The Green Bay Packers' offensive line entered last season under the weight of lofty expectation, handed down from its head coach.
When training camp opened, Mike McCarthy offered a bold prediction. This offensive line, he said, could be the best in a tenure that spanned almost a decade. McCarthy kept saying it through the season, becoming more definitive over time, watching as his prediction unfolded.
Ted Thompson went to work last week securing the future of Green Bay's offensive line. The Packers general manager re-signed right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a five-year, $33.75 million contract, keeping the same five starters intact.
Securing continuity is especially important for an offensive line, where all five players work together as one. The Packers have plenty of individual talent, but chemistry, consistency and cohesiveness made their offensive line special last season. Green Bay had the same starting offensive linemen in 17 of 18 games, including the final 16.
"As a group," Bulaga said, "we started a little slow at the beginning of the year. So I think we can get better."
Bulaga could have left Green Bay. Roughly four teams were interested in extending a contract offer, he said. There were reports Bulaga could have signed for more money if he hit the open market, perhaps becoming the NFL's highest-paid right tackle. With a thin offensive tackle market, it seems reasonable.
He had a different plan.
With Bulaga back, Green Bay's offensive line is in position to again be among the league's elite units. The Packers allowed 30 sacks last season, their fewest since 2007. They ranked among the NFL's top four in quarterback hits, hurries and total pressures allowed, according to ProFootballFocus.
Their 18 quarterback hits allowed, 76 hurries allowed and 112 total pressures were the Packers' lowest since ProFootballFocus began tracking each stat in 2007.
Green Bay also averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 119.8 rushing yards per game, ranking 10th and 11th in the league, respectively. Both totals were the second best during McCarthy's tenure, behind only the 4.7 yards per carry and 133.5 yards per game in 2013.
Thompson, typically frugal, hasn't had to commit an exorbitant amount of cap space while getting elite production. Green Bay's offensive line performed like a top-five unit last season, but it won't be paid like it in 2015.
The Packers rank 16th in the NFL with $22.7 million committed to its offensive line next season, according to Over The Cap. Among the six offensive lines that finished last season with the fewest total pressures, only the Dallas Cowboys ($17.8 million) are scheduled to pay their offensive line less in 2015.
The Packers received some good fortune last fall. When former center Evan Dietrich-Smith signed a four-year, $14.25 million contract with Tampa Bay last offseason, Green Bay replaced him with fifth-round rookie Corey Linsley.
By season's end, Linsley was a clear bargain — and an upgrade — compared to Dietrich-Smith. The rookie counted only $466,250 against the cap, and he'll count $556,250 against the cap in 2015. In Tampa Bay, Dietrich-Smith counted $3.5 million against the cap last year and will count $3.75 million against the cap next fall.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari is also playing under his rookie contract. Considering his premier position, the former fourth-round pick may be the greatest value bargain on the Packers' roster. Eleven left tackles average at least $8 million annually, according to Over The Cap. Bakhtiari, who has started all 32 games in his career, averages $653,850 per year with his rookie contract.
The bargains found in Bakhtiari and Linsley have allowed Green Bay to spend the money necessary to retain perhaps the league's best guard tandem. With All-Pro left guard Josh Sitton ($6.75 million per year) and right guard T.J. Lang ($5.2 million), the Packers are the only team with both starting guards earning among the league's 15 highest salaries at that position, according to Over The Cap.
Bakhtiari, Sitton and Lang become free agents after the 2016 season. Sitton and Lang will be in their primes, with the chance to earn lucrative third contracts. If Bakhtiari continues to blossom, his salary will steeply rise after his rookie contract expires.
For now, Thompson has ensured Green Bay will be in position to have one league's top offensive lines. The Packers would be wise to take advantage while it lasts. Tough decisions are looming in two years.
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