At the Scouting Combine, the question to Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy was point-blank in regard to free-agent guard T.J. Lang?
“Do you need him back?”
After all, when the Packers released Josh Sitton at the end of training camp, at least they had Lane Taylor in reserve. This time, there are no ready-made replacements for first-time Pro Bowler Lang on the roster.
“Those are hypotheticals,” McCarthy said. “I’m counting on T.J. to come back.”
That’s no longer a hypothetical. On Sunday, after taking free-agent visits to Detroit and Seattle, Lang signed with the Lions. Lang was born in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak and makes his offseason home in another suburb, Northville. The Lions needed a guard after losing Larry Warford to New Orleans on Thursday.
Agent Mike McCartney said Lang received a three-year dealt to join the Lions. The deal was worth $28.5 million, with a whopping $19 million guaranteed, said a source in confirming a report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Silverstein. That was too much for Green Bay to stomach.
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Before the start of free agency, Lang talked free agency on the “Wilde and Tausch” radio show on ESPN Wisconsin: “We told Green Bay all along that we will keep them updated, obviously, on any other offers that come in. Really at that point, it would be, ‘Hey, this is what we got sitting on the table. Can you guys compete with it?’ Obviously, we are going to give (the Packers) the first right of refusal. Let them know, ‘Hey, can you come close? Can you match it? This is what we got. This is what the market is set at.’”
The Packers didn't get in the ballpark of matching that offer. According to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, the Packers wouldn't go above $21.5 million on their three-year deal, with $12.5 million less in guaranteed money. A source close to Lang said the Packers' offer was for more than that but still not enough to keep Lang.
Either, they lost a tremendous player and a playoff captain.
Lang, who will turn 30 early this season, allowed one sack and was penalized four times (twice for holding) in 13 games, according to STATS. In 2015, which might have been the best year of his career, he allowed 1.5 sacks and was penalized twice (once for holding). In 2016, he ranked fourth among guards in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-blocking efficiency metric, and Green Bay averaged 0.20 yards more per carry with Lang in the game.
Given Lang’s talents, toughness and leadership, it must have been his injury history that prevented the Packers from getting close to what Detroit offered. Lang had shoulder surgery last offseason and hip surgery this offseason. He’s as tough as nails, though: In his first five seasons as a starter, Lang missed two games. And he returned to the lineup this year before his broken foot was healed.
Now what? While Taylor did well in replacing Sitton, there is no clear-cut replacement. Veteran Don Barclay and last year’s second-round pick, Jason Spriggs, are the top in-house candidates. They replaced Lang last year. Or, the Packers could move Bryan Bulaga from right tackle to right guard and insert Spriggs at right tackle. Or, the Packers could draft Lang’s replacement.
Either way, it’s not ideal. As a scout said when the Packers released Sitton, the concern is that interior pressure would take away space for Aaron Rodgers to step up in — and ultimately escape — the pocket. That wasn’t an issue with Taylor. Will it be in 2017?
With Sitton and Lang, the Packers were once one of the rare teams with a highly paid veteran duo at guard. Now, after a big offseason of spending around the league, the Packers are trending the other direction.
Kevin Zeitler, Scout.com’s top-ranked free-agent guard, signed a five-year, $60 million contract to go from Cincinnati to Cleveland. That’s $12 million per year.
Warford, the third-ranked free-agent guard, took a four-year, $34 million contract with the Saints. That’s $8.5 million per year.
Ronald Leary, the odd man out in Dallas but the fourth-ranked free-agent guard, signed a four-year, $36 million contract with Denver. That’s $9.0 million per year.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif signed a five-year, $41.26 million contract extension with Kansas City in February. That’s $8.25 million per year.
Predictably, Lang fell below Zeitler but above Warford for No. 2 in average salary.
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.