GREEN BAY — It’s hard to imagine a more blatant way to send a message to a professional football player that their starting job isn’t secure than what the Green Bay Packers did to veteran left guard Lane Taylor on Thursday night.
Coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst held a whopping 16 of their 22 presumed starters out of their 28-26 preseason-opening victory over the Houston Texans — having deemed them too important to the team’s 2019 chances to risk their health by playing them.
But there was Taylor, a seventh-year veteran coming off what had been by his own admission a disappointing 2018 season, in the starting lineup. None of his fellow starters on the line — left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley, right guard Billy Turner or right tackle Bryan Bulaga — was in uniform. Linsley is coming back from a biceps injury, but the other three were healthy scratches.
On top of that, Taylor was the only non-specialist player on the roster with four or more years of experience to dress for the game. The only player with more experience on the roster who suited up was kicker Mason Crosby, who is battling challenger Sam Ficken for the kicking job.
After the game, LaFleur acknowledged the obvious: That Taylor is competing with rookie second-round pick Elgton Jenkins for the starting job.
“That’s a competition. And as long as that’s going to be a competition, we want to see those guys go at it,” LaFleur said. “I thought Lane did an excellent job and handled himself the right way. And again, it’s always going to be about competition.”
Taylor played two series at left guard, and had a nice seal block that allowed rookie running back Dexter Williams to pick up a third-and-1 on the second series. Jenkins took over at left guard after that.
Taylor has been with the starters each day throughout camp, so Jenkins will have to beat him out in the coming weeks. There is a financial component to consider, too: Taylor has two years left on the three-year, $16.5 million extension he signed in September 2017, and his contact calls for him to earn a $2.6 million base salary this season and count $5.475 million against the salary cap. With $2.5 million in dead money if he’s released or traded, the Packers would realize nearly $3 million in cap relief if they moved on.
In a conversation earlier in the week, Taylor acknowledged that he struggled at times last season, and he admitted a host of injuries — offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn deltoid muscle; a chipped bone in his elbow; a foot injury; and a bone bruise in his knee — factored into his performance last year.
“Other than that,” Taylor said with a chuckle, “I was healthy as a horse.”
After his one-liner, Taylor quickly shifted the conversation by pointing out that regardless of those nagging injuries, he still played in 15 games (14 starts) last season and that his performance wasn’t good enough. But, he said, he’s fully healthy this year — and so far in camp, he’s looked much more like the player who started all 16 games at left guard in 2016 and was a 15-game starter in 2017, including two games where he played out of position to fill in for an injured Bakhtiari at left tackle.
“I feel good. it feels like I’m getting back to how things should feel. Just nice to have a nice, healthy offseason,” Taylor said. “(The injuries) did affect my play. When you can’t move in certain directions or bend like you want to, it does affect your play. But I don’t feel sorry for myself. I was out there.
“I’ve played through a lot of (stuff) — ribs and quads and all kinds of things. I’d rather have something I can play with but have to worry about pain management, as opposed to something that actually limits what I can do.
“We don’t talk about it, but we all hold each other to a high standard. It doesn’t matter.”