Injuries create openings on Packers' offensive line
Fourth in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series.
GREEN BAY – The success of an NFL offensive line often hinges on its overall health. The unit consists of five parts working as one, placing a premium on cohesion.
Action flows swiftly in the trenches, often requiring nonverbal communication to avoid breakdowns. The best offensive lines limit personnel changes, keeping the same five players on the field.
So it was surprising that a Green Bay Packers offensive line riddled with injuries from the start of the 2017 season somehow managed to be perhaps the best position on the offense. Offensive line coach James Campen earned his postseason promotion to run-game coordinator, finding a way to make a patchwork unit function like a seasoned group.
That the Packers finished with the fifth-most sacks allowed in the NFL (51) was misleading. The transition from two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers to Brett Hundley, a first-time starter who often struggled to see the rush, was difficult. As badly as Hundley fared, imagine how much worse things might have been without a strong offensive line to support him.
There was little reason to expect the Packers’ offensive line could weather injuries as well as it did. David Bakhtiari, the unit’s best player, tore his hamstring in the Packers’ opener against Seattle and was lost for the next four games. A preseason ankle injury and midseason torn ACL limited Bryan Bulaga to five starts. Backup tackles Jason Spriggs (hamstring) and Kyle Murphy (left foot) spent time on injured reserve.
It forced the Packers to use eight different offensive line configurations in their first eight games, finishing with 10 on the season. They never played an entire game with their preferred five starters of Bakthiari and Bulaga at tackle, Lane Taylor and Jahri Evans at guard and Corey Linsley at center.
The impact of those injuries lingered into the offseason, giving new general manager Brian Gutekunst work to do on his offensive line. Here’s how the unit looks entering the spring:
Among the game’s most important positions is left tackle, and the Packers have one of the NFL’s best. Bakhtiari, who won’t turn 27 until September, is in position to be Rodgers’ blindside blocker for the rest of the MVP quarterback’s career.
As good as the left side of the Packers’ offensive line should be in the foreseeable future, the right side needs work. It will be open auditions this offseason for the Packers’ right tackle job. Every in-house contender is coming off a major injury. As well as Justin McCray played filling in wherever needed, he took only one snap at right guard, the position he might need to play in 2018. The Packers will enter the spring with 40 percent of their offensive line unfilled, the most open competition they’ve had in recent years.
Given the choice between right tackle and right guard, the tackle slot should be the priority. For one, it’s a more prominent position, harder to camouflage deficiencies. McCray also gave the Packers more reason to believe he’s capable of starting there, even if that isn’t ultimately the role he’s best suited to fill. With an influx of compensatory picks, it wouldn’t be surprising for the Packers to draft a pair of offensive linemen this spring. It would be surprising if they didn’t more aggressively target a tackle.
David Bakhtiari: With Rodgers absent for half the season, Bakhtiari was the Packers’ best player in 2017. In his fifth season, the former fourth-round pick established himself as one of the best blindside blockers in football. Named second-team All-Pro for the second straight season. Always had raw athleticism to excel at the position, but has come a long way with his technique. Makes very few mistakes. Excellent footwork and hands. Led all tackles in pass-blocking efficiency with 12 total pressures (one sack, two hits, nine hurries) in 455 pass-block snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. “I think he’s a top five, six tackle,” one scout said. Matured as a leader on the offensive line, a necessary role to fill with the recent departures of guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. Grade: A-
Bryan Bulaga: His future is murky after a torn ACL in his right knee forced him to miss the season’s final eight games. Made only five starts with preseason ankle injury knocking him out of the first two games. Turns 29 in March. “I expect him to bounce back from that,” offensive line coach James Campen said during the season. Recovery won’t be easy for Bulaga, who tore his left ACL in 2013. Grade: C-
Dillon Day: Signed to 53-man roster off the Denver Broncos practice squad Dec. 20, he gave the Packers a backup center by trade, something they lacked through the season’s first 14 games. Originally signed with Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 2015, he spent time on the active roster in Denver and Indianapolis. He was coached by newly hired Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin with the Colts. Grade: Incomplete
