Packers confident offensive line can handle loss of T.J. Lang
Fifth in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - When it comes to scrutinizing the decisions of general manager Ted Thompson, the optimal point of reflection on this year’s calendar might be New Year’s Eve, when the Green Bay Packers finish the regular season by visiting the Detroit Lions.
By then, Thompson will be nine months removed from his decision to part ways with a starting guard for the second consecutive year. He waved goodbye to left guard Josh Sitton, a three-time All-Pro, during final cuts at the start of last season. Then he tightened his wallet and watched T.J. Lang, the starting right guard, leave the Packers during free agency to join the Lions, a division rival who flashed more cash.
The fallout of such decisions takes months to unfold. Lane Taylor, who stepped up to replace Sitton in 2016, proved his worth consistently throughout the regular season, causing the questions about his ability to gradually fade. It was an impressive adjustment to life on the front lines that more or less validated Thompson’s decision.
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This year, whoever replaces Lang — and the smart money is on 33-year-old Jahri Evans — should receive the same benefit of the doubt as training camp flows into the regular season. Consider the Packers’ first date with Lang and the Lions a solid checkpoint in early November.
“That’s going to be a long process, I think,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in April. “There’s going to be a healthy competition I would assume. But we’re going to let those guys — give them a lot of opportunities. The key is that cohesion, that chemistry with the line playing together extended time. I think we’re going to need to figure out who that guy is in time, but give them opportunities to jell together. The key is health for those guys, staying healthy and then making plays when they’re in there.”
But by Dec. 31, when the Packers and Lions meet for the second time, perhaps with significant playoff implications as there were in 2016, Thompson will have had plenty of time to reflect on his decision to roll the dice without Lang. He will peer down at the player he wouldn’t pay and judge him against the player(s) taking his place.
“I feel very proud of T.J., very happy for him,” offensive line coach James Campen said in May. “It’s a situation where a young man that has been here a long time, I have a tremendous relationship with him on a personal level. Very proud of what he’s done and what he was able to receive going there. He’ll always be a Packer in my mind and my heart.”
David Bakhtiari (Ht.: 6-4½; Wt.: 315; Age: 24; Acquired: D4-13; College: Colorado)
One decision that Thompson should feel great about is agreeing to a four-year, $49.677 million contract extension with left tackle Bakhtiari last September. Bakhtiari, who is entering his fifth season, has improved in each of the last four years and was named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press in 2016. He has started 62 of 64 regular-season games in his career. He has never missed a playoff game. He fared extremely well in one-on-one matchups with some of the league’s premier pass rushers last season and rarely required help. He allowed fewer “bad” runs than any other offensive lineman on the team.
Put simply, Bakhtiari was a sound investment.
“He’s never satisfied,” Campen said. “He will continue to get better. Now that he’s going into his fifth year, he has a lot of playing time. But David last year got stronger. He made strides with his physique, his physicality, those types of things. Looking for him to be more accomplished in the run game this year, to take another step in that direction. Certainly, there are always things to learn.”
Bryan Bulaga (Ht.: 6-5½; Wt.: 321; Age: 27; Acquired: D1-'10; College: Iowa)
Evans might be the oldest player in the offensive line room, but Bulaga has the most experience in Green Bay. And as Bakhtiari said near the beginning of the offseason program, it’s Bulaga’s room to lead.
Bulaga assumes a leadership role in the wake of a fine season, arguably the best of his career if you ask Rodgers or coach Mike McCarthy. Bulaga reduced his number of “bad” runs from 17 in 2015 to 10 last season. He dropped out of four games with injuries but did not miss a start in a year when the No. 3 tackle was a vulnerability for the Packers. He should not lack for confidence in 2017.
“Bryan’s done a great job in the room and his record speaks for itself, what he’s done in the league, and it’s awesome that I’ve been there,” Bakhtiari said in June. “Because when I was younger, I was looking up to him, too. So for us to now help out, we’re some of the older guys, the longer-tenured guys with the Packers, I think it’s huge for the locker room.”
Jason Spriggs (Ht.: 6-5½; Wt.: 301; Age: 22; Acquired: D2-'16; College: Indiana)
Spriggs played all over the line in 2016 during various relief appearances and starts. He took 31 snaps at tight end, 34 at left tackle, 183 at right guard and 29 at right tackle.
His largest percentage of snaps came at guard due in large part to the broken foot that sidelined Lang for a month from mid-November and mid-December. But in ideal circumstances, Spriggs is — and should continue to be — a swing tackle for the Packers behind both Bakhtiari and Bulaga. He lacked the foundational strength to handle interior linemen last season.
Kyle Murphy (Ht.: 6-6½; Wt.: 308; Age: 22; Acquired: D6-'16; College: Stanford)
Add Murphy to the list of players hoping to win the starting spot at right guard.
Though he played tackle in college, Murphy said as early as March that he wanted to take reps inside during organized team activities and minicamp. McCarthy furthered the idea by telling reporters Murphy would likely work more at guard than tackle during May and June.
Come training camp, Murphy’s distribution of snaps between the two positions will be a clear indication of what the Packers thought of his efforts.
Don Barclay (Ht.: 6-4; Wt.: 310; Age: 27; Acquired: FA-'12; College: West Virginia)
The Packers re-signed Barclay to a one-year deal worth up to $1.3 million. His importance surged following the inevitable departure of center JC Tretter, who took a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Cleveland Browns.
