GREEN BAY — Lane Taylor has been preparing for this moment since the day he signed with the Packers as an undrafted guard out of Oklahoma State in 2013.
For the past three seasons, the fourth-year veteran has apprenticed at guard behind T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, often the first off the bench if there was an injury at either starting post.
While Lang and Sitton rarely were forced off the field on game days, Taylor typically stepped in with the first-team offense in practice whenever the starting guards were dealing with injuries.
Taylor will lean on all of his experiences this Sunday in Jacksonville when he makes his third career start after the unexpected release of Sitton during Saturday’s final cuts.
As surprising as Sitton’s departure was, Taylor knows he can’t get caught up in the circumstances. After three years of job shadowing the starting guards, now it’s his opportunity to start.
“I’m not going to try to make it bigger than it actually is,” said Taylor on Monday. “Once you make the team, you’re on the team, you’re competing and you’re getting better each and every week to put yourself in a position to go out and play.”
Taylor’s name is new to the starting depth chart, but the 6-foot-3, 324-pound guard has significant experience operating in Green Bay’s offense.
His workload began to spike in 2014 when he stepped in for an injured Sitton (toe) in New Orleans. Sitton returned the next week, but the injury resulted in Taylor taking a majority of the first-team practice snaps in Sitton’s stead during the second half of the year.
The same scenario played out again last season when Sitton played in all 18 games (including playoffs), but sat out of several practices due to a persistent back issue.
Still, it hasn’t been easy for Taylor to get on the field. He actually was inactive for the first 11 games due to depth on the line in 2015 before making two spot starts against Detroit on Dec. 3 and Minnesota on Jan. 3.
The Packers saw enough in those two starts to re-sign Taylor this offseason. He then took a majority of the first-team snaps this summer with Lang recovering from shoulder surgery.
“He has a lot of great experience,” Lang said. “I think the biggest thing that might help him out is he’s strictly been a guard. He hasn’t been asked to go play tackle and really master five different spots. It’s really been left guard, right guard. When you’re able to do that, I think it really allows you to hone in on one spot and grow as a player there.”
A little more than 24 hours after his release from Green Bay, Sitton put pen to paper on a new contract with the Chicago Bears, citing interest and Midwest familiarity in his reasons for signing with the Packers’ NFC North rival.
Lang, who’s close friends with Sitton, said he didn’t know the reasons behind Sitton’s release and was stunned when his former teammate texted him on Saturday that he’d been cut.
Lang initially refused to believe him based on some practical jokes Sitton had played with him in the past.
“Cut, traded, retiring – I’ve heard it all,” Lang said. “I think he texted me and said, ‘I got cut.’ I texted him back and said, ‘Yeah, me, too.’
“Then, he called me and it was like, ‘Oh man.’ Definitely shocking news but he’s moved on. We have to find a way to do the same.”
Sitton was the longest-tenured veteran on the Packers’ offensive line and an All-Pro guard who started more than 120 games (including playoffs) in his eight seasons in Green Bay.
A member of the Super Bowl XLV championship team, Sitton worked next to both starting tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakthiari, and more recently helped break in centers JC Tretter and Corey Linsley.
Taylor only worked next to Sitton once. It came in last year’s regular-season finale against Minnesota when Sitton started at left tackle in place of an injured Bakhtiari. Even then, he was handing Taylor tips with his own game.
“Josh was a big part of my development,” Taylor said. “He showed me exactly what it should look like on the field. I could say I wouldn’t be the player I am without him. I appreciate everything he did for me and I wish him the best.”
It will be critical for Taylor to develop his rhythm between Bakhtiari and Tretter over the next week. He took 202 offensive snaps in the preseason, but most of those reps came next to rookie left tackle Jason Spriggs and reserve center Don Barclay.
Based on how he’s performed in the past, the Packers believe Taylor is ready for the challenge.
“I’ve played next to Lane. I know he can do it,” Bulaga said. “I know he can bring physicality and everything that they’re looking for. This week’s going to be big of getting guys on the same page and setting the tone right for going down to Jacksonville.”
Taylor has studied Lang and Sitton closely for the past three seasons, but now it’s for real. Sitton’s release opens a spot on the starting offensive line and this is Taylor’s chance to seize it.
The loss of Sitton won’t be easy to overcome. All-Pro guards with Sitton’s athletic ability don’t come around that often. At the same time, it doesn’t alter the Packers’ expectations for their offensive line in 2016.
“It’s not changing anything. This train is getting ready to roll,” Lang said. “We’re not letting anything slow us down. I think everybody is confident in Lane. He’s been here four years now and he has a lot of valuable playing time.
“I think if anything last year showed you if somebody goes down or we lose somebody, we’re not changing. We’re going to keep doing what we do and moving forward.”
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