Line Could Be In Flux Again

Three-fifths of the starting line, which solidified down the stretch, will be free agents in March. Topping that list will be Chad Clifton, who will be a hot commodity as the top unrestricted offensive tackle, and Mark Tauscher. We assess the situation.

Once Aaron Rodgers stopped getting sacked four or fives times per game, the Green Bay Packers' offense could do practically no wrong this season.

That efficiency came to a screeching halt at the most inopportune of times in the wild-card playoff loss at Arizona. An offense that turned over the ball just 15 times in the regular season gave it away three times against the Cardinals — including the first and last plays of the game.

Nonetheless, there's plenty of reason for optimism headed into next season for a unit that ranked sixth in the NFL in yards and third in points.

"When you score, we don't give out a whole lot of praise or backslapping to our guys, but when you can say that you were part of the highest-scoring unit in Green Bay Packer history, that says an awful lot about those guys," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "I thought the uplifting thing about the season, and a lot of the guys stopped by on Monday when they left, you could feel obviously the disappointment, but there's a lot of optimism about the things that they can still accomplish and that they feel like this offense has a future, that there's some good young players and that we're heading in the right direction."

While the headlines go to Rodgers and a receiving corps that was at its playmaking best against the Cardinals, the success of the Packers started once the offensive line got solidified with the same five players starting the final seven regular-season games as well as in the playoffs.

But there are enormous questions surrounding three-fifths of that group entering the offseason.

Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton will turn 34 in June, had surgery on both knees and both shoulders last offseason, and battled an ankle problem that kept him out for two stretches this season and knocked him out of the playoff game at Arizona. Nonetheless, as the only above-average offensive tackle who's set to be an unrestricted free agent on March 5 — he's No. 3 in Scout.com's just-released rankings — Clifton figures to have plenty of suitors this offseason. He allowed 3.75 sacks in 12 games. Last year, for comparison, he allowed 7.5 sacks in 15 games.

At right tackle, Mark Tauscher was a godsend to an offensive line that couldn't keep Rodgers on his feet for the first half of the season. Tauscher, who turns 33 in June, signed a one-year contract and thus will be a free agent as well this offseason. He is the 13th-ranked tackle in Scout.com's rankings.


Mark Tauscher
Morry Gash/AP Images
"Those are all personnel questions, and is really the process I'm going through," coach Mike McCarthy said when asked if he'd like his starting tackles to return. "Every coach has done evaluation on his players. I'll have the opportunity to go through that with the coordinators, with the coaches. We'll have personnel meetings with Ted (Thompson). I really like what Mark Tauscher has done in his time here. I thought he definitely got stronger as the season went on. He thinks he's over the hump from a rehab standpoint with the strength in the knee, so those are all positives. No different with Chad. Chad has come back from multiple surgeries last year and was kind of grinding and fought through the season. He's had some injures this year. We'll look at all those types of things as we move forward."

Left guard Daryn Colledge is one of five Packers who, having four or five years of experience, would have been an unrestricted free agent this offseason. But with the owners opting out of the collective bargaining agreement, Colledge will be a restricted free agent. He is coming off easily his poorest season with 8.75 sacks allowed but played well down the stretch after settling back in at left guard after having to replace Clifton at left tackle. Colledge is Scout.com's 17th-ranked guard.

"He had set a fairly high standard as a rookie when at guard he didn't have (many sacks allowed)," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "His sacks (at left tackle), I'm not going to say I'm going cut him a break and say, ‘Hey those are OK.' I'm not going to say that. But obviously he doesn't practice there as much as he does at guard, and when you've been in a league four years and you've started (60 regular-season) games, you should be semi-, fairly proficient at what you're doing. And so the sacks at guard would bother me, the holding penalty bothers you (in overtime against Arizona). But I can't sit here and say, ‘Hey, he regressed this year, he had a bad year.'"

Center/guard Jason Spitz is in the same boat as Colledge as a fourth-year restricted free agent. Spitz, who missed most of the season with a back problem, opened the season as the starter at center. If he returns, he could either challenge Scott Wells at center again or replace and/or battle Colledge at left guard. Spitz is Scout.com's fifth-ranked center.

"If you talk to Jason, he's here working out, and he's not all the way back, but he's getting close," McCarthy said. "We're definitely hopeful. He's played good football for us in the past, and I look for him to that. He's not fully cleared and he's not ready to go, but we definitely feel very strong about he'll be able to be fully recovered from his injury."

Two wild cards in the equation for the Packers are T.J. Lang and the draft. This draft is fairly deep on offensive tackles and a good one might be available at No. 23. And after reviewing the film, will the coaches decide Lang — the fourth-round pick from Eastern Michigan — is a left tackle? A right tackle? A guard?

"I don't know, I really don't," Philbin said when asked about Lang's best position. "Maybe I'll have a better feel after we watch him here in the offseason on the cutups and everything. I think his feet are, he's got good feet. His feet are nice, he's athletic, he gets out of his stance well. We'll see."


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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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