When the Green Bay Packers decided to cut ties prior to last season with guard Josh Sitton and allow fellow guard T.J. Lang to depart via free agency this off season, they weren’t just letting average veteran players depart. They were allowing much more. Between Sitton, who is now a starting guard for the Chicago Bears, and Lang, who signed a free agent contract with the Detroit Lions, they started 206 games and made the Pro Bowl four times. Sitton was also voted first team All-Pro in 2014. Not only have the Packers allowed two of their most vocal leaders to walk, but they have also allowed two players who have played at an elite level for a substantial amount of time to depart. Those moves have brought forth a new era for the Packers offensive line and new leaders will need to take the place of Sitton and Lang. The Packers offensive line will rely heavily on their veteran bookends this season.
The Packers Offensive Line Will Rely Heavily on Their Veteran Bookends in 2017
The departures of Sitton and Lang illustrates how much value Packers general manager Ted Thompson puts into the guard position. Thompson had the opportunity to re-sign both Sitton and Lang to new deals, but chose not to, instead, investing in his to starting tackles. In March of 2015, Thompson re-signed starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a new deal and before last season, not long after cutting Sitton, he signed starting left tackle David Bakhtiari to a four-year extension. Thompson felt locking up his starting tackles took precedent over handing new contracts to his aging starting guards. With new deals, both starting tackles had excellent seasons for the Packers. Bulaga, who has battled injuries throughout his career, started all 16 regular season games for the Packers, a first in his career. With staying healthy for the season, Bulaga locked down the right side of the line and had a solid season for the Packers. On the left side of the line, Bakhtiari had his best season as a professional. He too started every game for the Packers and his play earned him his first Pro Bowl berth and was voted second team All-Pro. With being only 25 years of age, Bakhtiari looks to have his best years ahead of him. Leading up to last season, he had battled issues with being called for holding penalties, but last season, he cut down on them.
The Packers also have depth at the tackle position, with second year tackles Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy backing up Bakhtiari and Bulaga. The Packers spent a second round pick on Spriggs in the 2016 draft. He saw spot duty at both tackles as well as guard last season. He had some struggles during his rookie campaign, but an offseason in the weight room, his second season in the Packers system, and being able to concentrate at tackle instead of worrying about playing both tackle and guard should help. Murphy was also selected in the 2016, in the sixth round out of Stanford. He only saw action in three games last season for the Packers. While at Stanford, he saw time at both left and right tackle. He is expected to back up Bulaga this season and possibly could compete for a backup spot at guard. Thompson understands that protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers is vital for the Packers success, which is why he has invested so much at the tackle position.
The Guard Position Will Have a Much Different Look for 2017
With the release of Sitton before last season, the starting left guard was filled by former undrafted free agent Lane Taylor. Entering his fourth season as a professional, Taylor couldn’t have expected to be the Packers starting left guard. But with the unexpected release of Sitton, Taylor was pushed into the starting lineup. Although Taylor didn’t play up to Sitton’s standards, he did hold down the position for the Packers. Taylor started every game at left guard for the Packers and proved he wasn’t a weakness on the Packers offensive line. Taylor is expected to improve in his second season as a starter. Leading up to the draft, it was expected that Thompson and the Packers would need to use one of their draft picks to fill Lang’s starting right guard position. However right before the draft, Thompson shocked many and signed veteran free agent Jahri Evans. The 33-year-old Evans comes over from the New Orleans Saints where he was a starter at guard. Evans brings with him a very impressive resume. He is a six-time Pro Bowler, has been first team All-Pro four times, and helped the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl victory. Evans is looked at as a stop gap, signing just a one year deal with the Packers. The Packers are hoping that Evans still has something in the tank.
Unlike the tackle position, the Packers depth at guard is at best questionable. The player with the most experience who will vie for backup duty is Don Barclay. But Barclay, who once was the starting right tackle before suffering a knee injury, has been much criticized for his play in recent history. The knee injury took away a lot of quickness which caused him to struggle when forced into action at tackle. But he seems to have found a place playing inside as a backup at guard and center. Along with Barclay and Murphy, former undrafted free agent Lucas Patrick will be competing for a backup spot. He spent last season on the Packers practice squad. Joining the group are players Kofi Amichia and Geoff Gray. Amichia was drafted in the sixth round by the Packers out of South Florida this season and is undersized but very athletic. Gray is a name to remember going into training camp. He played his college ball north of the border at the University of Manitoba. Some NFL Draft experts projected him as a low round draft pick but Gray wasn’t selected and ended up signing as an undrafted free agent. With unproven depth behind Taylor and Evans, the Packers will need for Taylor and Evans to stay healthy this season.
Injury Concerns Follow Linsley into Training Camp
Corey Linsley enters this season as the Packers starting center. Linsley has started 38 regular season games for the Packers the past three years. But there are some injury concerns for Linsley going into this season. This off-season Linsley had surgery on his ankle, which has bothered him since he first injured it back in 2015. Last season, Linsley dealt with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss time, now he must rehab from the off season ankle injury. With backup center JC Tretter departing as a free agent to Cleveland, the Packers don’t have a set back up behind Linsley. Barclay, Gray, and Amichia will all see some time this training camp at center, hoping one of them can illustrate they can handle the backup center position.
The Packers offensive line looks strong at the tackle position, but depth in the middle of the Packers offensive line could hurt them this season. They will need to get Linsley healthy and hope that both Taylor and the aging Evans can stay healthy. Otherwise, Thompson and the Packers will be scrambling to find answers at the guard and center positions.