Twelfth in a series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ unrestricted, restricted and exclusive-rights free agents in advance of the start of the 2017 league year and NFL free agency Thursday.
GREEN BAY - There is little doubt T.J. Lang is the toughest free-agent decision Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson will make this spring.
The case for re-signing Lang is obvious. He is a Pro Bowl right guard, a tough-guy enforcer on one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a leader in the locker room. Lang has the footwork and athleticism to be an ideal interior pass protector, critical with two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers taking snaps. He was also the Packers' best run blocker last season.
In his sixth season as a starter, the former fourth-round pick out of Eastern Michigan proved he was one of the NFL’s best guards. Coach Mike McCarthy went a step further last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“He’s as fine an offensive lineman as I’ve had an opportunity to coach in 20-plus years in this league,” McCarthy said. “His leadership is significant in our locker room.”
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Pressed on who would fill Lang’s vacancy at right guard if the Packers didn’t re-sign him, McCarthy wouldn’t even entertain the thought.
“Those are hypotheticals,” he said. “I’m counting on T.J. to come back.”
If only it were that easy.
Lang, who turns 30 in September, is expected to miss the entire offseason after late-January surgery to clean a hip impingement. That shouldn’t be too alarming for the Packers. As Lang pointed out in a tweet last week, he missed the entire offseason last year with a more significant shoulder surgery, and that didn’t prevent him from being selected to his first Pro Bowl.
The Packers will consider Lang’s extensive injury history, but also his toughness. Few players have proven able to play through injuries as effectively as Lang. When Lang broke his foot last season at Tennessee, doctors originally projected he’d be out at least six weeks, maybe eight. His season could be over.
Lang returned after missing only three games.
His foot wasn’t healed. Lang broke it again in the NFC championship game at Atlanta. Before his re-injury, Lang had played 424 of a possible 430 snaps in six games.
Toughness is a skill in the NFL. It’s just one ability Lang possesses.
“That’s T.J.,” center Corey Linsley said last season. “We’ve said it over and over again. He’s a tough SOB. He’s a hell of a player. It didn’t surprise me one bit that he came back this quick. I don’t think it surprised anybody.”
It’s possible Lang’s offseason surgery could limit his open-market value. Unless Lang takes a hometown discount to stay in Green Bay — something that’s been done several times over the years — the Packers might need it to.
Lang’s market value is projected at four years and $33.7 million, with an annual salary of $8.4 million, according to Spotrac. It would be similar to the five-year, $33.7 million contract right tackle Bryan Bulaga signed two years ago, with the higher average annual salary justified because of a higher cap ceiling and Lang’s selection to the Pro Bowl. It would also be a significantly richer deal than the four-year, $20.8 million contract Lang signed after the 2012 season.
Lang, emotional after the Packers season-ending loss, made it clear he wants to return.
“I think everybody in this locker room knows that this is where I want to play,” Lang said. “It’s been eight years now. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’ve been saying that since the beginning. I love this team, I love Green Bay, I love everything about being a Packer. I love representing the city and the team. I want to be back. It’s not up to me. This is where I want to be.”
Speaking from the heart matters. Sometimes, dollars matter more. Lang enters an important juncture in his career. He’s about to sign what might be his last lucrative contract.
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The value Spotrac projected for Lang’s next deal could be on the shallow side. The Kansas City Chiefs signed 26-year-old guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension ($8.25 million annually) with $20 million guaranteed last week. The New York Jets signed 25-year-old guard Brian Winters to a four-year, $29 million contract extension with $15 million guaranteed in January.
Though Duvernay-Tardif and Winters are younger, Lang is considered the better player and should have plenty of good football remaining.
A bidding war over Lang could get expensive. That’s why, intentional or not, McCarthy was savvy to broadcast at the combine Lang wouldn’t be physically cleared until training camp.
“He’s in recovery mode,” McCarthy said, “and it’s going to take some time. I don’t see T.J. Lang doing anything before training camp.”
That might not be an issue in Green Bay, where Lang has spent eight seasons playing in the same offense. Elsewhere, it’s harder to commit a major contract to a player who’ll have less time to physically prepare for his first season in a new system.
Missing the entire offseason doesn’t have to prevent Lang from having a smooth transition to a new team. Josh Sitton, who the Packers released in final cuts last year, pulled it off with the Chicago Bears last season. But it isn’t ideal.
A bidding war wouldn’t necessarily rule out Lang’s return. His value on the field and in the locker room is unquestioned. There’s also a matter of practicality.
For a team that crept within a game of the Super Bowl, the Packers have plenty of problems on their roster. Offensive line isn’t one of them, but no position on a depth chart is immune to defections. A year after releasing Sitton, it’s fair to wonder whether losing Lang in free agency would be too big of a blow to overcome.
And there’s no sense in allowing the offensive line to weaken when major holes already exist at cornerback and edge rusher.
But the Packers must improve their cornerback and edge rusher depth chart. With the salary cap at $167 million in 2017, they should have almost $45 million to work with this offseason. If they can re-sign Lang and still bolster their two most important defensive positions, the choice is easy. If not, Thompson is left in an unenviable position.
“I want T.J. back,” McCarthy said. “I think T.J. wants to get back. That’s business stuff, man. You know how that is. What is really there? What did the other guy get? What are you getting? There’s only probably two or three people that really know that.
“I’m confident that we’ll — I’m hopeful, confident, excited, anxious to get T.J. Lang back.”
T.J. Lang, ninth-year right guard
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: Played 13 games, 13 starts in 2016; 119 games, 94 starts in career.
The stats: First-time Pro Bowler in 2016.
2016 salary: $5.08 million.