Packers must develop young OL depth
Second in a series looking at the Packers’ key issues entering organized team activities next week:
GREEN BAY – In what amounted to a buzzer-beater signing, the Green Bay Packers settled their starting offensive line one day before the NFL draft.
General manager Ted Thompson signed former New Orleans Saints Pro Bowler Jahri Evans to be the Packers’ starting right guard, replacing T.J. Lang. Evans, who turns 34 in August, might not be the same dominant blocker he was in his prime, when he received four first-team All-Pro selections and six Pro Bowl nods. But the Packers expect their right guard position to be settled.
“We feel really good about our group,” director of football operations Eliot Wolf said after the draft. “Adding Evans was awesome. He played at a high level last year, really durable, tons of experience.
“He played really well last year in a pass-happy offense, as we are sometimes, in New Orleans.”
Wolf said he still believes offensive line is a strength on the Packers’ roster, as it was last season. That seemed unlikely after free agency. In the past 12 months, the Packers lost a pair of Pro Bowl guards in Lang and Josh Sitton.
But Evans completes a starting offensive line in which none of the five positions are subpar. Left tackle David Bakhtiari was selected as a second-team All-Pro last season, becoming one of the NFL’s best blindside blockers. Lane Taylor replaced Sitton capably at left guard. Center Corey Linsley enters the final year of his rookie contract having started 45 games counting playoffs in his first three seasons. And right tackle Bryan Bulaga had the best season of his six-year career, starting all 16 games for the first time.
Regardless, injuries can quickly make any good offensive line vulnerable. The Packers saw that first hand in 2015, when injuries decimated the top line of their depth chart. Depth is important at all positions on the roster, but none more so than offensive line.
And depth is a big question as the Packers enter next week’s organized team activities.
With Evans signed, the Packers could hurt more from JC Tretter’s departure than Lang’s. Tretter didn’t get the same accolades, but he was a starting-caliber player who signed a three-year contract to be the Cleveland Browns’ starting center this offseason. As a backup, Tretter gave the Packers someone who could step in and competently play every position on the offensive line.
Now, it’s uncertain whether the Packers have all five spots covered with suitable backups. Coach Mike McCarthy believes 2016 second-rounder Jason Spriggs can line up on the left side. The interior, where Tretter was best, is more unsettled.
Don Barclay will have every chance to win the top backup spot at center and guard. Once a tackle, starting 14 games in 2013 after Bulaga tore his ACL, Barclay has been primarily an interior lineman since his own torn ACL in 2014. But his play was inconsistent the past two seasons, leaving open the possibility a younger lineman could take his spot on the 53-man roster.
And there are plenty of younger linemen in Green Bay.
Most notable is 2016 sixth-round pick Kyle Murphy. A natural tackle, Murphy will get reps primarily at right guard this offseason, McCarthy said. His rookie season was effectively a redshirt year, with Murphy playing only three games.
A better fit at guard – and possibly center – is sixth-round rookie Kofi Amichia. A left tackle at South Florida during each of the past two seasons, the 6-foot-3 1/2, 308-pound Amichia is more than two inches shorter than Murphy. Being lower to the ground makes it easier to gain leverage against defensive tackles.
Amichia’s value will increase significantly if he can play center. Other than Linsley, Jacob Flores is the only other center listed on the Packers' roster. Barclay is listed as a guard and tackle.
The Packers also are stocked with interior linemen who weren’t drafted. Among them, rookies Adam Pankey and Geoff Gray join 2016 signee Lucas Patrick as prospects who can make an offseason run at a roster spot.
The spring OTAs won’t decide anything for the Packers’ offensive line depth. Far from it. This time of year is about mental reps, taking the classroom work onto the practice field. Not until the pads come on in training camp will coaches see the physical part of the game.
And offensive line is about physicality.
Yet with so much inexperience, the next few weeks will be an important starting point. The Packers must develop their depth behind a solid starting five. They don’t want to be stuck in another dire situation like they were in 2015.