In Aaron Rodgers era, Packers find success turning tackles into guards
GREEN BAY - Perhaps Sam Seale, the West regional scout for the Green Bay Packers, was playing coy with reporters during last week’s draft when he scuttled a question about the organization’s tendency to convert college offensive tackles to guards. The Packers had recently used a fifth-round pick on Cole Madison, a short-armed tackle from Washington State, and reporters quickly drew the line from A to B.
“I don't know what the coaches are going to do with Madison,” Seale said during a news conference at Lambeau Field. “I don't know if he's a guard or a tackle. All I know is I went into the school and I wrote a report and I just liked his versatility. From watching film, he played all across the line of scrimmage. I think that's a benefit for him.”
Whatever predilection Seale sought to protect was quickly acknowledged by his Wisconsin-based colleagues, with both director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan and general manager Brian Gutekunst affirming the theory that Madison, who made all 47 of his collegiate starts at right tackle, projects as an interior lineman in the NFL.
“If you pin me down,” Sullivan said, “he’s probably going to start at guard.”
“We see him as a versatile inside guard/tackle swing type of guy,” Gutekunst added.
Converting college tackles to guards has become a cornerstone of the franchise in the Aaron Rodgers era, a pass-heavy, run-less epoch dating to 2008. The footwork and athleticism required of tackles have translated well to an offense built around Rodgers’ ability to extend plays, and the scouting department has responded by placing a cocoon of former tackles around opening-day centers Jason Spitz, Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Corey Linsley and JC Tretter.
Beginning in 2008, which was Rodgers’ first year as a starting quarterback, the Packers have entered their regular-season openers with six different starters at guard: Daryn Colledge (LG from '08-2010); Tony Moll (RG in ’08); Josh Sitton (RG from ’09-2012 and LG from 2013-15); T.J. Lang (LG from 2011-12 and RG from 2013-16); Lane Taylor (LG from 2016-present) and Jahri Evans (RG in 2017).
Of those six, Taylor is the only player who never started at tackle in college.
“I think the thought process there is if you can play out on the edge — whether you’re left tackle, right tackle — from an athletic skill-set standpoint, you’ve got to have feet out there and that kind of thing,” Sullivan said. “It’s kind of like corners and safeties: You’ll start a guy at corner and let him fail there before you kick him inside to safety. And it’s kind of the same thought process with tackles and guards. We like taking tackles if we can and moving them inside because they’ve proved that they can play out there in space and do some things athletically that are strenuous, if you will.”
The drafting of Madison reshapes the competition at right guard and likely closes the door on Evans, whose contract expired in March and, at age 34, has not committed to playing next season should the Packers or anyone else be interested. But even without him, there are ample choices: Madison, Justin McCray, Lucas Patrick and Adam Pankey will all jockey for reps during the next few months. Perhaps Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy will enter the fray as well if starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga remains ahead of schedule in his recovery from a torn ACL.
“I’ve heard the same reports: that (Bulaga) is doing excellent, he’s way ahead of schedule,” Gutekunst said. “Again, those are big injuries. He’s fought through those things before; we expect him to do that again. But yeah, we expect him to be a part of our team.”
At 6-5 ¼ and 308 pounds, Madison has the profile of an offensive tackle on paper. His metrics compare favorably with those of Spriggs (6-5½, 301), Murphy (6-6½, 308) and left tackle David Bakhtiari (6-4½, 315). But with short arms (32¼ inches) and a massive chest, Madison has the optics of an NFL guard. He told reporters the majority of teams projected him as a guard with only a few willing to explore his abilities at tackle.
It was Madison's lower body, though, that caught the attention of Seale and enticed the Packers' scouting department. Madison developed lateral quickness and footwork as a four-year basketball player at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, Washington, where he fluctuated between shooting guard and small forward. He was mobile enough to play receiver and tight end on the football field.
The multisport experience appealed to Seale, just as it does for coach Mike McCarthy, who has long been a proponent of athletes trying their hands at different disciplines.
“That's what I look for as an athlete, (to see) if you played more than one sport,” Seale said. “He's played basketball and in basketball you play defense, you've got to get low, you've got to stay in your stance and he can do all of that. For a big man, he can bend. To be a guard, you've got to be able to bend and he can do it all.”
If Madison finds success on the interior of the offensive line, his career will mirror that of Tretter, who is now the starting center for the Cleveland Browns. Tretter arrived at Cornell as a 238-pound tight end with a background in basketball. He gained more than 60 pounds in four years before switching to offensive line and finishing his career as an All-American left tackle. In the pros, Tretter became an invaluable utility player for the Packers with starts at both center and left tackle.
Madison, meanwhile, was recruited to Washington State as a tight end and didn't make the switch to tackle until his second season on campus. He added roughly 75 pounds from 2014 through the present — “I thought I put on some good weight, nothing too sloppy,” Madison said — while starting every game the past three seasons. Madison remains a few pounds light for guard, but the athleticism is already there.
“I look for the length and I look for the strength,” Seale said. “(I want to know) if a kid has versatility and if a kid is competitive because at guard you need a mean person. I think he's a mean guy. I think he has the ability to hunker down and open the hole on the inside.”
From outside in, the trend continues.