Jahri Evans: Best addition from Ted Thompson’s unprecedented free-agent spending spree. Thompson didn’t sign a difference maker last offseason, but in Evans the Packers added the type of position-specific solution that makes free agency valuable. Signed days before the draft, Evans ensured right guard would not be a problem in the wake of Pro Bowler Lang’s departure. Played every snap through first 14 games before a knee contusion forced him to miss the final two after the Packers were eliminated from playoff contention. “His body’s beat up,” one scout said. Evans said after the finale that he’s considering retirement after 14 seasons. Grade: C
Ulrick John: Signed in late September off Arizona’s practice squad to provide emergency depth when injuries decimated tackle depth chart early in season. First action came in Minnesota when he replaced the injured Bulaga at right tackle for the final 32 snaps. Played eight snaps combined as the third tight end in three games (at Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, at Detroit). A seventh-round pick by the Colts in 2014, drafted out of Georgia State. Played two games with the Miami Dolphins in 2015. Started three games with the Cardinals in 2016. Will have to fight for a roster spot. Grade: D-
Corey Linsley: In the final season of his rookie contract, he showed enough to remain a big part of the Packers’ future plans. Signed three-year, $25.5 million extension, a deal announced one day before the season finale. New money ranks eighth among NFL centers in average yearly salary, according to Over the Cap. Earned the contract with not only solid play, but availability. After missing half of the 2016 season after hamstring surgery and three games in 2015 with an ankle injury that required surgery, he was the only player on the Packers’ roster to not miss a snap last season. Good power in run game, athletic enough to hold up in pass protection. Smart, reliable communicator along interior. Grade: B
Justin McCray: Showed enough to establish himself as frontrunner for the Packers’ starting right guard spot in 2018 if Evans doesn’t return, but might be a better fit off the bench. “Great backup,” a scout said. Showed versatility as an injury replacement in seven starts, with five coming at right tackle and two at left guard. He’d never played tackle before this past season. “Inclined to say backup,” another scout said. “But wouldn’t bet against the kid.” Grade: C
Kyle Murphy: Ideal size for the tackle position, Murphy (6-6, 305) missed 13 games after being placed on injured reserve in late September following foot surgery. Started first three games because of other injuries at tackle and played well in the first two. Held up reasonably well at left tackle Week 2 at Atlanta but struggled mightily against Cincinnati Bengals rookie Carl Lawson in Week 3, allowing two sacks. Should enter this offseason ahead of Jason Spriggs on tackle depth chart. Grade: D+
Adam Pankey: Undrafted rookie from West Virginia was promoted from the practice squad when defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois was released in surprising move. He was active for only five of his 15 games on the roster, and his only snap came on special teams in the finale at Detroit. Has a lot of work ahead of him to crack 53-man roster. Grade: Incomplete
Lucas Patrick: After spending 2016 on the Packers’ practice squad, he cracked the 53-man roster out of training camp in 201. Most impressive moment came in Week 16 when, one snap into the game against Minnesota, Spriggs was lost to a knee injury. Patrick played well the rest of the game at right guard, with McCray moving to right tackle. Has a nasty streak that serves him well. Packers also worked him at center. Figures to add depth as interior backup. Grade: D+
Jason Spriggs: Enters a career crossroads offseason in 2018. Drafted to be a third tackle, interchangeable on left or right side, but has yet to justify Packers’ decision to trade up in 2016 second round for him. Missed nine games after tearing his hamstring blocking on an extra point in the season opener. Started four games at right tackle before a dislocated kneecap suffered on the first snap in Week 16 ended his season. Injury won’t require surgery but could keep him out until training camp, which isn’t ideal after a disastrous second season. Grade: D-
Lane Taylor: Signed a three-year, $16.5 million extension six days before the season opener. A mainstay on the left side, he only missed one game and parts of two others. Showed versatility by making two starts at left tackle. His play at left guard has made the Packers’ decision to release Sitton look much better in hindsight. Compensates for limited athletic ability with consistently solid play and didn’t commit a penalty all season. Grade: B-