Everyone does player grades.
Ours are different.
We do ours on a salary-cap curve. After all, the salary cap largely determines long-term success in the NFL. Players with big-money contracts must be big-time performers. Those highly paid players must be supplemented by several small-budget but high-production players.
With that, we continue this series with the offensive line. Salary comparisons are from OverTheCap.com. Stats are from STATS, Pro Football Focus and league data.
LT David Bakhtiari
2016 cap: $4.01 million (23rd among left tackles)
After three seasons as an ascending left tackle, the Packers rewarded Bakhtiari with a four-year, $48 million contract that made him, in terms of average pay, the fourth-highest-paid player at the position. Bakhtiari then rewarded the team with his best season in the NFL and All-Pro and Pro Bowl accolades. According to STATS, Bakhtiari allowed three sacks and was penalized five times (three for holding). His three-year averages were 6.5 sacks and nine penalties (six for holding). PFF ranked Bakhtiari second among all tackles in pass-blocking efficiency, which measures sacks, hurries and hits by pass-blocking snaps. Moreover, according to league data, the Packers ranked No. 1 in rushing average behind left tackle and No. 13 around left end.
“I’d almost say it was less stress,” Bakhtiari said about the pressure that comes with a big payday. “You don’t have to worry about it. You just go out there and play. It’s like that monkey off your back. You don’t have to focus, you don’t have to have that thought linger. It was kind of calming. It really put the focus on, for me personally, what I need to do to go out there and play. I’m a very competitive person. I don’t take things lightly and I really enjoy going out there and playing. I love playing top-tier talent. It’s always fun getting the best of the best. For me, it honestly feels like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders.”
Bakhtiari’s ability to handle even the NFL’s premier pass rushers by himself can’t be understated. He has the strength to beat power and the athleticism and reach to beat speed. When a tight end or running back doesn’t have to stay in to provide help, that gives Aaron Rodgers one more target in the passing game.
The big-money part of the extension doesn’t truly kick in until 2018 — his cap figure rises only to 19th at $6.17 million in 2017 — making him the steal of steals.
LG Lane Taylor
2016 cap: $1.45 million (26th among left guards)
In a stunning move, the Packers released All-Pro Josh Sitton at the end of training camp and handed the position to Taylor. Say what you want about how GM Ted Thompson erred by not getting any compensation for Sitton but, from purely an on-the-field perspective, this was a shrewd move. Green Bay shed all but $300,000 of Sitton’s $6.6 million cap charge but got quality play, anyway.
In 13 games for Chicago, Sitton allowed no sacks but was penalized six times (all for holding). In 16 games, Taylor allowed two sacks and was penalized four times (two for holding). He ranked 28th among guards in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric. On runs behind left guard, Green Bay ranked just 28th in average. Still, it was a strong season for a player who had just two starts in his first three seasons.
“Like I’ve always said, there’s a job requirement for each position, and certainly we wouldn’t put him in there if we think that he couldn’t fulfill that requirement,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “But there’s always a validation period that you go through with players. You see them do it and, ultimately, those things are important but really, for me, it’s if you make a mistake, can you correct it the next time that situation happens? That tells you a guy’s advancing, in my opinion”
C Corey Linsley
2016 cap: $646,250 (44th among centers)
What a steal, with Linsley’s cap charge being less than a dozen-plus backups. Linsley, who started 29 of a possible 32 games during his first two seasons, suffered a hamstring injury during his offseason training and wound up starting the season on the physically unable to perform list. In a funny-how-things-work-out deal, Linsley got healthy just as J.C. Tretter got hurt and moved back into the starting lineup. He had no doubt he’d be ready because he kept the proper mind-set.
“It would be (a challenge to return to action) if I wasn’t confident in what I can do,” Linsley said. “I’m not talking about arrogance or anything. But true confidence. To rest assured that you know what you can do. I’m just trying to get back healthy and then keep progressing as a player. Whenever I get back, it’s just a matter of taking it from there. You control what you can control, and there’s not much else you can do.”
Not surprisingly, the offense just kept humming along. In nine games, Linsley allowed no sacks and was penalized once (for holding). In his first two seasons, he averaged 2.0 sacks and 3.5 penalties (three for holding). He ranked fifth among centers in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric. The run game averaged 0.07 yards more per carry with Linsley in the lineup. The only thing limiting his grade was the time on the sideline.
RG T.J. Lang
2016 cap: $6.18 million (fourth among right guards)
Lang was picked for his first Pro Bowl. It was about time for one of the league’s most underrated offensive linemen. Lang is talented and tough. In 13 games this season, he allowed one sack and was penalized four times (twice for holding). In 2015, which might have been the best year of his career, he allowed 1.5 sacks and was penalized twice (once for holding). He ranked fourth among guards in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric. The team averaged 0.20 yards more per carry with Lang in the game.
