In this series we take a close look at the Packers 90-man roster on the verge of training camp and discuss each player’s chances of making the final 53.
Going into last year’s camp one of the biggest storylines on the Green Bay Packers roster was the offensive line shakeup.
Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang swapped sides of the line and Bryan Bulaga moved to left tackle in an effort to have the Packers top offensive line talent protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blindside.
Unfortunately, Bulaga’s season ended before it even began. Green Bay placed him on IR after he tore his ACL during the Family Nigh Scrimmage, and the Packers were on to “Plan B.”
The silver lining of the Bulaga injury fiasco was rookie David Bakhtiari’s emergence at the position, and the now, as the Packers head into the 2014 season, it seems they have a solid tackle tandem in Bakhtiari and Bulaga.
With Bulaga moving back to the right side of the line, it will be interesting to see what the Packers do with Don Barclay, last year’s starting right tackle.
It will also be interesting to see how the Packers replace last year’s starting center, Evan Dietrich-Smith, after he left in free agency this offseason. Green Bay seems to like the young talent they have at the position in holdovers JC Tretter and Garth Gerhart and this year’s fifth-round pick, Corey Linsley.
Only time will tell if the Packers made the right decision in letting Dietrich-Smith walk in place of young, cheaper talent.
OFFENSIVE LINE (15)
Safe: Josh Sitton, 6-3, 318; T.J. Lang, 6-4, 318; Bryan Bulaga, 6-5, 314; David Bahktiari 6-4, 300; Don Barclay, 6-4, 305
Entering his seventh year as a pro, Sitton has established himself as one of the league’s premier guards. The switch to left guard in 2013 from the right side of the line only attests to Sitton’s versatility and talent as an offensive lineman.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sitton graded out as the second best guard in the NFL in 2013 (+34.7), finishing only behind Philadelphia’s Evan Mathis (+48.3). Although Sitton only graded out ninth in the league in run blocking (+12.9 grade), he finished the year as the top pass blocking guard in the league (+21.3), only surrendering one sack and seven quarterback hurries the entire season.
It’s clear why Sitton deserved Pro Bowl honors in 2013, despite blocking for four different starting quarterbacks last season. Sitton continues to be the anchor of a young, ascending Packers offensive line, and the best is still ahead of the gritty Packers’ guard from Central Florida.
Lang also benefited from the line switch. His tough, physical style of play fits better on the right side of the line where he can pave the way in the running game and match up against less athletic defensive lineman in pass protection.
Lang bounced back last year after an inconsistent effort in 2012, where he surrendered nine sacks and five quarterback hits and was credited for several “bad runs.”
In 2013, Lang’s performance improved significantly. He finished out 15th in PFF’s guard rankings (+12.5), only allowed three sacks, and was a stalwart run blocker (+5.8).
More impressively, Lang has only missed one start in the last three seasons, and for a franchise riddled with injuries the past few years, his durability is a real asset to this team.
Even though Sitton and Lang are the veteran cornerstones of the Packers’ line, Bakhtiari and Barclay are both young tackles with bright futures.
Last year’s starting tackle tandem played well beyond expectations; however, they still had their fair share of struggles in their first year as starters.
Bakhtiari was thrown into the fire at left tackle after Bulaga was lost for the season, and it’s a testament to the rookie’s mettle that he held down the position for the rest of the year.
Plenty of veteran pass rushers challenged Bakhtiari. He struggled to contain Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson, giving up a sack and four quarterback hurries. He also had a terrible game against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, giving up three sacks and looking outmatched.
However, despite the learning curve, Bakhtiari squared off against each team’s top pass rusher each week, and for the most part, he held his own. He shut out Jared Allen the first time the Packers played Minnesota in week eight, and kept elite pass rushers like Demarcus Ware, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Brian Orakpo at bay.
Bakhtairi also shows an aggression blocking in the running game that was lacking with Marshall Newhouse the year before. Bakhtiari could stand to get stronger, especially when facing ends that like to bull rush, but overall, the second year man out of Colorado is a major upgrade over what the Packers have had at left tackle in years past.
I expect a big jump from Bakhtiari’s game this season as he continues to become a key part of the Packers offensive line.
Barclay also had a solid season as a first-year starter, but with a healthy Bulaga returning to his original spot at right tackle, it’s tough to say what Barclay’s role on the line will be this season.
Barclay is versatile enough to play right tackle and both guard spots. He may even get some looks as a backup center in camp just to add to his offensive line acumen.
Barclay could even push for playing time if he shows he’s ready to go and Bulaga isn’t quite back to full strength after sitting out last season. However, I expect Barclay will be a reliable “sixth man” for the Packers line and be the versatile backup they’ve been lacking for years now.
