We continue our training camp positional series with the offensive line.
Starters: LT David Bakhtiari, LG Josh Sitton, C Corey Linsley, RG T.J. Lang, RT Bryan Bulaga. Statistically, Bakhtiari’s first and second seasons were mirror images: eight penalties (six holding) and 7.5 sacks in 2013; eight penalties (six holding) and seven sacks in 2014. The Packers, however, have complete trust that he’ll handle Aaron Rodgers’ blind side. For the second time in his career, Sitton did not allow a sack. In six seasons as a starter, he’s yielded only 10. He was named second-team All-Pro and to his second Pro Bowl. His season rivaled his 2010, when he was voted the NFL’s best lineman by the NFL Alumni Association. Like in 2010, he allowed no sacks and was penalized three times (one for holding). Linsley was a savior upon being shoved into the starting lineup at the end of training camp. Strong and smart, Linsley allowed one sack and was penalized four times (three for holding). In four seasons as a starter, Lang has missed just one game. He allowed a career-low two sacks and was flagged for a career-low two penalties (both holding). Bulaga is back with a five-year, $33.75 million contract. Starting a career-high 15 games after missing the second half of 2012 (hip) and all of 2013 (knee), Bulaga allowed 4.5 sacks and was penalized five times (two for holding).
Top backups: C/G/T J.C. Tretter, G/T Don Barclay. Tretter would have started at center if not for a knee injury sustained in the third preseason game. He played in eight games, getting his most significant playing time in place of an injured Bulaga at Buffalo. With the Packers in desperation mode, he allowed a sack-strip that doomed their chances. Barclay missed all of the season with a torn ACL. He started four games in 2012 and 14 in 2013 in place of Bulaga. He allowed 13 sacks in those games.
Contenders: G Lane Taylor, C/G Garth Gerhart, T Fabbians Ebbele, T Vince Kowalski, C/G Andy Phillips, G Matt Rotheram, T Jeremy Vujnovich, G Josh Walker. Taylor played about 130 snaps on offense, including 63 in place of Lang at New Orleans. He didn’t allow a sack and was flagged once (holding) but really struggled in the run game. Gerhart played 26 snaps in two games to take a load off Sitton’s toe. Vujnovich and Walker were on the practice squad last season; the others are undrafted rookies. (Note: All stats in these first three segments are from STATS.)
How good is this line?: Obviously, darned good, which is why the Packers re-signed Bulaga in free agency to keep the gang together for at least two more seasons.
Dallas’ offensive line is considered the gold standard in the NFL, with Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin voted to last year’s Pro Bowl after being first-round picks in 2011, 2013 and 2014, respectively. Green Bay’s front wall doesn’t have that pedigree, with Bulaga (first round, 2010) being the only starter drafted in the first three rounds, so it might never get the credit it’s due. However, it did a great job protecting Rodgers last season, with its sack rate falling from 7.89 percent in 2013 to 5.60 percent in 2014. In ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-blocking efficiency metric, the Packers’ O-line checked in at No. 2 (Dallas was No. 5).
The line’s superiority really came to the forefront during the second half of the season. Over the final eight games, the Packers yielded just nine sacks. Only Denver (eight) allowed fewer. And their 1,137 rushing yards during that span was their fourth-most since 1978. Only Dallas’ DeMarco Murray and Denver’s C.J. Anderson rushed for more yards than Eddie Lacy over the final six games.
“Complacency cannot set in,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “I think this group, in fact I know – not I think – this group is not going to allow that to happen. They worked tremendously hard this offseason not only on the field but in the classroom, behind the camera, to make sure that doesn’t happen. (They’re) more fundamentally sound, finishing better, pushing the envelope as far as getting up to the line and moving people quicker. I think this group has done a great job with not being complacent, not accepting the fact that things were pretty good from midseason on. I think everybody’s goal is to start out faster, and they want to start out faster.”
Can Bakhtiari take another step?: By percentage, only quarterback has more first-round starters than left tackle. That makes Bakhtiari a rarity as a fourth-round starter. Bakhtiari, however, isn’t just a good player for a fourth-rounder. He’s a good player, period. As a rookie in 2013, he allowed eight sacks and 39 total pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com. In 2014, he allowed six sacks and 29 total pressures while almost never receiving help. Rodgers went so far as to call Bakhtiari an “afterthought” last season — high praise considering the left tackle is key in keeping the quarterback healthy and productive.
“I think he’s one of the guys that continues to get better and he works hard out there at practice,” Lang said. “He’s going against some of the best guys in the league out there with Clay (Matthews) and Julius (Peppers). They’re giving him a lot of good work and he’s a guy that just continues to keep developing. And last year he had just a great year for us. His name wasn’t mentioned a whole lot, which is a good thing when you're playing offensive line. He’s a guy that we can count on. He’s going to come in every day and work and you know he’s going to get out there and get the job done.”
Is Sitton’s toe going to be an issue?: He doesn’t think so. Sitton was hurt in the Week 8 game at New Orleans. He barely practiced the rest of the season, though you’d hardly have known it considering his quality of play. Sitton opted to let the toe heal on its own rather than have surgery. At minicamp, he said he was 85 percent to 90 percent healed, and he hoped the break before training camp would get him back to full strength.
“There’s always that concern,” Sitton said about re-injury, “but a few weeks ago we started doing some heavy treatment and rehab and stuff with it and it started feeling a lot better. I’m pretty confident that as we continue on that track — and having five weeks off before camp — I think we’ll be good to go.”
What’s in store for Linsley in Year 2?: When Tretter went down in the preseason, the Packers’ offense looked to be in serious trouble when rookie fifth-rounder Linsley was thrown into fire. Linsley had never really challenged Tretter for the starting job, and it was Tretter who had taken every first-team rep through the offseason and training camp. However, Linsley quickly seized control and clearly is the Packers’ first long-term center since Scott Wells. For what it’s worth, Linsley finished as the fifth-best center in ProFootballFocus.com’s rankings.
Campen said Linsley and Bakhtiari are in the same mold as “headstrong, accountable” players. Linsley, Campen continued, has “worked his butt off” to take the next step in his career.
“There’s a ton of room for improvement, obviously,” Linsley said. “So I’m trying to work on my hands, I’m just trying to work, just for it to be second nature. For some of these guys, the two guys to the right and left of me (at guard), it’s second nature to them. Just today, we made a check, I made a call, it wasn’t the wrong call, but it was a better call. Right away, they said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Just doing stuff like that, little by little.”
Who’s the backup left tackle?: The depth should be OK. The Packers, obviously, think so, because they didn’t select an offensive lineman for the first time during Ted Thompson’s tenure as general manager. Tretter can play center, guard and, at least, right tackle. Barclay replaced an injured Bulaga in 2012 and 2013. He wasn’t great but the offense barely skipped a beat.
The question is, who plays left tackle should something happen to Bakhtiari? Tretter played it in college, though whoever he faced at Cornell isn’t quite as good as Denver’s Von Miller or Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah. Vujnovich played left tackle at Louisiana College, but those were the Division III ranks. It’s possible the Packers would have to slide over Bulaga.
“We’ll have a plan,” Campen said. “We’ll have a plan. I’m not worried.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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.