GREEN BAY – Making the roster was the starting line, not the end, for Justin McCray. It was the vehicle to achieving his real dream of playing meaningful snaps in the NFL.
As excited as the first-year offensive lineman was to discover he’d made the Packers’ 53 last month, McCray didn’t bust out the streamers and balloons to celebrate the occasion.
He had larger goals in mind.
“I haven’t looked back on it too much because there’s so much more I want to do,” said McCray the day after final cuts. “I still have my head down and trying to learn from all these older guys and find a way to keep playing and actually getting on the field now.”
Seeing the field might have been the objective, but even McCray couldn’t have anticipated playing as much as he has through the first seven games of the Packers’ season.
Due to an influx of injuries, the 6-foot-3, 319-pound offensive lineman has served as the next man up at practically every position on the starting line for most of the season. He’s started four of seven games this year, playing 322 combined snaps at both tackle positions and left guard.
It’s not what the script called for when the Packers entered the season. McCray, who played a team-high 215 snaps in the preseason, worked at center throughout much of training camp.
It was only after the Packers’ two reserve tackles, 2016 draft picks Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy, landed on injured reserve that McCray was thrust into the starting lineup twice as a replacement for right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
He’s also made two starts at left guard in Dallas, when Lane Taylor moved to left tackle, and again last Sunday against New Orleans with Taylor out with an ankle injury.
“When I came in, I said I wanted to be able to help the team in the greatest capacity I could,” McCray said this past week. “I’m definitely getting an opportunity to do that. It’s a little difficult at times switching up spots, but I’m happy and blessed the coaches feel like I can do that. Their comfortability and belief in me makes me feel like I can do it, too. I’m stepping up to it and feeling good about it.”
A year ago, the chances of McCray wearing an NFL jersey appeared minute. He and his twin brother, Jordan, were working at a hotel while playing for the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League.
A full season had passed since Justin was released by the Tennessee Titans at the end of training camp in 2015. Unwilling to give up, Justin and Jordan – who signed with the Packers as a college free agent in 2014 – spent months working out prior to returning to their alma mater, the University of Central Florida, to participate in the school’s pro day.
Justin caught the eye of Packers senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith and was offered a contract. While he remained a longshot to make the Packers’ 53, McCray spent the summer snapping to his brother and arrived for training camp in the best shape of his career.
“Very, very tough mindset kid,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “He’s been out there, he was on a practice squad, he got released. Another practice squad, got released. He was playing Arena ball, playing both ways. He rededicated himself two years ago to get in shape, and I’m very proud of him. I get a little emotional about it.”
McCray played a crucial role last Sunday against New Orleans. With the Packers planning more power-run plays, it required McCray to pull at guard early and often against the Saints.
McCray met the challenge and helped pave the way to rookie Aaron Jones’ 131-yard day on the ground, including a 46-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that broke from a gap McCray helped open on the right side of the interior line.
Watching from the sideline, Taylor could only smile.
“He’s played a lot of different spots already,” said Taylor, a former undrafted free agent himself. “He’s probably a guy who people had slated to maybe make the roster, but now he’s done well. He’s played tackle. He’s played guard. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him.”
The Packers hope to be edging closer to getting their preferred starting five offensive linemen on the field at the same time from start to finish after this week’s bye.
They came close two weeks ago in Minnesota before Bulaga (concussion), David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Taylor (ankle) exited. It had a pinball effect on McCray, who wound up playing in all three spots and finishing the day at left tackle.
McCray has had great resources to draw from early this year, including 12-year veteran guard Jahri Evans and center Corey Linsley. While that experience will serve him well when called upon in the future, he’s also excited to see the Packers’ starting offensive line get back to doing what it does best.
“Those guys are great tackles. Lane is a great guard,” McCray said. “When all those guys are in, the true starting five – that’s our best chance to win. Those guys are great linemen. Jahri and Corey, they’re really good at what they do. When they’re all on the field at the same time, we have a really good chance at winning.”