It wasn’t long ago that Aaron Rodgers was just hoping to keep the same starting center for more than one season.
Now, the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback is on the brink of getting a lot more than that.
Barring injury, the Packers have the rare opportunity of returning all five starting offensive linemen from last season. You’d have to go back to 2003-04 for the last time Green Bay has featured the same five linemen in Week 1 of consecutive seasons.
Last year’s combination of All-Pro Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley paved the way to Eddie Lacy’s second consecutive 1,000-yard season and played a critical role in Green Bay cutting its sacks to 30, its lowest total with Rodgers at quarterback.
As good as the group was, offensive line coach James Campen believes the best is yet to come. The starters average only 25.8 years of age and are all signed through the 2016 season after Bulaga agreed to a five-year, $33.75 million contract in March.
“Complacency cannot set in,” Campen said. “I think this group, in fact I know — not I think — this group is not going to allow that to happen. They worked tremendously hard this offseason not only on the field but in the classroom, behind the camera, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“I think everybody’s goal is to start out faster, and they want to start out faster.”
Bulaga missed half of the 2012 season with a hip injury and all of 2013 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but was widely viewed as one of the top tackles on the free-agent market after starting all but one game for the Packers last season.
That missed start, in Week 2 against the New York Jets, represented the only game any starting lineman would miss the rest of the season. Bulaga (knee), Lang (ankle) and Sitton (torn ligaments in big toe) all gritted through injury for extended stretches last season.
Sitton and Lang had career years despite their injuries sidelining them through most practices in the second half of the season. Along with taking his blocking to the next level, Lang is a natural leader and enforcer in the trenches and locker room.
The Packers feel Sitton has been one of the NFL’s premier guards for the past few years, but it seems the league finally is catching on. He was voted into the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career (he previously went as an alternate) and avoided surgery on the toe.
Campen felt the example the two veterans showed trickled down to their younger teammates.
“It’s toughness,” Campen said. “You have to be able to play. You’re never going to feel 100 percent great until the season’s over and probably a month after. Displaying toughness and commitment to your team and your offensive unit, I think it shows that, hey, you have to fight through some of the small nagging things.”
Like Lang and Sitton, Bakhtiari’s development has extended general manager Ted Thompson’s track record for mining high-caliber linemen in the fourth round of the draft. He first stepped in for an injured Bulaga at left tackle in 2013 and hasn’t missed a start in his first two seasons.
Bakhtiari added weight to his frame last offseason, which helped him stand up to bull rushes. There still are certain aspects where Bakhtiari can be more consistent — his seven holding penalties were tied for second-most in the NFL — but he has time to make good on his potential. He won’t turn 24 until September.
The Packers went into last season with 2013 fourth-round pick JC Tretter pegged as the starting center after Evan Dietrich-Smith left for Tampa Bay in free agency. He looked the part until suffering a knee injury in the third preseason game against Oakland and was placed on temporary injured reserve.
His eight-week absence allowed Linsley to seize the job. The powerful Ohio State alumnus went on to be the only player who saw action on all 1,050 offensive snaps and quickly developed a rapport with Lang and Sitton, who initially helped him with calls at the line of scrimmage.
It now appears Linsley could be the long-term answer at the position Rodgers was calling for after shuffling through Scott Wells (2011), Jeff Saturday (2012) and Dietrich-Smith (2013) in recent years.
“Corey’s from the same mold as David,” Campen said. “He’s worked his butt off and he needs to take another step, and he will do that. So will David. David had a good year for a second-year player, and David will take another step. Both very headstrong, accountable players that will do that.”
The line’s stability limited Tretter’s opportunities once he was activated. He had a chance to step in for an injured Bulaga (concussion) at right tackle against Buffalo in Week 15, but was soundly beaten by Mario Williams on a late sack for a safety in the 21-13 loss.
Tretter may be best suited at center, but he’ll compete with veterans Lane Taylor and Garth Gerhart for reps at guard, as well. There’s also the returning Don Barclay, who started 21 consecutive games for the Packers (including playoffs) in place of Bulaga before tearing his ACL early in training camp.
The Packers thought enough of the former undrafted free agent to extend him a low tender of $1.542 million as a restricted free agent. Barclay was limited during the offseason program, but suited up for every practice during organized team activities and mini-camp.
“He’s a true tough guy,” Campen said. “He’s going to be as fundamentally sound as he has to be to win, and he just has a great mindset. The kid is tougher than heck. He displays toughness. He’s the type of guy that he’s going to work his butt off, not only for himself but for the common goal of the offense.”
The Packers didn’t draft an offensive lineman for the first time since Thompson took over as general manager in 2005, but agreed to a deal with massive University of Pittsburgh guard Matt Rotheram within 10 minutes of its conclusion. He’ll look to follow Dietrich-Smith, Barclay and Taylor’s lead in taking the undrafted route onto the roster.
Josh Walker and Jeremy Vujnovich hope to crack the 53-man roster after spending last season on the practice squad. Vujnovich, an alumnus of Division III Louisiana College, has worked extensively at left tackle with the second-team offensive line since arriving in Green Bay.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.
Packers position series
July 22: Defensive backs
July 23: Defensive line
July 24: Linebackers
July 25: Quarterbacks
July 26: Running backs
July 27: Receivers
Today: Offensive line
Thursday: Special teams