Plenty on the line for Packers' offense
Fifth in a nine-part series of Packers position previews.
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers are committed to Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and David Bakhtiari just as they’re committed to protecting Aaron Rodgers.
The organization has every intention of trying to extend contracts for the aforementioned starters before their expiration in March.
The decision to trade a fourth-round draft choice in order to move up in the second round and select tackle Jason Spriggs renewed their commitment to Rodgers.
After four off-seasons in which offensive line starters Daryn Colledge, Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday and Evan Dietrich-Smith departed, the Packers enter their second straight training camp with everyone who took a snap back in the saddle.
Yet, after the major disappointments of 2015, the unit must play much better than it did in order for the offense to regain its place among the elite and for its members to earn lucrative new deals.
“We had our areas in which we were deficient,” said James Campen, the head offensive line coach since 2007. “We need to be better in pass protection. There were times we were not where we should have been. There’s a lot of things that go into us not being as (effective) as an offense.”
Blame for the offense going into the tank should fall on “every one of us,” Campen said.
Last year at this time, the talk was of the group making a bid for Packers immortality alongside the lines of the early 1960s and the early 2000s.
Then the unit gave up 34 of the 49 sacks, more than twice the yield of 16½ in 2014 and its second-highest total in two decades.
Then the unit was charged with 99 “bad” runs compared to 73½ the previous year.
Then the unit blocked for an attack that ranked 31st in average gain on first down while converting just 10 of 18 third-and-1 running plays.
General manager Ted Thompson hedged a bit with the selections of Spriggs and tackle Kyle Murphy in the sixth round. On the other hand, he re-signed Lane Taylor to return as the No. 3 guard (two years, $4.15 million) and brought back tackle Don Barclay (one year, $700,000) in an attempt to resurrect his career.
“We have a veteran group of starters,” associate head coach Tom Clements said. “They do a great job together. They communicate very well. The backups have a lot of experience. Spriggs is athletic and smart.”
The Packers’ draft in 2015 was only the second in 25 years in which they didn’t select an offensive lineman. As an AFC personnel man put it in April, “They paid the price for it.”
Green Bay was coming off a season in which the five starters started every game except one.
Last year was a more typical ride regarding injuries with missed-snap totals of eight for Sitton, 115 for Lang, 266 for Bakhtiari, 340 for right tackle Bryan Bulaga and 374 for center Corey Linsley.
Collectively playing 27 percent of the available snaps, backups JC Tretter, Josh Walker, Taylor and Barclay allowed 13 of the 34½ sacks and 25 of the 99 “bad” runs.
“Last year Coach (Mike McCarthy) said it could be the best line he’s had,” Campen said. “We had a few little issues there with some bumps and bruises.”
If the holdovers weren’t humbled or hungry, something would be dramatically wrong.
Sitton, who ranks seventh among NFL guards in average salary per year at $6.85 million, and Lang, tied for 14th at $5.2 million, could shoot well up the charts with tremendous seasons.
If Bakhtiari stays productive and healthy, his next contract should exceed the $6.75 million average that Bulaga signed for in March 2015.
Tretter and Barclay will be unrestricted as well.
“They’ll all be playing for their contracts,” an NFL personnel man said. “If they go far in the playoffs, or win it all, I don’t see why they wouldn’t re-sign them all. That’s the way it should be.”
The Packers would like to do exactly that. First, however, they need to see it on the field.
Sitton wasn’t quite as dominant as in previous seasons due in part to chronic back issues. He turned 30 in June.
“Oh my God,” Campen said. “Is that old? I think it’s ridiculous when people say 30. Are you serious? The way that they’re trained now and the way the athlete is taken care of, 30 is not old.
“He always shows up and plays at a Pro Bowl level.”
Lang sat out the off-season after undergoing shoulder surgery in February. He’s generally too strong to be bull-rushed and has learned how to compensate for athletic shortcomings against edge rushes.
His weakness a year ago was in the run game at the point of attack. He led the team in “bad” runs with 19½.
