The Green Bay Packers are at a turning point at left tackle. With 29 career starts at left tackle (including playoffs), the Packers probably know everything they need to know about Marshall Newhouse.
Is Newhouse, who won't turn 25 until Sept. 29, good enough to start at left tackle and help the Packers get to the Super Bowl? Or must they consider going in another direction, whether that's Bryan Bulaga, another early draft pick or letting 2011 top pick Derek Sherrod sink or swim after missing all of this season with a broken leg?
"I think really (the next step) for him is to gain the confidence that he gained this year," offensive line coach James Campen said. "Let's face it: He had a lot of very, very good rushers go against him this year. I'm not saying it was unusual because the left tackle most of the time gets the premier rusher. He had some ups and downs in there but, for the most part, I thought he performed well enough for us to win."
There's no denying Newhouse struggles in the run game. But, let's be honest: Left tackle is about protecting the passer. Focusing solely on that, Newhouse ranked 33rd in pass blocking efficiency among the 52 offensive tackles who played half of their team's snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Think that's not good enough? It's worth considering the Super Bowl left tackles. San Francisco's venerable Joe Staley ranked 17th and Baltimore's Michael Oher, the Ravens' top pick in 2009, tied for 37th. In 2011, the Giants had the worst left tackle play in the league with David Diehl and Will Beatty and New England's David Diehl ranked 17th. In 2010, Chad Clifton ranked 16th.
Newhouse unquestionably progressed this season, and finished his season on a high note with two games against Minnesota's Jared Allen and the playoff game against NFL sacks leader Aldon Smith. For the season, he allowed eight sacks, six hits, 32 hurries and 46 total pressures, according to PFF. Last year, Newhouse was 57th out of 58 tackles with eight sacks, seven hits, 39 hurries and 54 total pressures (in 13 starts).
What the coaches must determine is whether Newhouse is capable of taking another big step forward. Can he improve his run blocking to at least be adequate? Can he improve his pass blocking to such an extent that the coaches can live with his lack of finish in the run game? If so, the job is his.
"The guy showed that he's durable. He didn't miss one single snap the entire season or postseason," Campen said. "He fought through some minor things and it's always a positive when a player can play with a slight injury or bumps or bruises. His numbers were better from the year before. Moving forward, he should have a lot of confidence coming into camp to be better than what he was this year. He's still an ascending player and he's still a player that has room to grow."
Rest of the depth chart
The Packers have no worries at guard. Josh Sitton finally made it to a Pro Bowl, cementing his status as one of the game's premier guards. He's an outstanding pass protector and the unit's best run blocker. He's tough and plays with grit. Like Newhouse, he didn't miss a snap in the regular season. While Sitton maintained his standard of excellence, Lang took a snap back due to a bad right elbow and then a position change to replace injured right tackle Bryan Bulaga. He's strong, tough and a team-first player.
Jeff Saturday, in one sense, did just fine in replacing Scott Wells. He helped make the no-huddle a smooth operation and had little trouble in pass protection. The run game, however, suffered. In retrospect, as coach Mike McCarthy made the run game a bigger emphasis as the season progressed, the change to Evan Dietrich-Smith should have been made earlier. Dietrich-Smith was called the team's center of the future by Aaron Rodgers for several weeks before the lineup change was made. Dietrich-Smith backed up that talk, especially during a stellar performance at Minnesota in Week 17.
The coaches botched the decision at center and they probably botched it at right tackle. It's hard to blame them, however, for sliding Lang to right tackle and putting Dietrich-Smith in Lang's spot at left guard, rather than throwing undrafted rookie Don Barclay into the fray at right tackle. Lang, however, struggled and eventually was injured, forcing Barclay into the lineup. In six-and-a-half games, Barclay far exceeded expectations. He's an outstanding run blocker who, at the very least, should be given a lot of consideration as an extra tight end next season. Bulaga, the 2010 first-round pick, should be back from a broken hip. Throw out a horrendous first half at Seattle, where he allowed two of his four sacks and eight of his 20 hurries, and Bulaga was on his way to another solid season.
C: No quarterback was sacked more than Rodgers (51), but that's his playing style. Don't make the line the fall guys on all of those sacks. The 3.9 yards per running play, on the other hand, wasn't good enough, but they averaged 4.1 yards over the final eight games (including playoffs).
No doubt the Packers will draft an offensive lineman — they always do — but this isn't as big of a concern as some outsiders would believe.
Bulaga's one-half meltdown at Seattle, Lang's struggles and Barclay's inexperience meant a lot of the trouble came at right tackle. The return of a healthy Bulaga should mitigate those issues. Dietrich-Smith is a major upgrade over Saturday at center, and perhaps 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod can contribute.
"(Sherrod) was just getting comfortable (when he broke his leg at Kansas City on Dec. 18, 2011, at Kansas City) in what we were asking him to do," Campen said. "His fundamentals were in line. Never was an issue with that kid knowing where to go or how to get there. Very intelligent kid, very accountable to his performance. It was a shame that it happened to him. After going through that and then sitting the whole year, I know he's champing at the bit to get back and play football."
Assuming the No. 1 line is Newhouse, Lang, Dietrich-Smith, Sitton and Bulaga, the backups must be sorted out. Can Sherrod play left tackle? Could Barclay play inside? Could Greg Van Roten handle center? The Packers almost always draft left tackles but this might be the year to grab a center.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.