Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) with offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (75), guard Josh Sitton (71), center Jeff Saturday (63) and guard T.J. Lang (70) during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph
The Green Bay Packers are shaking things up on the offensive line this season. After surrendering an embarrassing 51 sacks last season, it was evident something needed to be done. Coach Mike McCarthy isn’t pulling any punches. He’s doing what he needs to do ensure the Packers’ franchise quarterback is protected during the prime of his career.
It’s rather simple. The Packers will contend for a championship each year riding Aaron Rodgers’ arm, so keeping the all-pro quarterback upright is priority uno numero this season.
The Packers have brought in some young offensive line talent through the draft and undrafted free agency, and McCarthy has made some offensive line switches, placing his best two linemen on the lefts side of the line and announcing an open competition for the right tackle spot.
So how will all this play out? Will the switch work? Will the Packers have the depth to withstand injuries at the position this season?
Offensive Line (15)
Safe – Bryan Bulaga, T, 6-5, 314 pounds; Josh Sitton, G, 6-3, 318 pounds; Evan Dietrich-Smith, C, 6-2, 308 pounds; T.J. Lang, G, 6-4, 318 pounds; David Bakhtiari, T, 6-4 300 pounds; J.C. Tretter, G/T, 6-4, 307 pounds
Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (75) blocks San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Travis LaBoy (99) during the second quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Four of the five starting offensive linemen positions seem set at this point. Though Bulaga, Sitton, and Lang will have to get comfortable playing on a new side of the line, all three players possess enough talent and experience to adjust properly and be as effective—if not more—than they have the past few seasons.
In fact, Green Bay is counting on the Bulaga-Sitton combination on the left side of the line to fortify Rodger’s blindside and provide stability in a spot that has been an Achilles heel for the Packers’ offense ever since Chad Clifton was injured in 2011 and released. Sitton is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and if Bulaga returns to his pre-injury form and adjusts to his new position, he could be the next Packer offensive lineman to earn a trip to Hawaii.
Coach McCarthy has made it clear that Bulaga and Sitton are the Packers’ two best offensive linemen, but what about the other guys?
Lang is a solid player who is tough, versatile, and reliable, but he also struggled at times last season and has plenty of a room to improve. I don’t believe we’ve seen the best out of Lang yet. I think the move to the right side of the line will suit his playing style more, and he’ll have to worry less about holding up against elite pass rushers and can concentrate more on being a physical presence in the running game.
This will be Dietrich-Smith’s first season as the full-time starter at center. The line clearly played better when Dietrich-Smith replaced Jeff Saturday late last season, and though Dietrich-Smith struggled at guard, he seems comfortable and a natural fit for center. I don’t think Packers fans have anything to worry about with Dietrich-Smith snapping the ball to Rodgers this season, but let’s just hope he stays healthy because things look rather bleak at the position after the Idaho State alum.
Green Bay Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith (62) during the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. The Packers defeated the Vikings 23-14. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Because they were taken in the fourth round, rookie linemen Bakhtiari and Tretter are good bets to make the roster this season regardless of their performance during the offseason. Tretter will more than likely be placed the on the PUP list (Physically Unable to Perform) to start the season and may even spend the entire year on injured reserve. This means Tretter’s rookie season would be over before it even began, but it would also mean the Packers could retain Tretter for 2013 without using up a roster spot.
Bakhtiari is the big unknown on the offensive line this season. We know he’ll more than likely make the final 53-man roster, but where will Green Bay use him? He seems to be the dark horse candidate for the starting right tackle spot, but he’ll have to win it from returning veterans, Marshall Newhouse and Don Barclay. Bakhtiari can also play both guard spots and backup left tackle, if needed. Green Bay has to like his versatility, especially at a position that historically suffers a lot of injuries during the season.
Bakhtiari has a lot of natural ability and plays with the kind of balance of power and finesse you look for in a starting NFL offensive lineman. However, Bakhtiari is still pretty undersized for the position. The Packers have him listed as 300 lbs, but some reports from OTAs say that number is generous and he is more the ballpark of the low to mid-290s. Regardless, he needs to add some weight and bulk up if he expects to become an effective starting offensive lineman in the NFL. Look for Bakhtiari to be a valuable backup this season and develop into something more down the road.
