PHOENIX - So optimistic was Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy that free-agent right guard T.J. Lang would return, he wouldn’t even entertain an alternative outcome at last month’s NFL scouting combine.
Whether the Packers were ever close on the business side with Lang is a separate issue. To McCarthy, Lang’s toughness, leadership and — most importantly — talent carried a lot of value. Lang is the type of skilled, homegrown player the Packers typically re-sign.
So when the Detroit Lions signed Lang away within the division, it left a major void in the Packers' locker room and on their offensive line.
“We do intend to sign our own guys,” McCarthy said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. “That’s always our priority. That’s the conversations that take place inside of football operations. It’s a challenge. Obviously, the landscape was different this year. I look at it differently. T.J. has a tremendous financial opportunity in front of him, and that’s a very positive thing for him and his family.
“The result of who gets signed and why they didn’t get signed, that’s really irrelevant in my view. Negotiations are tough on both sides, don’t get it wrong. But everybody has to make a business decision that’s best for them and their family. I respect that. But our focus is clearly on trying to sign our own players back.”
All signs point to the Packers’ most likely replacement for Lang coming from next month’s draft. It isn’t only general manager Ted Thompson’s strong preference to build through the draft. The Packers' roster lacks viable alternatives.
McCarthy said he doesn’t want to move right tackle Bryan Bulaga inside to guard. A 2010 first-round pick, Bulaga has developed into one of the league’s best — and highest-paid — right tackles.
Bulaga’s 6-foot-5, 314-pound frame could adapt to the interior offensive line. He’s an inch shorter and some five pounds lighter than Chicago Bears three-time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long. But tackle is a more prominent position, even on the right side.
McCarthy said Bulaga had “his best year at right tackle” in 2016. With his success, it makes little sense to change his position.
“I’m not really looking to move him,” McCarthy said. “Because I think Bryan — I don’t think, I know — Bryan and David (Bakhtiari) gave us an outstanding combination of right and left tackle play. And with that, you’ve got that consistency and let’s be honest, that position affects game planning as much as any other on the offensive side of the ball.”
The Packers traded up in the second round last year to draft tackle Jason Spriggs. It was an aggressive investment that paid off when Spriggs started two games at right guard after Lang broke his foot in November.
But Spriggs, a four-year starter at left tackle at Indiana, is 6-foot-6 and 301 pounds. His height and light frame makes it difficult to get leverage against defensive tackles. McCarthy called Spriggs “a tackle” Tuesday, indicating he’s unlikely to move inside.
That doesn’t mean the Packers view Spriggs as a wasted pick, even if he’s stuck in a backup role for the foreseeable future.
“The first thing you have to say about Jason,” McCarthy said, “is he can play left tackle in this league, and that’s huge. That’s a priority position in my view. That tells you the importance that he has to our offensive line. I think we’re very fortunate we have David, Bryan Bulaga and Jason, so we have three high-quality tackles.”
Not included in those three was Kyle Murphy, a sixth-round pick last year. Murphy is a natural tackle, and his 6-foot-6, 305-pound size is suited for the offensive line’s perimeter. But when asked Tuesday, McCarthy didn’t rule out the possibility of Murphy experimenting at guard.
No matter who replaces Lang, McCarthy said he feels good about his offensive line. Each of the four other starting positions are filled by established players, including second-year starter Lane Taylor, who adequately replaced left guard Josh Sitton.
“We have very good numbers on our offensive line,” McCarthy said. “I really like the offensive line group, and I look for that offensive group to grow both in on-the-field production with their opportunities for a number of different players that are already here, and I look for that group to really step up in the area of leadership.”