Bulaga enters the 2014 season penciled in as the Packers’ starting right tackle, a position he’s held since entering the league in 2010 as a first round pick.
At his peek, Bulaga is one of the best right tackles in the game. In 2011, PFF ranked Bulaga as one of the top-five right tackles in the league. A season where the former Iowa Hawkeye only allowed one sack and two quarterback hits in twelve starts.
However, the caveat with Bulaga’s game will always be his durability. He’s going into his fifth season as a pro, and he has still yet to put together a full 16-game season.
He missed four starts in 2011, the second half of the 2012 season because of a hip injury, and the entire 2013 season because of an ACL tear.
The Packers need Bulaga back and healthy. If he’s going to be a key piece to their line going forward, he needs to stay on the field.
2014 is his time to prove that injuries will not define his career.
On the Fence: J.C. Tretter, 6-4, 307; Corey Linsley, 6-3, 301; Derek Sherrod 6-6, 321; Lane Taylor 6-3, 324; Garth Gerhart 6-1, 310
The biggest question surrounding the Packers offensive line going into training camp this year is what they will do at center.
Last year’s fourth-round pick, JC Tretter, appears to be the clear favorite for the starting job at this point. The former Cornell tackle has the intelligence and athleticism the Packers like at the position in their up-tempo offense.
However, it’s still too early for Green Bay to make any definitive roster decisions at this point. Tretter did miss the entire 2013 season after he broke his ankle during OTAs. Like the other candidates for the starting job, Linsley and Gerhart, he hasn’t played in a single NFL game yet, and his lack of experience makes it hard to project what to expect out of him this season.
He’s still virtually a rookie, even if the year on the sidelines helped him get more familiar with the playbook.
Linsley is a tough kid with a bit of a nasty streak on the field. He’s a mauler in the ground game and one of the strongest players coming out of college this year. He put up top marks on the bench press as an offensive lineman at the NFL Combine this past spring with 36 reps of 225 pounds.
Linsley may make a push at center if the Packers think his strength and aggressive playing style is a better fit for their ground game.
Even if Linsley doesn’t win the starting job at center, he could still offer some much-needed depth on the interior line. Being a middle-round pick he’s most likely not in danger of being cut this season, but his ability to play both guard and center does give the Packers some flexibility on their depth chart.
Practice squad holdover, Garth Gerhart, will get a stab at the starting center job, but as an undrafted free agent, he seems like a long shot, especially when he’s competing against two mid-round picks.
Gerhart will more than likely earn another spot on the Packers practice squad.
On the other hand, one of last year’s undrafted rookies, Lane Taylor, may stick for another season. He had a strong camp in 2013 to earn himself a spot on the Packers 53-man roster, and he seems to show enough promise to ward off any challengers for the top reserve spot on the Packers interior line.
Derek Sherrod will be another reserve player to watch in camp. After being selected in the first round by the Packers in 2011, Sherrod’s career has been nothing short of disappointing. Here, the Packers thought they drafted their successor at left tackle, but unfortunately for Sherrod, injuries have dominated his young career.
After being sidelined for the past two seasons, Sherrod is back to full strength and ready to make his comeback. He has a long road ahead of him to beat out either Bakthiari, Bulaga, or Barclay for playing time at tackle, but his natural ability should earn him a roster spot and make him a reliable backup on the left side of the line.
Like Barclay, Sherrod can offer depth and versatility to a Packers line that is beginning to shape up rather nicely.
Long Shots: Aaron Adams, 6-5, 303; John Fullington, 6-5, 305; Jeremy Vujnovich 6-5, 300; Andrew Tiller6-4, 324; Jordan McCray 6-3, 322
Adams is a practice squad holdover who has the best shot of this bunch to earn a roster spot as a versatile offensive tackle. Fullington and Vujnovich are both undrafted rookie tackles who are candidates for the practice squad, and McCray is also an undrafted rookie but is better suited at guard.
The Saints drafted Tiller in the sixth round in 2012, and he bounced around the league before landing on the Packers practice squad toward the end of last season. The second-year veteran will get a chance to compete with Taylor at guard.
The Packers will keep eight offensive linemen on their final roster: starters–RT Bryan Bulaga, RG T.J. Lang, OC JC Tretter, LG Josh Sitton, and LT David Bakhtiari; reserves–T/G Don Barclay, T/G Derek Sherrod, and C/G Corey Linsley. The Packers will also sign OG Lane Taylor and OT Aaron Adams to their practice squad.
Previous Position Breakdowns: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End
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