In early May of 2012, just over one year ago, the Green Bay Packers signed an undrafted free agent offensive lineman by the name of Don Barclay out of the University of West Virginia. The move was seen, at the time, as a chance to bring an extra, fresh big body into the offseason program and training camp. The best-case scenario involved Barclay possibly providing additional depth to an offensive line that featured rock solid guard Josh Sitton, newly-acquired veteran center Jeff Saturday and rising star, right tackle Bryan Bulaga as the unit’s centerpieces.
Widespread injuries and chronic inconsistency plagued the Packers’ offensive line for most of the 2012 campaign. Center Jeff Saturday looked overmatched from the get-go and was eventually benched in favor of the scrappy Evan Dietrich-Smith. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga was shelved for the year after just nine games after he incurred a serious hip injury. Guard T.J. Lang missed time due to nagging ailments. Sitton also played hurt and was not his usual dominant self on the interior. The unit as a whole never came close to gaining the cohesion that is necessary and indicative of an effective, dominant running game and superior pass protection.
So who is Don Barclay? We know this: while in college he started a school-record 39 consecutive games at left tackle for the Mountaineers, playing in 52 total contests. He anchored an outstanding offensive line that paved the way for the Big East’s best rushing unit in both 2010 and 2011, when West Virginia averaged north of 185 yards per game. As a senior in 2010 he was a fourth team All-American and a first team All-Big East selection. After his signing last spring, he was just another anonymous undrafted roster hopeful. However, by the time January rolled around he was making his mark on the line and making a name for himself.
According to Football Outsiders, Green Bay running backs averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, ranking the unit 25th in the league. The mostly patchwork group surrendered 51 quarterback sacks, good for the second-most takedowns allowed in the NFL. The general ineptitude of the offensive line allowed defenses to openly flood passing lanes by dropping extra defenders into coverage, thereby closing windows in the Packers’ zone-read passing attack that were previously ripe for the picking by Aaron Rodgers during his MVP 2011 campaign. The resulting shift by opponents to a pass-first defensive strategy led to an increase in the number of penalties by the offensive line. In 2012, according to ESPN statistics, the Packers offensive line committed 15 infractions, which includes any that were declined and/or offset. Barclay tallied three in just six games.
Green Bay absolutely has to reduce the number of offensive line penalties if they hope become a more consistent unit. This translates to more success running the football. The basic takeaway in this penalty equation is simple: officials doling out excessive yellow laundry led to an increase in both stalled drives and subsequent empty possessions. Both of these scenarios directly affect the offense’s ability to score points and ultimately, to win games.
To the naked eye, at the close of last season, it was difficult to tell the difference between Barclay and injured starter Bulaga, save their obvious differing jersey numbers. Barclay consistently flashed an aggressive, nasty and workmanlike approach after he was promoted to starter. He regularly finished blocks and got to the second level on running plays. The ex-Mountaineer logged four starts to close out last season – and by most accounts held his own in Bulaga’s stead. Mike McCarthy undoubtedly felt that Barclay was effective as a starter and one would think that he has a decent chance to earn an outright starting slot on the right side in 2013. Supporting his bid is the fact that Barclay will have another full offseason program and training camp under his rotund belt. The final piece of the puzzle may be the news of Bulaga being officially penciled in as the 2013 starter at left tackle.
Despite the elements that support Barclay’s possible rise to starter, some prognosticators have pegged Marshall Newhouse as the incumbent at the right bookend slot on the line, but that’s far from a certainty. Newhouse, while gifted physically, has proven to be more of a finesse tackle who doesn’t always finish off blocks with the same fervor and nastiness the way the undrafted, chip-on-his-shoulder Barclay does with regularity. He doesn’t effectively use his hands to gain leverage on running plays, he must develop a more violent punch when driving defenders off the line of scrimmage. Newhouse has also been prone to mental lapses. At times he can be out-muscled by quicker, more athletic defensive ends who utilize a variety of power bull rush and change-of-direction moves. Exposing Rodgers to this pursuit as the line collapsed was a recipe for disaster and often the case in 2012.
Comparatively, working in Newhouse’s favor is the fact that he played every single offensive snap for the Packers in 2012. He knows the offensive scheme and, like Barclay, would only stand to improve with another offseason of work. However, Newhouse lacks the punch and physical aggression that is required by the tackle position and he needs to improve in this area if he hopes to hold up in a role that regularly sees dominant defensive ends on a week to week basis in the NFL. In the NFC alone, if he retains a starting spot, he’d ostensibly face Minnesota’s Jared Allen, Chicago’s Julius Peppers, San Francisco’s Aldon Smith and Dallas’s DeMarcus Ware, all of whom will line up against the Packers in 2013.
Potentially complicating matters for both Newhouse and Barclay is the possible return of highly-touted 2011 first round draft pick, tackle Derek Sherrod. The aforementioned move by Bulaga from the right side over to the the left, where Newhouse spent all of last year, also might be problematic. On paper and given his experience and potential, it’s likely that Green Bay coaches will retain his services as much-needed depth at a minimum. Especially given the recent injury sustained by rookie guard J.C. Tretter in the early stages of offseason practice last week.
Barclay, who excelled in a zone running game and spread offense while at West Virginia, now has invaluable live-game experience on the right side and plays with an aggressive demeanor. For a a team that’s intently focused on becoming tougher, Barclay demonstrates the type of workmanlike toughness that’s badly needed in its starters. However, he is also yet to be exposed to the rigors of a full NFL season. Meanwhile, Newhouse simply doesn’t consistently jump out on film and the bottom line is that he needs to become more physical and play with more aggression.
It remains to be seen who will become the official starting right tackle for the Green Bay Packers in 2013.
No matter the outcome, it will surely be a battle worth watching.