Why No Replacement For Clifton On the Roster?

Has general manager Ted Thompson blown it in making sure the Packers were prepared in the event of veteran left tackle Chad Clifton sustaining an injury? We didn't know, so we reviewed the moves that were made and could have been made under Thompson's watch.

The Packers have been whacked upside the head with the worst-case scenario.

There are only two players on the roster who are truly irreplaceable. One of them is quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the other is left tackle Chad Clifton.

Clifton, who needed to be driven off the field on a cart on Sunday after spraining an ankle, seems to be a long shot to be in the starting lineup this week at St. Louis. So, the Packers' trashed-and-thrashed offensive line is heading into a dome game without its most valuable offensive lineman.

The only player on the roster with a prayer of tasting any success at left tackle is Daryn Colledge. Other than raw rookie Jamon Meredith, who was lost from the practice squad on Tuesday, general manager Ted Thompson has done nothing to improve the depth at left tackle during his five years on the job.

If this season crumbles because of Clifton's injury, how much of the blame needs to fall at the feet of Thompson? Packer Report examined the situation.

The veteran option

Left tackles don't exactly grow on trees. Like legit NFL quarterbacks, most teams are lucky to have one good left tackle, much less two. And like legit NFL quarterbacks, linemen capable of playing left tackle almost never are allowed to hit free agency. They're just too valuable.

The 2009 crop of free agents was fairly typical, formed by past-their-prime veterans like Orlando Pace, injury-prone veterans like Levi Jones, Marvel Smith or Tra Thomas, or recent first-round busts like Khalif Barnes. Considering the Packers already had a veteran left tackle, whatever talent there was on the free agent market wouldn't have come to Green Bay just to sit on the bench. It takes two to tango, as the saying goes.

"Ideally, Chad Clifton has played a lot of football for us in the past," coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday of the perceived gamble at left tackle. "We felt confident coming off of his particular surgeries in the offseason that he'd be ready to go. Injuries are part of the game, and we just need to adjust and move on."

Thus, the situation in Green Bay isn't all that different from situations around the league. In Chicago, rookie seventh-round pick Lance Louis is the backup to Pace. In Minnesota, the backup to Bryant McKinnie is Artis Hicks, whose starting experience has come entirely at guard. In Philadelphia, the backup is King Dunlap, a seventh-round pick in 2008 who didn't play a single snap as a rookie. The defending NFC champion Cardinals have fifth-round rookie Herman Johnson as the backup to Mike Gandy. The backup to Pro Bowler Marcus McNeill in San Diego is Brandyn Dombrowski, an undrafted rookie in 2008 who didn't play a snap as a rookie. The backup to Jared Gaither in Baltimore is 2008 second-rounder Oniel Cousins, who's played in five career games. The backup to Max Starks in Pittsburgh is 2008 fourth-rounder Tony Hills, who's never taken a professional snap. New England doesn't even list a backup to Matt Light.

So, as is the case in Green Bay, if any of those Super Bowl contenders were to lose their left tackle, they'd be in deep, deep trouble.

The draft

Chad Clifton is the earliest lineman taken by the Packers since 1997.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
In his five drafts, Thompson never has selected a lineman in the first round, and he's used only one second-rounder on a blocker: Colledge. Like with any position, it's harder to find above-average starters in the later rounds of the draft.

"Well, I think obviously your tackles are going to be guys that are picked in the higher part of the draft," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said in a conference call last week. "Starting tackles in the league are picked in the first two rounds. It's a rare guy who plays very successfully that's not. I think a lot of your interior linemen can be picked in other spots. Because it's difficult to spend too much cap space on your interior linemen."

On paper, Thompson's best chance to draft the heir apparent to Clifton appeared to be in 2008. That group of tackles, headlined by No. 1 overall pick Jake Long and No. 12 selection Ryan Clady, was deemed one of the best tackle classes in memory.