In his first five seasons as a starter, Lang missed two games. He missed three this season due to a broken foot. Ever the tough guy, Lang sort of let the injury heal before returning to action. The Packers promptly scored 30-plus points in six consecutive games — a streak that ended in the NFC Championship Game, when Lang reinjured the foot. Lang cried when he got hurt, knowing free agency is ahead. Age and injuries might work against him, but the Packers have no one capable of replacing him, either.
“I definitely feel like I’ve been playing well,” Lang said after earning the Pro Bowl honor. “I think the first eight or nine games I played, I was off to one of my best starts and then I had the foot injury, missed a couple games. I still feel like I’ve been getting the job done. But to have other coaches and other players vote for me, that really means a lot. It’s definitely a check off the old bucket list. It’s one of the best honors you can get as a player.”
RT Bryan Bulaga
2016 cap: $5.46 million (ninth among right tackles)
For the first time in his career, Bulaga started all 16 games. Probably not coincidentally, Bulaga turned in the best season of his career. He allowed 3.5 sacks and was penalized five times (once for holding). His average from the previous three seasons was five sacks and 4.7 penalties (2.7 for holding), even while missing 12 games during that span. He ranked 14th among all tackles in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric. The run game was solid to his side, too, with Green Bay ranking 14th on yards per carry behind right tackle and 10th around right end.
“I think Bryan is playing very, very well,” coach Mike McCarthy said late in the season. “Bryan has had some hard luck with injuries in the past and he’s a little lighter this year, but I think this is going to be his best season when it’s all said and done. He’s had some tough matchups but he’s played extremely well. Bryan is having an excellent year.”
OT Jason Spriggs
2016 cap: $909,873 (36th among left tackles)
The Packers knew Spriggs would be a project, but talented tackles are hard to find — especially in the second half of the second round. At the time, there were major questions about their offensive tackles. Would they be able to keep Bakhitari? Would Bulaga be able to stay on the field? Well, Bakhtiari is signed and Bulaga finally stayed healthy. Unless the Packers let Lang walk and move Bulaga to guard, Spriggs looks like a man without a position with Bakhtiari signed through 2020 and Bulaga through 2019.
As a rookie, Spriggs started two games in place of Lang. He did OK but, at 6-foot-6 and 301 pounds, he is a natural tackle who would likely be a weak link at guard. In 238 snaps — 183 of which came from Week 10 vs. Tennessee through Week 13 vs. Houston — he allowed one sack and was penalized three times (once for holding). He didn’t block nearly well enough when lined up at tight end. The Packers averaged 1.93 yards less per carry with Spriggs in the game.
“The four preseason games and the way he’s handled himself in practice and blocking against our own people and doing the service team work and those types of things, ultimately you feel very confident about him,” Campen said before the Washington game. “I have no problems playing with Jason Spriggs at all.”
C J.C. Tretter
2016 cap: $778,977 (36th among centers)
Tretter is cursed, which isn’t a good thing for your first foray into free agency. As a rookie in 2013, he suffered an ankle injury during the first practice of OTAs and missed most of the season. In 2014, he was handed the starting job at center but suffered a knee injury in the preseason, which opened the door for Linsley. He finally got his opportunity this year, with Linsley’s hamstring injury. He excelled in seven starts before a knee sprain and, ultimately, surgery. Tretter allowed two sacks and was penalized twice (once for holding).The run game was 0.08 yards per carry worse with Tretter in the game. The Packers might have to replace Lang, but Tretter lacks the power (and, it seems, the durability) to play guard. Most likely, he’ll seek a fresh start, change of luck and chance to start elsewhere.
“At center, it’s the extension of the quarterback because we’re calling the protections together and the runs together and I need a guy I can trust in there to be my eyes when I’m looking downfield at the corners and the safeties pre-snap,” Rodgers said at midseason. “I need a guy who can make the correct call at the right time and get us on the same page and be great about the snap count and the variance we have with that. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him.”
G/T Don Barclay
2016 cap: $700,000 (33rd among right guards)
Less is more for Barclay, who is a decent and versatile backup. In 2013 and 2015 (he missed 2014 with a torn ACL), Barclay gave up 20 sacks while starting 19 games at tackle. This year, Barclay started once and played 144 snaps, with all but a handful of those snaps coming at guard. He gave up two sacks and was guilty of three penalties (two holding). His lone start came at Washington, where he struggled with a shoulder injury. When the Packers were slammed by injuries in the championship game at Atlanta, Barclay was the next man up instead of Spriggs. With his athleticism, guard (and center) is clearly his best spot. If Lang and Tretter depart, the Packers would be wise to bring back Barclay for depth.
OT Kyle Murphy
2016 cap: $481,535 (55th among right tackles)
Murphy, a third-team All-American as a senior at Stanford, was an insurance-policy pick in the sixth round. Thus, he played only eight snaps on offense and three on special teams while being an inactive a team-high 12 times. Ultimately, his best spot might be at guard. He's a name to remember should they fail to re-sign Lang.
“He was a little bit behind because he had the school deal” that cost him most of the offseason program, Campen said. “He wasn’t able to be here. And then he picked right up. Very smart kid. He’s done a very good job. Each week he gets better and better and better. So very, very pleased with him.”
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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.