GREEN BAY – Justin McCray entered the offseason expecting to share the Green Bay Packers' first-team reps at right guard, but it never happened.
A year after showing he could play in the NFL as an emergency backup at multiple positions on the offensive line, McCray has been rewarded. He started taking first-team reps at right guard in the spring, and he hasn’t stopped. By the first week of training camp, McCray said, he realized those reps weren’t going to anyone else.
It’s premature to call McCray the Packers' starting right guard — “You want to keep the competition open,” coach Mike McCarthy said — but it would be a big surprise if he wasn’t. At this point, the job is either McCray’s, or it’s going to a lineman who hasn’t taken first-team reps at the position.
“I sort of came in with the same mindset as last year,” McCray said. “I’m trying to make a team, trying to earn a spot, and just working hard to get better. I know if I keep getting better every day, those are my best chances of doing that.
“It’s not there just yet. I’m not trying to call it out right now. I think it’s still a competition. I still need to keep working hard. Still need to keep getting better every day, but I realize I’m not getting taken out a lot. So I definitely have realized that.”
If McCray does seal the job, it might only be the beginning of what could be a stable career. His path is similar to that of left guard Lane Taylor, a former undrafted lineman whom the Packers eventually promoted to starter. Taylor is entering his third season as a starter, and while he hasn’t produced at the Pro Bowl level of predecessor Josh Sitton, he was reliable the past two years.
McCray appears to be stepping into a right guard position that was occupied previously by linemen with Pro Bowls on their resume. He wasn’t with the Packers while T.J. Lang held the position from 2011-16, but McCray said he learned a lot from veteran Jahri Evans last season.
Each day, McCray said, he rode from the players’ parking lot at Lambeau Field to the practice field with Evans. Once he started playing last season, McCray asked Evans to evaluate his film. He got suggestions from the four-time All-Pro guard, things he still uses now.
McCray said Evans’ advice has helped him solidify his place on the offensive line, even if he isn’t officially the starter yet.
“Jahri gave me so much last year,” McCray said. “… I asked him when he first got here, this is my first year — potentially my first year — how do you stay in the league so long? He just gave me a lot of things really about body maintenance and just studying film.
“Some things worked and some things didn’t, but it was always a good, fruitful, helpful conversation.”
Before he commits to playing quarterback Aaron Rodgers against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, McCarthy wants to see who will be available to start the game.
“Obviously, at the forefront of your decision is obviously being smart with Aaron,” he said. “But the combination of who he plays with, too, is part of that. There’s a lot of things you talk about. That’s why you wait until you get all the information to make those final decisions on play time.”
McCarthy will undoubtedly feel a lot better about playing Rodgers if left tackle David Bakhtiari is ready to make his debut. Bakhtiari missed the opener with an ankle injury and just began taking team reps Monday.
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Right tackle Bryan Bulaga has a slight chance of playing, too, which would help McCarthy sleep better. But as McCarthy pointed out, he allowed Rodgers to play at Denver with second-year pro Kyle Murphy starting at right tackle against All-Pro linebacker Von Miller.
“There’s not an absolute,” McCarthy said. “There’s a general thought process obviously; I think history speaks to that and history of how we play our players in the preseason. But it’s never exactly the same year-to-year or week-to-week.”
Bullish on Davis
Special teams coordinator Ron Zook didn’t hesitate when asked about whether he felt comfortable with receiver Trevor Davis as his main returner, even though Davis hasn’t practiced for nearly two weeks because of a hamstring injury.
“There’s no doubt in my mind what he’s capable of doing,” Zook said. “I’d forgotten — did you know he returned one in the first preseason game last year for a touchdown? I had completely forgotten about that.”
Zook later added, “He’s got a special skill set that’s hard to deal with.”
Davis still has to make the 53-man roster, which wouldn’t seem like a given with all the receivers vying for positions.
Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison are locks and Jake Kumerow has a solid chance of sticking. Then there are rookies J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, all of whom are in the mix. Even second-year pro DeAngelo Yancey is in the discussion.
Zook said he would like to get rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander some return chances, but wasn’t sure if Alexander, who just came back from a groin injury, will play against the Steelers.