With 10 days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the offensive line.
Starters: LT David Bakhtiari, LG Josh Sitton, C Corey Linsley, RG T.J. Lang, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups: T Jason Spriggs, T Kyle Murphy, T Josh James, T/G Don Barclay, G/T Josh Walker, G Lane Taylor, G Lucas Patrick, G/C Matt Rotheram, C J.C. Tretter, C Jacob Flores.
Coming: Spriggs (second round), Murphy (sixth round), James (undrafted), Patrick (undrafted), Flores (undrafted). Going: None.
Center: The Packers have one of those good-to-have problems: They have two starting-caliber centers.
When Tretter was injured in the 2014 preseason, Linsley — a rookie fifth-round pick at the time — moved into the starting lineup without having taken as much as a single snap with Aaron Rodgers and the No. 1 offense. Heading into the opener, Seattle edge rusher Bruce Irvin went so far as to say, “I’m going to pray for him.” The Packers were crushed that night, but Linsley was the least of the Packers’ troubles. In fact, Linsley earned a measure of respect from that vaunted defense, and he parlayed that performance into earning All-Rookie honors by starting every game and playing every snap.
Linsley started the first 11 games of last season before sustaining an ankle injury that cost him most of four games. This time, it was Tretter entering the fray as a replacement. In fact, he performed better than Linsley had throughout the season. Then, Tretter saved the Packers’ bacon by playing left tackle at Washington. Tretter’s played well enough to earn a chance to play.
The question is, will he get that chance at his best position? It’s a question coach Mike McCarthy sidestepped when asked about Linsley being sidelined for the offseason practices with an undisclosed injury, other than saying generically about all of the injured players that “they’re missing opportunities to compete for a job on this football team.”
The fact is, Linsley didn’t play as well as he did as a rookie, going from one sack and four penalties (three holding) in 16 games as a rookie to three sacks and three penalties (three holding) in 13 games this season, according to STATS. Moreover, the Packers averaged 0.27 yards more per run with Linsley sidelined than when he was in the game.
As for Tretter, he’ll continue that steady-as-he-goes approach that worked so well when thrown into the fire at center during the first quarter at Minnesota, right tackle to keep Rodgers alive during a blowout loss at Arizona and then at left tackle in a do-or-die playoff game.
“I don’t think too different at all. I’ve kept the same mentality all four years,” Tretter said. “Obviously, the first two didn’t go as planned, and last year went a little better. So, you just come to work every day. You prepare and focus, and the contract stuff will work itself out whenever it does.”
Depth: Throughout last year, McCarthy called the offensive line the best of his tenure. The best has gotten better, with the entire group, including backups, back with the team, plus the additions of Spriggs and Murphy. Nine returning players, two draft picks and practice-squad holdover Matt Rotheram make a 12-strong group — and that’s not even considering the three undrafted rookies.
“It’s a very competitive room, no question,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “They’re such a good group that they help each other. They understand what’s in front of them. It’s not easy to see what’s in front of you but it’s also like, ‘Hey, look, there’s some good people in this room.’ They help each other a ton but, at the same time, when it comes down to the end of the deal, there’s good football players in there that may not have an opportunity.”
From a depth perspective, the development of Spriggs is critical. If something happens to Linsley, Tretter is there. If Sitton or Lang go down, Taylor and maybe Walker are ready. The offense, however, crumbled vs. Arizona without Bulaga and Minnesota without Bakhtiari. Spriggs, a four-year starting left tackle at Indiana, not surprisingly struggled during the offseason practices as he bounced back and forth between left and right tackle, but Campen is bullish on his upside.
“I liked his potential when they jumped up and picked him,” Campen said. “That was a very exciting day. To trade up and get somebody? You run down the hall to see if they’re pulling your tail or not. He’s a good football player. He was a good football player when he was picked. I’m pleased with the progress.”
With the additions of Spriggs and Murphy and the versatility of Tretter, is there a place on the roster for Barclay? He had a terrible season, but he had missed 2014 with a torn ACL and, really, is it his fault that he struggled so badly at left tackle? If Lang or Sitton can’t play, who’s the next man up at guard? Taylor or Walker? Taylor played well in two starts and, while Walker was awful at right tackle at Arizona, he was exceptional at right guard against All-Pro Aaron Donald vs. the Rams. And what about Rotheram, a guard by trade who moonlighted at center for part of the offseason? The depth should make for some fierce battles. To sort it all out, Campen has to be thrilled that there are five preseason games.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
When the Packers surged to the NFC Championship Game in 2014, the offensive line was a driving force. The only missed start was by Bulaga in Week 2, meaning they were together for the final 14 regular-season games plus the two postseason contests. Last season, they started only seven of 16 regular-season games. For a seven-game stretch from Week 12 through the Wild Card game, the Packers went through four different combinations — none of which was the No. 1 unit. If the line can stick together and enter the postseason in top form, the Packers will be a prime championship contender.
“When we look good is when everyone is on the same page so there’s no mental errors,” Campen said.
Last season, Rodgers was sacked 46 times. In 23 games in 2013 and 2014, by contrast, he was sacked 49 times. Green Bay’s rushing averaged dipped by 0.17 yards per carry from 2014 to 2015. Those numbers can’t be fully pinned on the offensive line and the injuries but they certainly factored.
“Last year, I don’t think we took a step back. We had the injury bug kind of hit, and it hit everybody,” said Lang, who missed the offseason practices due to shoulder surgery. “It just kind of threw our momentum off a little bit. Yeah, you look all the way across the board, each guy has a case to be the top player at his position in this league, and that’s something that’s really special. Everybody is excited. I know we’re all excited about putting together another solid year up front.”
The future. By now, you know the outlook: Lang, Sitton and Bakhtiari are headed to free agency. And that’s just for starters. Tretter is entering the final season of his rookie contract, Barclay is back under a one-year deal and Walker will be a restricted free agent. That’s a lot of uncertainty.
“Everybody understands the situation that’s coming up after the season, but we don’t really think about it a whole lot,” Lang said. “It’s just the nature of the game. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, and only time will tell. Everybody is just kind of taking it day by day and just enjoying each other’s company because you don’t know what’s going to happen -- nobody does. But we’ve still got a lot of games left before something like that is decided. Until then, we’ll just take it slow and just enjoy the time we have together.”
That uncertainty played a role in general manager Ted Thompson’s decision to draft Spriggs and Murphy, and it likely will play a role in who Thompson and McCarthy take into the regular season. Can the Packers afford Bakhtiari at a position with exploding salaries? He’s been arguably the steal of the entire 2012 draft – a rare starting left tackle who wasn’t selected in the first round. Week after week after week, he’s held his own against elite pass rushers. When he got past a preseason ankle injury last season, he was tremendous. What about Lang and Sitton, a pair of proven, high-priced veterans who’ve fought through injuries? Tretter likely will move on for a starting job elsewhere. With such uncertainty, the Packers at least have to match last year’s nine-man depth chart – and maybe even 10 -- to insure the cupboard isn’t bare for 2017.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.