“Only time he ever gets hurt is when his pad level is up,” Campen said. “If his pad level is down you never see him on the ground, you never see him out of balance, you never see him out of place. When his pad level creeps on him, that’s his biggest evil.”
Bakhtiari has added at least 12 pounds since arriving as a 304-pounder 3½ years ago in the fourth round, which earlier produced Sitton and Lang. Most outside rushers still try to bull-rush him but he has been able to withstand them better each year.
Campen had no complaints about Bakhtiari’s play against power but would like him to trim his average of 9.3 penalties per year.
“He added mass,” Campen said. “He’s a big man. David’s just a tough guy that just wants to do good and please. He’s a guy that plays for the team. He’s very, very headstrong and plays hard.
“Progression. Big time. Look at his stats. David Bakhtiari has done a very good job every year. He has elevated his game.”
Personnel people voted Bakhtiari the best left tackle in the NFC North in 2015 one year after he tied for first with Detroit’s Riley Reiff.
“Solid player, just not a physical, dominating player,” an executive in personnel for an NFL team said. “Just a position-sustain, and he’s good at it.”
Bulaga, with four years remaining on his contract, hasn’t been able to play a full season since replacing injured Mark Tauscher a month into his Super Bowl rookie campaign of 2010. Knee injuries cost him time in 2011, ’13, ’14 and ’15.
“I like him but he’s always hurt,” an NFC North scout said late in 2015. “I thought he played better last year (2014). This year he struggled a little bit more in the pass game and I thought he was extending and lunging a little more in the run game.”
Campen expects Bulaga, who didn’t turn 27 until March, to become even better.
“We haven’t seen the best of Bryan Bulaga,” he said in late May. “He hasn’t even tapped himself. I’ve never seen him more calm than this year. Healthy. Strong.”
Linsley was voted the NFC North’s best center each of his first two seasons but for some reason wasn’t as sharp technically or mentally in ’15.
“He’s smart,” an NFC personnel director said. “He’s helped out by having Sitton. He’s functional. Doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
It is Campen’s hope that Linsley focuses more on executing his assignment while letting the veteran guards fend more for themselves.
“He needs to improve a heck of a lot from last year,” said Campen. “I think he had a very solid rookie year.”
It probably would take an injury for Tretter to regain the job that he held in the summer of 2014 before his knee injury gave the ex-Buckeye Linsley a chance.
Does Tretter have what it takes to start in Green Bay or elsewhere?
“There’s no question — none at all,” Campen replied. “When Corey got hurt (ankle) he went in against Minnesota there and boom, boom, boom. JC Tretter is a fine football player. He does a good job to the second level and did a nice job at left tackle.”
Taylor turned his career around last summer, redefined his body and, when forced to start for the first time, demonstrated that he could move sufficiently while maintaining his trademark tenaciousness.
“Strong brick,” Campen said. “Very boxy. Powerful player.”
Spriggs was drafted as the immediate No. 3 tackle and eventual starter.
“I like his athletic ability but he’s hollow,” an NFL personnel director said shortly after the draft. “He has no power. Their left tackle (Bakhtiari) doesn’t play with a lot of power, either.
“Who knows? They’re good at developing guys. He’s got the tools, the size, the feet. He doesn’t play big and he doesn’t always play real smart. He got beat on the same move all the time.”
The Packers dropped the ball relying on Barclay as their third tackle a year ago. The only rationale for the re-signing ($675,000 minimum base salary) was increased passage of time since his reconstructive knee surgery in August 2014.
“Can’t wait for him to play with that knee through another year,” Campen said. “I’m excited to see what he can do. Ask Mark Tauscher. Remember when people said, ‘He’s done, he’s done?’ Next year he was starting again.”
As for Walker, Campen said, “Huge guy. Lot of talent. We’ll see how it goes.”
