It wasn’t long ago that the Green Bay Packers had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The unit was set at both guards and both tackles. David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga were the young guns of the offensive line locking down the left and right tackle positions. At guard, the Packers were blessed to have two solid veteran starters in Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. Fast forward to the present, the Packers no longer have Sitton and Lang holding down the guard positions. At tackle, Bakhtiari is still playing left tackle at a high level, but Bulaga continues to prove he can’t stay healthy. Guard Lane Taylor has been an adequate replacement at left guard. While the center position seems to be in good hands with Corey Linsley holding it down. But the right side seems to be a major concern.
The Green Bay Packers Offensive Line: Questions That Remain Unanswered
Last off-season, the Packers signed veteran guard Jahri Evans to a one-year deal. Evans proved to be a solid pickup for the Packers. He started 14 games for the Packers at right guard and did an admirable job. But at 34 years of age, he was only looked at as a stopgap option. He is once again a free agent and so far the Packers have chosen not to re-sign Evans. Although there is a possibility that they could re-sign him if they feel it is necessary.
The right tackle position, just like right guard, is also up in the air this season. It wouldn’t be if Bulaga was able to stay healthy. But once again, Bulaga will be coming back from a season-ending knee injury. He has played eight seasons in the NFL. In those eight seasons, he has only played a full 16 regular season schedule just once. Included in those eight seasons is 2013, a season he sat out when he was recovering from a knee injury he suffered in training camp. Complicating things for the Packers this season, there is a possibility Bulaga won’t be ready to go by the season opener.
The Packers offensive line, on the right side, will look a lot different at the start of this season. Not only will they presumably have a new starting right guard, but they also might have a new starting right tackle. The replacements will come from players returning from last season but possibly from new additions.
The Battle at Right Guard
If the Packers don’t re-sign Evans or bring in another free agent guard, the new starting right guard will be a carryover from last season. It appears the leader going into this season is Justin McCray. McCray was signed off the street last off-season and it proved to be a very good pickup. Because of injuries, he started eight games, playing in 13 total. He played all over the offensive line, at left tackle, right tackle, left guard, and a series at right guard. It will be a major benefit for him to concentrate just at guard this training camp. If he takes the next step this training camp, he should be able to lock down the starting right guard position.
However, if he falters, the Packers do have some other options. Lucas Patrick, an undrafted free agent out of Duke, also saw time on the Packers offensive line last season. He played in 12 total games and started two of those. If he is unable to win the starting right guard position, he could be a very valuable backup for the Packers offensive line for both guard positions.
Joining McCray and Patrick in the competition to be the starting right guard is rookie Cole Madison. Madison was selected in the fifth round by the Packers in this year’s draft. He played tackle at Washington State but is viewed as a prospect at guard. Washington State implemented a pass-oriented offense, so he will need time to adjust to the running game. But he shouldn’t be counted out. Madison is 6’5”, 308 pounds and is very athletic for a man of his size. He originally was recruited as a tight end coming out of high school.
Returning Options at Right Tackle
The number one job for the Packers offensive line is protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Protecting his blindside is the most important, something that Bakhtiari does very well. But the right side is just as vital. Even if Bulaga is healthy at the start of the season, the chance of him playing a full season is very slim.
So finding a competent backup will be very important this training camp. The Packers will return two possible candidates. Kyle Murphy and Jason Spriggs both saw time at right tackle last season. But both were lost to season-ending injuries as well.
Murphy, who arguably played the best out of the two, saw time at right and left tackle. But the former sixth-round pick broke a foot and was lost for the season. Although not as athletic as Spriggs, Murphy played well and seemed to have a better grasp of playing tackle in the NFL than Spriggs.
The Packers traded up to select Spriggs in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. But he has yet to live up to his draft status. Because of his lean stature, it was expected he would struggle against power rushers. However, he has also struggled with speed rushers as well. If Spriggs struggles once again this training camp and in preseason action, his roster spot might be endangered.
New Kid on the Block
The player who might have the best chance of being Bulaga’s top backup is the recently signed Byron Bell. Bell is a six-year veteran who has 74 career starts. He has played both tackles and has also seen time at guard. His time at guard might even put him in the competition for the starting right guard spot. If Bell shows that he still has some gas in the tank this training camp it wouldn’t be a surprise if he leapfrogs Murphy and Spriggs on the depth chart.
Campen is the X Factor
The players battling for these open positions on the Packers offensive line are important. But they might not be the most important factor in those competitions.
Packers offensive line coach James Campen has proven to be one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL. His work with the Packers offensive line earned him a promotion to run game coordinator this off-season. Not only did Campen help develop Sitton and Lang into solid NFL guards, but has also helped Bakhtiari to become one of the best left tackles in the NFL. Campen is a coach that can do more with less. Something that he will have to do in regards to the right guard and tackle positions this season.
Along with Campen, the Packers also helped the offensive line by signing tight end Marcedes Lewis. Lewis is one of the best run blocking tight ends in the league. He should be able to help out whoever wins the starting right offensive tackle positions, both in the running and passing game.
The battles at right guard and tackle will be vital for the Packers offensive line this season. Rodgers was hurt last season and it ruined their season. Making sure he stays healthy for all of this season is vital for the Packers chances to get back to the playoffs. With that, the Packers offensive line battles in training camp will be ones to keep an eye on.