Packers have stronger protection plan at guard this time

Rob Reischel
Special to Packer Plus
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Packers guard Lane Taylor became a starter last season and provided solid pass protection for Aaron Rodgers.

Green Bay — Ted Thompson had been the Green Bay Packers general manager for all of about five minutes.

It was January 2005, and Thompson had inherited an aging, declining roster from Mike Sherman. Worse yet, a handful of rotten contracts were about to send the Packers into salary cap hell.

As Thompson studied his roster and crunched every possible number, he came to the conclusion that letting Pro Bowl guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera leave in free agency was his only option. As painful as that was, Thompson’s succession plan was even worse.

Thompson signed oft-injured Adrian Klemm in free agency to replace Wahle at left guard. Klemm was soft, consistently overpowered and replaced at midseason by converted center Scott Wells.

The other side was even worse, where players like journeyman Matt O’Dwyer, Grey Ruegamer and Kevin Barry all failed and the coaching staff was forced to play green-as-grass rookie Will Whitticker. Amazingly, Whitticker — a seventh-round draft choice who made 14 starts in 2005 — was out of football by the following season.

Without serviceable guards, quarterback Brett Favre was under siege all season, the offense sputtered and Green Bay went 4-12 — its worst mark since 1991.

“I would be lying to you if I said I thought I was that replaceable in that offense or if Marco thought he was that replaceable,” Wahle said that season.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2016, and in a bizarre case of déjà vu, Thompson faced virtually the identical crisis once again.

Pro Bowl guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton were in the final year of their contracts. Thompson came to the decision that re-signing either player was unlikely.

Only now, instead of going to the scrap heap for players like Klemm, Whitticker, O’Dwyer and Ruegamer, Thompson had a far better plan. A plan that should keep Green Bay’s offense running at peak performance this time around.

Packers guard Jahri Evans started all 16 games for the Saints last year.

Thompson released Sitton in September 2016, when differences between the right guard and the organization became untenable. Thompson and Green Bay’s coaches thought enough of veteran Lane Taylor to plug him in at left guard, and Taylor responded with a solid season.

Then in March, Lang signed a three-year, $28.5 million deal in Detroit with $19 million fully guaranteed. Thompson responded by signing six-time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans, who despite turning 34 this week, has played at a high level all summer.

Thompson wouldn’t admit he learned any specific lessons from the debacle of 2005 that helped his this time around. But he clearly gleaned some knowledge.

“Ah, nothing other than it’s bad when you lose players,” Thompson said. “Um, we didn’t learn anything. Certainly we hoped that we’d get better and grow and mature as personnel guys and managers of men here. And I think we do. I think we anticipate things a little bit more.”

That’s been clear all summer long.

Granted, the Taylor-Evans combination might not play at the level the Sitton-Lang duo did during their prime. Then again, the Packers don’t need a pair of Pro Bowl guards for their offense to function at a high level.

They just need solid, dependable performances — something Evans and Taylor seem almost certain to provide.

“I’m very happy,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think our offensive line will compete to be one of the best lines in the National Football League. We’re early in the process. Lane Taylor is having an excellent training camp. He’s clearly having the best camp of his career. He’s really solidified the left guard position, he accomplished that in my view during last season. And Jahri, he’s playing good football for us.”

The 27-year-old Taylor was thrust into a starting role last year after the surprise release of Sitton. And because Taylor was more than up to the challenge, Green Bay fielded the NFL’s top pass blocking offensive line.

Taylor (6-3, 324) was strong at the point of attack and never seemed out of place. This summer, Taylor has played with more confidence and has been even better.

“There always is a point when you get comfortable and the player makes you comfortable and you go, ‘Whoa, OK, he’s pretty good here, he could fill in here or he could become a starter here,’ ” Packers offensive line coach James Campen said of Taylor. “There’s always a point. You fall in love in quick and then they hurt you a little bit and then you fall back in love. It’s one of those things with players.”

When the Packers wouldn’t pay Lang what Detroit did, Thompson recovered much quicker than he did in 2005.

Thompson knew the 2017 NFL draft was weak on the interior, and finding Lang’s replacement there might be tough. So Thompson signed Evans — the top remaining guard in free agency — to a one year, $2.25 million deal.

The 6-foot-4, 318-pound Evans has 169 career starts and started all 16 games for New Orleans last season. Evans isn't the player who signed a seven-year, $56.7 million deal in 2010 that made him the NFL’s highest-paid guard. But early returns have been positive, and the Packers believe he’ll play quality football.

“A couple of practices ago, I asked him how he was feeling, and he said he was feeling good,” Campen said of Evans. “I said I might try to take some reps off you. He said, ‘Coach, I’m a worker. You do what you think you need to do.’ I said ‘OK.’ Then you go see Bryan, Bryan’s like, ‘No, I want to get work with him.’ So he hasn’t had very many reps off.

“He’s solid, he wants to work. He came in – I won’t tell you his weight — but you can clearly see he looks terrific. Again I go back to when he first got here, he made the statement to me said ‘I want to be coached. Don’t assume that I know everything because of what I’ve done in the past.’ He does not live in the past whatsoever.

“He’s brought instant credibility into the room not only by his presence and what he’s done in the past, but how he communicates with everyone. He dives right in. I mean, heck he asks questions that rookies would ask because he wants to know why: ‘Why does it work this way and what do I do if this happens?’ He’s been very professional and … he’s a joy to be around. He’s a professional. He’s a true pro.”

Interestingly, Thompson could find himself right back in this same position in the spring of 2018.

Taylor is in the final year of his rookie contract. Evans signed just a one-year deal in April.

Seven months from now, Thompson might be hunting for two starting guards once again.

But for today, Thompson and the Packers seem to have a pair of guards that are capable of big things. It’s a far cry from 2005, when a lack of both planning and execution at that position played a large role in Green Bay’s demise.

“I think we’re going to be just fine in there,” Packers center Corey Linsley said. “Obviously, we haven’t played any games yet and we have a lot of work to still do.

“But we saw last year what Lane can do. And Jahri has played at a high level for a long time. I’m excited about the possibilities.”

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