PACKERS BY POSITION: OFFENSIVE LINE
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Bryan Bulaga 6-5½ 321 27 D1-’10 Iowa
Played all 20 games as a rookie, counting playoffs. Missed four in ’11 (knee), nine in ’12 (hip), 17 in ’13 (knee), one in ’14 (knee) and four in ’15 (knee, ankle).
David Bakhtiari 6-4½ 315 24 D4-’13 Colorado
Responsible for fewest “bad” runs on O-line last season with eight after allowing 19 ½ in ’14 and 15 ½ in ’13. Ten penalties last year gave him 28 for career.
Jason Spriggs 6-5½ 301 22 D2-’16 Indiana
Started 47 games for Hoosiers, all at LT. Led 2016 draft class of tackles in the 40 (4.91), vertical jump (35) and broad jump (9-7). Four-sport prep at Elkhart, Ind.
Don Barclay 6-4 310 27 FA-’12 West Virginia
Reliable run blocker at RT as 21-game starter in 2012-’13. Last season, playing 111 snaps at LT and 304 at RT, he allowed 33 pressures (nine sacks) and 12 ½ “bad” runs.
Kyle Murphy 6-6½ 308 22 D6-’16 Stanford
Started at RT in 2014 and LT in ’15. Brother, Kevin, played at Harvard from 2008-’11 and backed up in the O-line for the Vikings in 2012-’13. Scored 29 on the Wonderlic intelligence test.
Josh James 6-5 314 23 FA-’16 Carroll (Mont.)
Neither Murphy nor James were able to complete a 40 for scouts this spring because of hamstring injuries. Four-year starter at LT. Exceptional broad jump of 9-3.
Josh Sitton 6-3½ 318 30 D4-’08 Central Florida
Unanimous choice on the All-NFC North team for six straight years. Penalized 10 times in 2015, four more than his career high. Looked like fish out of water at LT in regular-season finale against Vikings.
T.J. Lang 6-4 318 28 D4-’09 Eastern Michigan
Yielded just four sacks from 2013-’15 after allowing 5 ½ in ’12 and five as a rookie. Primary puller on 29 running plays that totaled 112 yards (3.9).
Lane Taylor 6-3 320 26 FA-’13 Oklahoma State
Played 128 snaps in 2014 (103 RG, 19 LG, six C) and 153 in ’15 (85 LG, 68 RG) after not playing as a rookie. First two starts were against the Lions and Vikings last year.
Josh Walker 6-5½ 328 25 FA-’14 Middle Tennessee State
Came off practice squad stint in ’14 to beat out G Matt Rotheram for backup berth last year. Played 60 snaps at three O-line positions and 17 at TE. Brightest moment came in 32-snap stint against the Rams and Pro Bowl DT Aaron Donald.
Matt Rotheram 6-5 328 24 FA-’15 Pittsburgh
Started 40 games at Pitt (27 RG, 13 RT) and worked at guard last summer before spending much of the off-season at center. Hoping to ward off suitors in early December, the Packers bumped his practice-squad salary from $112,000 to $435,000.
Lucas Patrick 6-3 ½ 313 23 FA-’16 Duke
Started 26 of 44 games, all but one at LG. Ran 5.25, vertical jump of 29, broad jump of 8-10, 29 reps on the bench press and Wonderlic score of 22. Signed June 1.
Corey Linsley 6-2 ½ 297 25 D5-’14 Ohio State
Despite playing 71.1% of the downs compared to 100% as a rookie, he allowed more sacks (seven from two), pressures (17 from eight) and “bad” runs (14 from 11 ½).
J.C. Tretter 6-3 ½ 300 25 D4-’13 Cornell
Played 346 of his 448 snaps at center when Linsley was out with an ankle injury. Best moment might have been the Redskins playoff game when he switched to LT and held up against OLBs Preston Smith and Trent Murphy.
Jacob Flores 6-3 300 22 FA-’16 Dartmouth
Started at center in ’15 after two years as starting LT. Ran 5.24, vertical jump of 26 and 22 reps on the bench press. Arms were just 30 7/8 inches.
Acquisition categories: D1 means first-round draft choice, FA means free agent.