Position Series: Off. Line In-Depth

Even with the loss of longtime stalwarts Scott Wells and Chad Clifton, the Packers' offensive line could be one of the NFL's top units. Who's the new leader of the pack? Which starter could be the breakout performer? Plus, the sleeper and bubble players.

Leader of the Pack

Josh Sitton: With Chad Clifton out of the picture and Scott Wells snapping the ball in St. Louis, Sitton is the Green Bay Packers' most tenured offensive lineman. Sitton, who is entering his fifth year in the league, has emerged as one of the game's elite guards with his ability to dominate in pass protection as well as run blocking.

That was evident on Jan. 1, when he scored a clear victory in his matchup against the Lions' Ndamukong Suh. Suh's only tackle in that game was a sack, which was not charged to Sitton, and the Packers piled up 45 points behind No. 2 quarterback Matt Flynn.

Sitton had started 48 consecutive games before missing December games against New York and Oakland with a knee sprain. Over the last three years, according to a study by ProFootballFocus.com, Sitton graded out as the league's third-best guard in pass protection.

Breakout performer

T.J. Lang: When the Packers let Daryn Colledge sign with Arizona last offseason, it created a vacancy at left guard. Lang beat out first-round pick Derek Sherrod and never looked back.

Not only did Lang provide a more aggressive and physical presence than did Colledge, but Lang also proved to be better in pass protection. In 2010, Colledge allowed five sacks and 24 total pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com. In 2011, Lang allowed two sacks and 11 total pressures. While Colledge has given up the fourth-most pressures over the last three years, Lang gave up the fourth-fewest last season.

"I really like T.J.'s style of  play," coach Mike McCarthy said late last eason. "He brings a real physicalness, a toughness, to the left guard position. He's a good young football player that's going to really improve. His demeanor, approach, his style of play, is exactly what we're looking for."

With a year of starting experience and a free-agent contract looming, look for Lang to take a step forward this season.


Derek Sherrod: If it wasn't bad enough that Sherrod's rookie season ended with a broken leg, that the injury occurred on Dec. 18 added insult to injury. Sherrod, whose rookie season was derailed by the lockout and an ill-fated challenge to Lang at guard, was forced to watch from the sideline during the offseason practices.

With that as a backdrop, it would be a major surprise if Sherrod were to challenge Marshall Newhouse for the starting job at left tackle this summer. However, it's a long season and the Packers used their top pick on Sherrod for a reason. If Newhouse doesn't take a step forward or struggles through a rough patch, don't be surprised if Sherrod gets his shot at some point.

On the bubble

Andrew Datko: Datko's shoulder problems have been well-documented. Datko, a seventh-round pick, probably will be vying for the last offensive line spot on the roster (see Extra Point for more on that) after starting just four games as a senior. It doesn't appear he has the power to play inside, so he lacks the versatility the coaches like for their backup blockers. His skill, however, is undeniable and good left tackles don't grow on trees. Releasing Datko and hoping to sign him to the practice squad might be a gamble.

Noteworthy number

3: In Jeff Saturday's final three seasons as Indianapolis' center, he allowed three sacks. Over Wells' final three seasons as Green Bay's center, he allowed six sacks. According to a three-year study by ProFootballFocus.com, Saturday was the league's best pass-blocking center, with three sacks and 27 total pressures allowed on 1,873 pass-blocking snaps. Wells ranked sixth with 37 pressures allowed on 1,840 pass-blocking snaps.

Extra point

It'll be a wide-open competition for the one or two backup spots behind center/guard Evan Dietrich-Smith and the loser of Newhouse vs. Sherrod. There are 10 linemen battling for that spot(s), with only Herb Taylor having taken an NFL snap. Offensive line coach James Campen swears he has no concerns with the lack of battle-tested depth.

"You want them to go in there and compete and go get it," Campen said. "It's going to be a lot of fun to see when the pads get on and see how the stresses in protection and stresses in the run game and how quickly they think to make a call or adjustment and then have the physical part follow."

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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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