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Justin McCray: A Case Study in Determination

By Kevin Tolbert

Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Justin McCray watches game after final drive against Tampa Bay
Carolina Panthers Justin McCray

NFL players come in all shapes and sizes. They also come into the league in myriad ways. And when you look through the list of players on a team's 53-man roster, you see a Gumbo of those pathways melt into the sigular mindset once they all step between the lines on Sunday. And nowhere is a merging of the minds more important than on the offensive line.

Sometimes referred to as the "Big Man Ballett", what an offensive line does on every play is a uniquely detailed and choreographed effort that rivals the sophistication of broadway shows. The difference between success or failure of the offense is measured in fractions of inches. So when organization put together their front line, it is important that they pick personnel who can work together mentally as well as physically.

Having to work in multiple rookies into that delicate mix can often be challenging when rebuilding a franchise like the Carolina Panthers. So far, this season, the Panthers have had several different starting combinations on the offensive line as a result of extensive injuries and lack of continuity. And so far this season, they've failed to orchestrate the perfect mix. But the situation is taking on a new shape due to emerging personnel and some changes in the blocking scheme.

While the blocking schemes may change based on the opponent, the Carolina Panthers have stabilized one of the guard positions which appears to be already showing flashes of consistency. Recently, the Panthers added a familiar face to the 53-man roster - a move that should help the team continue to build consistency with the remaining games on the schedule and provide a better training ground for the rookie class that has struggled to slow the game down so far. While the team originally looked to keep the rookie rotation going as a sort of "Baptizm by Fire" approach, injuries and losses have forced their hand to look at alternatives as they fight for any wins in the remaining games.

On Dec. 5, the team signed veteran guard Justin McCray to the active roster. McCray is a familiar face in the Panthers' locker room. He was signed as an unrestricted free agent back in march of 2023 and participated in training camp with the team. And after having his contract terminated back in late August and a series of re-signings and a release this year, finally landed on the 53-man roster in what could be shaping up to be a permanent role to finish out the season.

Players are only allowed to be elevated twice during the season without being added to the 53-man roster. The player can be elevated a third time, but is then subject to Waivers and cannot return to the Practice Squad unless he clears Waivers and McCray had been elevated three times this season. The addition fills the recent gap created after Chandler Zavala was placed on injured reserve. But McCray brings a consistentcy of performance at the position due to his seven years of experience in the league. And teammate Bradley Bozeman is grateful to have another veteran next to him to be a guiding light for the less experienced. "He has a ton of knowledge of the game. I think that's one of Justin's biggest things," Bozeman said.

"The pace of the play slows down and you're able to undress things better and see things better, so it's great in that aspect to have another set of eyes out there that can really be able to process."

Originally, McCray entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2014 out of the University of Central Florida. Since that time he's started games for the Greenbay Packers, Cleveland brown, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and now the Carolina Panthers. And in his first start for the Panthers, during the team's December matchup with the Buccaneers, McCray was part of a reorganized offensive line that helped Panthers' running back Chuba Hubbard earn his first rushing performance over 100 yards this season. But finding a spot on the roster was a tough task that didn't materialize until 2017 when he played in 13 games for the green Bay Packers.

Justin McCray lines up during matchup with Tampa Bay
Justin McCray lines up during matchup with Tampa Bay

The experience of how to stay relevant in the NFL is what the 31-year-old McCray brings to the Panthers current situation. Panthers offensive line coach James Campen understands how valuable McCray's impact can be after working with him on four different teams. McCray talked about the mindset that got him through some of the tougher moments that interrupted his career. At one point McCray was away from the NFL for almost two years. During that lengthy seperation from the league, McCray spent time playing arena football for the Orlando Predators and Tampa Bay Storm for two years starting in 2016.

He also worked as a hotel bellman - a greuling nightime position that became a constant motivating force that pushed McCray to continue his workout schedule during the day. That experience is part of both the least favorite as well as his all-time favorite moment of an NFL career carved from grit and determination to remain relevant. "My first start was on Sunday night football. They had just opened up the Atlanta stadium - and just realizing that six months prior to that I was a Bellman and now I was starting on national TV. It was just super-sureal. I had my family come up so it was really a great moment for everybody." McCray said.

But as he's shown time and again, your value as a player in the NFL is measured by what and how much you're willing to do to get back on the big stage and not the rating you're given to start your journey. "Just knowing that I'm not where I was drafted and lack there of and wanting to go out there every day and prove that," McCray said.

To weather the latest up and down part of his journey, he spent his most recent six week stint without pads focussing on his nine month old daughter - about the only time that he's enjoyed while being away from the field. But, Hearing McCray describe what has given him the ability to last seven seasons in the NFL and effect change wherever he lands is a lot like hearing how a Swiss Amy knife works. "Just being able to play a whole bunch of positions and being thrown into a bunch of less than ideal positions in games and in practices prepared me for the worst and I've been able to do well.

McCray grew up in the talent-rich environment of South Florida football, the son of a high school football coach, but was not heavily recruited out of high school. In fact, McCray says the offers never came pouring in for him. "My older brother went to UCF first. That was the only offer. So it was either go to UCF or go to Miami-Dade," McCray said. And it was that experience that promted McCray to adopt a mentality of always being ready to fill the need - something he says he's advised rookies like Nash Jensen to do.

Justin McCray lines up during matchup with Tampa Bay
Justin McCray lines up during matchup with Tampa Bay

The Miami, Florida native has a twin brother, Jordan, who also spent time in the NFL from 2014-2019 with a brief appearance in Carolina in 2015. McCray has appeard in 79 games during his seven year career with 30 starts. His insane work ethic and versatility will likely be the catalyst for improved play on the Panthers offensive line as they work to protect rookie quarterback Bryce Young. He has said previously that he feels most natural as a guard but his versatility has helped him fit anywhere on the offensive line as he did as a Tackle in Cleveland.

The Panthers will be making a lot of decisions at the end of the 2023 season as they prepare to find a new head coach. McCray offers experience, versatility and depth on the offensive line in its current configuration and appears to fit into the current system, proven by his multiple stints on the practice squad this year. It will be interesting to see how the man who has always found a way to end up back in the lineup will extend his journey that has had twists and turns from his days with only a single college option.


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