It means that Barclay is now the backup center behind starter Corey Linsley, who has missed 10 regular-season games in the last two years due to injury. Barclay must be ready to play.
Lane Taylor (Ht.: 6-3; Wt.: 320; Age: 26; Acquired: FA-'13; College: Oklahoma State)
The unassuming and even-keeled Taylor played 96 percent of snaps in his first season as a starter and held up admirably despite a cloud of media attention. He led the team in “bad” runs with 13 and gave up 28½ pressures, but there was nary a hint of trepidation or uneasiness throughout the season.
“What I’ve noticed this year is he’s a lot more confident,” Campen said. “Obviously when you play, you gain that confidence, but he’s actually helping the younger guys in the room. That’s very encouraging to see him do that because Lane is a fundamentally sound player. He’s had to come up as a free agent and do the things necessary to start. So certainly he’s a good person to follow in that room.”
Jahri Evans (Ht.: 6-4; Wt.: 318; Age: 33; Acquired: FA-'17; College: Bloomsburg)
Upon his arrival, Evans became the oldest player in the Packers’ locker room, narrowly edging out Rodgers, the man he will try to protect this season. The five-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler is the odds-on favorite to win the job at right guard.
Evans was an unrestricted free agent after a stellar career in New Orleans and signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Packers that is fairly heavy on incentives. He will have to prove his worth. The contract included a $1.15 million base salary, a $200,000 signing bonus, up to $800,000 in weekly roster bonuses, a $100,000 workout bonus and $250,000 in incentives.
“I was just waiting on a phone call from a team like Green Bay,” Evans said in May. “They came calling and I came, and it worked out well. I wasn’t going to play for a team that didn’t have a chance to win. I would rather just wait until somebody that had a chance to win needed me. It worked out well. I’m happy.”
Lucas Patrick (Ht.: 6-3½; Wt.: 313; Age: 23; Acquired: FA-'16; College: Duke)
Patrick battled with Murphy for the final spot on the 53-man roster last season. Though he was frustrated to be cut, Patrick quickly re-signed as a member of the practice squad and stayed there, impressing the coaches throughout the year.
He joins Murphy on the list of players who will compete for the starting job at right guard.
Kofi Amichia (Ht.: 6-3½; Wt.: 308; Age: 22; Acquired: D6-'17; College: South Florida)
Amichia played tackle at South Florida but knew he would be moving inside at the next level, tailoring his pre-draft training to focus mostly on guard and center. He is an intriguing prospect due largely to terrific athleticism: 4.98 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a vertical leap of 33½ inches and a broad jump of 9 feet, 6 inches.
Should he make the team, Amichia would offer a third option at center behind Linsley and Barclay.
Geoff Gray (Ht.: 6-5½; Wt.: 315; Age: 22; Acquired: FA-'17; College: Manitoba)
Gray, who played at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, was described as a “good get” for the Packers as an undrafted free agent, according to an executive in personnel whose team had given Gray a sixth-round grade.
Taylor is the only solidified guard on the roster, so there are spots to be won on the interior.
Adam Pankey (Ht.: 6-4½; Wt.: 312; Age: 23; Acquired: FA-'17; College: West Virginia)
Pankey was a three-year starter at West Virginia, splitting time between left tackle and left guard. He chose the Packers in part because of their obvious need along the offensive line. He would like to be considered for the right guard spot as well.
Pankey took reps at both guard and tackle during OTAs and minicamp.
Justin McCray (Ht.: 6-3 1/8; Wt.: 317; Age: 25; Acquired: FA-'17; College: Central Florida)
McCray signed with the Packers in March to continue an interesting career path. He was originally an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans in 2014 and spent the year on their practice squad. However, his most recent experience came with the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League.
Thomas Evans (Ht.: 6-3; Wt.: 310; Age: 23; Acquired: FA-'17; College: Richmond)
Evans is an incredible weightlifter. His top marks include 525 pounds on the bench press, a 690-pound squat and 425 pounds in the power clean.
“I’m actually considered the strongest guy to come through the University of Richmond,” Evans said in May. “I say that in the humblest way possible. I’m a big fan of the weight room.”
Robert Leff (Ht.: 6-5; Wt.: 302; Age: 23; Acquired: FA-'17; College: Auburn)
Leff signed with the Packers in June, a month after the first wave of undrafted free agents. He spent a month with the Falcons earlier this year and was released June 2.
Corey Linsley (Ht.: 6-2½; Wt.: 297; Age: 25; Acquired: D5-'14; College: Ohio State)
With Tretter in Cleveland, Linsley is the unquestioned starter for the first time in his career, even though he’s started 38 games in the last three years. A torn hamstring sidelined him from May through mid-October in 2016, but Linsley responded with a very strong second half of the season. He finished with 62.2 percent playing time while allowing 8½ “bad” runs and 9½ pressures.
Unfortunately, injuries seem like a perpetual issue for Linsley, and it’s possible he will begin training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list next week. Linsley underwent ankle surgery during the offseason and did not participate in OTAs or minicamp.
McCarthy was not concerned about Linsley’s long-term availability.
“I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be [ready for training camp],” McCarthy said in June. “Unless he has some type of setback.”