’s definitely a little bit easier at guard.”
The irony with McCray is, as well as he played across the offensive line last season, he got only one snap at right guard. It’s his best position, but McCray said he’s had to reacclimate this spring. He has watched film from his two starts at left guard, where his footwork is opposite. He also has studied his combination blocking techniques at right tackle, since much of the footwork is similar.
Ultimately, McCray is less worried about this transition. Not because he’s moving back to his natural position, although that helps. Given a full offseason to focus on football, McCray hopes he’s on the trajectory to finally be a full-time starter.
“It would be a dream come true,” McCray said. “That’s what I’ve been working on since I got into the NFL in 2014. It’d be just a culmination of a lot of hard work. A lot of people haven’t seen the stuff I had to go through to even get back to a team. It’d just mean the world to me, man.
“So I’m just trying to work as hard as I can to get to that.”