GREEN BAY - As the Green Bay Packers prepared to play the Atlanta Falcons last September, the pregame panic focused on who would occupy the five offensive line spots in front of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Starting tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga were both ruled out with injuries. Bakhtiari had injured his hamstring in the season opener seven days prior when his legs gave out and the Packers’ left tackle stretched into a full split. He warmed up on the field in Atlanta under the watchful eyes of team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie, but the final decision was a decisive, deflating thumbs down.
Bulaga couldn't go because of a right ankle injury suffered during training camp.
Without either tackle, the Packers turned to Kyle Murphy and Justin McCray to play on the left and right, respectively, as Rodgers prepared for an evening under siege. But for a moment — albeit a fleeting one — rookie offensive lineman Adam Pankey thought he might make his NFL debut under the lights of Sunday Night Football four days after being promoted from the practice squad.
“I would say it’s (most difficult) to stay patient,” Pankey said Wednesday after the team’s minicamp practice. “That’s more what you have to do, you have to just wait for your time or whatever. I mean, staying patient is just the biggest thing I took away from last year and being ready for my opportunity when it comes. It’s just what I’ve been working toward.”
In reality, that hour before kickoff was the closest Pankey came to legitimate playing time during the 2017 season. For the next few months — from mid-September through the end of the year — Pankey remained on the 53-man roster but virtually never played. He finished the season with one snap to his name, a single play on special teams during Week 17, after the Packers had been eliminated from playoff contention.
Instead, Pankey spent a year in the shadows for what amounted to a redshirt season. He finished with more appearances on the inactive list (10) than any other player on the team and also spent four full games as a padded observer during weeks he made the 46-man roster. He was, for all intents and purposes, an invisible man.
“A true pro has to be able to watch the guys on tape,” offensive line coach and run game coordinator James Campen said earlier this spring. “You have to listen. You have to have big eyes and absorb things. He had a lot of good people — you want to call them role models or people you can emulate from a professional standpoint and a fundamental standpoint. You watch a guard like Jahri (Evans). Having that guy in your room or David or Bryan with the fundamentals. Those things, if you’re paying attention and you’re taking the mental reps whether you’re on the field, in the classroom, those things will help you. He’s done a good job with that.”
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So Pankey has returned to the field this spring as a more confident player, a more polished player and a more versatile player, a utility lineman capable of playing guard or tackle on either side of the line in a pinch. He took thousands of reps in practice last season — even though only hardcore Packers fans knew he was on the roster — and is hopeful of parlaying that redshirt season into a spot on the team next fall.
Campen has rotated Pankey through left guard, left tackle, right guard and right tackle during organized team activities and minicamp. The majority of his reps have come at tackle, even though he feels more comfortable at guard.
“I think I’ve even worked more on flipping sides a little bit,” Pankey said. “I got a lot of reps at right tackle here early on (during OTAs), now finishing up at left a little bit, getting my feet back right over there. I think I made some strides on the right side throughout the season. Just playbook-wise I’m a lot more comfortable, cadence-wise, understanding all the quarterbacks’ different cadences and rhythmic stuff. I feel confident after these OTAs for sure.
“Which (position) would I pick? I would tell them both. I’ve spent so much time — I feel more natural at guard, so it’s a little bit easier with the sets, they’re shorter sets. So it’s not as big of a transition as flipping right tackle to left tackle. As far as comfortability, I’ve been working tackle, so I’m pretty much feeling about equal everywhere.”