GREEN BAY – If there’s one thing the Packers have learned about Justin McCray over the last two years, it’s that the versatile offensive lineman is always ready to play.
Any spot. Any play. Anywhere.
During Sunday’s matchup in Minnesota, McCray entered the game at right guard under somewhat comical circumstances after Byron Bell’s cleat came off. The veteran then heaved it to Green Bay’s sideline – making the side judge duck – in an effort to stay on the field before finally leaving to have the equipment staff put the shoe back on.
A few plays later, however, the situation became real when McCray was then asked to shift across the line after starting left guard Lane Taylor suffered a quad injury and didn’t return.
Playing on the left side was a particularly difficult task given nearly all the team reps McCray saw in practice over the past week came on the right side of the center. As usual, the former undrafted free agent was up for it.
“It speaks to his athleticism. It speaks to his utility. It speaks to his preparation,” said left tackle David Bakhtiari, who played briefly alongside McCray before leaving the game with a knee injury.
“All things aside, he works great. I'm going to say a joke here – it really covers up his terrible attitude. … No, he's a great kid. I've enjoyed him since he got in here. He's got a lot of talent and I’m glad we’re able to use him in those pinch situations.”
McCray did it all for the Packers in 2017 after going from one of the longest of longshots in training camp to starting eight of 13 games in spot duty at right tackle and both guard spots. Along with playing a few reps at left tackle, McCray also served as the primary backup to starting center Corey Linsley, who played all 719 offensive snaps over 16 starts.
McCray’s jack-of-all-trades season gained unanimous praise from Head Coach Mike McCarthy and his fellow offensive linemen. It also catapulted McCray into the starting spot at right guard entering 2018.
He held the job down throughout the offseason, all of training camp and started the first three games of the season before a lingering shoulder injury finally forced him to the sideline against Washington and led to his inactivity in four of the next five games.
McCray returned to the lineup against Miami on Nov. 11, but the Packers chose to stick with Bell next to right tackle Bryan Bulaga after the two started five games together in McCray’s absence.
Once again healthy after getting nearly two months to rest the shoulder, McCray has been patiently waiting on his next opportunity. That moment finally arrived Sunday night, thrusting McCray into the lineup for 23 plays.
“I definitely want to play. That’s definitely a goal of mine always, to play, to start,” McCray said. “Getting back all the way healthy and working on things I feel I need to work on, on the side, getting those reps in practice. As badly as I do want to be on the field, I have to look at the good things in it, too. I’m still here. I’m still getting better every day.”
The Packers may need to turn to McCray again this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals with both Bakhtiari and Taylor missing practice Wednesday. Even if both starters wind up playing, however, this week has been beneficial for McCray to get regular snaps with the first-team offense.
As much as he relishes that next-man-up mentality, McCray acknowledges it’s not easy to jump into the lineup out of the blue. However, it’s a job he’s proven more than capable of handling in his short time in Green Bay.
“It’s sort of difficult coming into a game cold,” McCray said. “It’s something they’ve trusted me to do for a while. Last year, that was pretty much my role the entire year and looks like I’m back there now. It’s something I take pride in knowing I can go in there and not miss a beat.”