Green Bay Packers tackle Marshall Newhouse (74) blocks Houston Texans outside linebacker Connor Barwin (98) during the second quarter at Reliant Stadium. The Packers won 42-24. Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
The offensive line seems to have real depth this offseason. Newhouse will be in the fight for his life to retain a starting position and become the Packers’ new right tackle, and something tells me Newhouse will do everything in his power to earn the spot.
Newhouse struggled at times last season against elite pass rushers, like Minnesota’s Jared Allen and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, but at other times during the season Newhouse held up well and did his job admirably. I believe Newhouse is a better player than many give him credit. He seemed to get the majority of the blame for the Packers line giving up an astonishing 51 sacks last season. Though Newhouse struggled, he was not the sole reason for the Packers’ abysmal pass protection. A switch to the right side of the line may serve his skill set better and breathe new life into Newhouse’s young career.
Look for Barclay to push Newhouse for the starting right tackle position. Barclay played well at times last season when he filled in at right tackle after a succession of injuries depleted the position. Barclay plays with fire and isn’t afraid to get aggressive, especially in the running game. One of Green Bay’s goals this season is to re-establish their ground game, and this may work in Barclay’s favor. In his limited action last season, Barclay proved to be an effective run blocker, and this may just give him the advantage over Newhouse and Sherrod for the starting right tackle position. Barclay just needs to prove this offseason that he can be a reliable pass protector—after all, that is the most important duty for a Packer’s offensive lineman.
Green Bay Packers guard Don Barclay (67) blocks during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Lambeau Field. The Packers won 55-7. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Barclay and Newhouse seem to be good bets to make the roster, but after them, it is a bit of a toss-up. Sherrod is still recovering from a broken leg he suffered at the end of the 2011 season and hasn’t participated in OTAs yet. Sherrod has all of the physical tools to be an NFL offensive lineman, but this won’t matter if he can’t stay healthy enough to compete for a roster spot.
Datko spent last season on the practice squad and was still recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered as a senior at Florida State, so it still remains to be seen what Datko can do when he’s fully healthy.
Van Roten began last season on the practice squad and then was called up to the 53-man roster after week nine. He could provide some depth on the interior line, and may even compete for the backup center position. With Tretter’s injury, Van Roten just may land a roster spot this season.
Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Lane Taylor (68) in action during the second quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Boilermakers 58-14. Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Every year the Packers seem to find surprise talent on the offensive line in undrafted free agency. Barclay was the surprise lineman last year who had an outstanding camp and preseason and won a spot on the 53-man roster. This year, Green Bay brought in four undrafted linemen to compete for jobs, and I wonder if the Packers will be as fortunate this offseason as they have been in the past.
Centers Gerhart and Lewis may have a real shot at making the roster now that Tretter will miss a good portion of the season due to the ankle injury he suffered last week in OTAs. Tretter seemed to be poised as the guy behind Dietrich-Smith at center on the depth chart, but now that position is open to either Gerhart or Lewis. However, there is a good chance Green Bay only retains one of these players on the practice squad and uses another lineman, like Lang or Barclay, as an emergency backup center.
Taylor and Hughes are both players that have some experience and ability to play both tackle and guard, but are more likely projected to be natural guards in the NFL. Hughes has some experience playing on an NFL roster and spent time on the practice squad in St. Louis and San Diego the past two seasons, whereas Taylor is a rookie with some raw talent. Taylor seems to possess the most upside and may have the best chance to make the roster out of the undrafted free agents. In the very least, I see the Packers storing Taylor on the practice squad until they can further develop his skills.
Green Bay Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith (62) holds the football prior to a play during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field. The Browns defeated the Packers 35-10. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Last season Green Bay only kept seven offensive linemen on their final roster (Bulaga, Sitton, Saturday, Lang, Newhouse, Dietrich-Smith, Barclay) and two on the practice squad (Datko, Van Roten), and with the injuries at the position, it proved to be a major risk.
Look for the Packers to keep at least eight or nine offensive linemen on the final 53-man roster this season. My early prediction at this point is that Green Bay starts Bulaga, Sitton, Dietrich-Smith, Lang, and Barclay, with Newhouse, Bakhtiari, Datko, and Sherrod providing depth on the final roster, and Van Roten and Taylor being placed on the practice squad and Tretter on IR. This would mean Lang or Barclay would play center if Dietrich-Smith went down, which might be interesting.
What do you think? This could play out a number of different ways. It will be interesting to watch how it all develops.