The Packers, one insider told us, had targeted USC's Sam Baker and were stunned when the Falcons took him at No. 21. When the Texans took Virginia Tech's Duane Brown at No. 26 — making him the eighth offensive tackle taken in the first round — Thompson traded out of No. 31 to get the guy who was next on his list, Jordy Nelson at No. 36.

The next offensive tackle taken was all the way down at No. 65, when the Rams took John Greco a handful of selections after the Packers grabbed Brian Brohm (No. 56) and Pat Lee (No. 60). Since moved to guard, Greco's played in one game in his career.

Taken after the Packers grabbed tight end Jermichael Finley at No. 91 were Chad Rinehart at Washington at No. 96 and Cousins by Baltimore at No. 99. Rinehart is a backup right guard; Cousins a backup left tackle.

In April, with the Packers switching to a 3-4 defense, it's hard to argue with Thompson using the No. 9 overall pick on B.J. Raji and trading back into the first round to get Clay Matthews III at No. 26. But by giving up pick Nos. 41, 73 and 83, Thompson was forced to watch as the Giants used No. 60 on William Beatty (the athletic backup left tackle to David Diehl). That was a weak class of tackles. After Beatty, only Robert Brewster (No. 75 to Dallas; on injured reserve with a torn biceps) was drafted until the Packers grabbed T.J. Lang at No. 109.

You can't talk drafts without talking about 2007, when the Packers selected Justin Harrell at No. 16 overall. But here again, it wasn't like Thompson was loaded with options. Only three offensive tackles went in the first round, but none between No. 5 Levi Brown by Arizona and No. 28 Joe Staley by San Francisco. Based on how the draft played out, taking Staley at the time might have been considered a reach, but it turns out that he started 16 games at right tackle as a rookie and all 18 at left tackle in 2008 and 2009.

At No. 42, the Colts selected promising tackle prospect Tony Ugoh, and the Packers wound up trading down from No. 47 to No. 63, where they took running back Brandon Jackson. At No. 67, Dallas took James Marten, who's already on his third team. At No. 70, though, Ryan Harris is entrenched as the right tackle opposite Clady in Denver. And two picks after Green Bay took safety Aaron Rouse at No. 89, Mario Henderson has developed into at least a serviceable starting left tackle for Oakland.

On the street

Daryn Colledge
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
So, where do the Packers turn now? Apparently, they're turning to the status quo, because several league sources indicated that the Packers haven't been burning up the phone lines in trying to find an emergency substitute. They appear prepared to sink or swim with Colledge protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side.

Scout.com NFL insider Adam Caplan listed five street free agents who have experience at left tackle: Levi Jones (released by Cincinnati in May), Damion McIntosh (released recently by Kansas City), Jonas Jennings (released by San Francisco in March), L.J. Shelton (recently released by San Diego) and Kwame Harris (released in February).

Harris (2003), Jones (2002) and Shelton (2000) are former first-round picks. Jones is the most accomplished of that group, starting 61 of a possible 64 games during his first four seasons. However, injuries limited him to six games (five starts) in 2006, 15 games (13 starts) in 2007 and 10 games (10 starts) in 2008. His agent, Kenny Zuckerman, said Jones is "100 percent" and "never felt better."

Maybe Thompson and McCarthy are correct in their estimation that Colledge is the best answer for Clifton's short-term absence. But it's also true that the Packers might not be in this position had Thompson struck in the draft. Certainly, the Packers' draft positions didn't match up with the prospects on the board, but sometimes, you've got to just go get your guy, whether it's moving up in the draft or doing what the Eagles did in sending a first-round pick to Buffalo to get two-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters.

The long-term prospects at left tackle grew even bleaker on Tuesday when Meredith, the second of the team's fifth-round picks, was signed off the Packers' practice squad by Buffalo.

Clifton's contract expires after this season, and Thompson's history suggests he won't open the team coffers to re-sign a player who will be 34 with a growing injury history. That means, by hook or by crook, the Packers — who haven't taken a lineman in the first round since Ross Verba in 1997 — are going to have to expend major resources on the position for the first time since landing Clifton with the 44th pick in 2000.

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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 and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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