Packers looking at in-house solutions to offensive line problems
Fifth in a series of nine position previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' 2018 training camp.
GREEN BAY — If only half an offensive line counted toward a team’s success, the Green Bay Packers would do just fine this season.
The left side of the Packers' line is one of the team’s clear strengths entering 2018. It is bolstered by left tackle David Bakhtiari, as fine a blindside blocker as any in the NFL. Left guard Lane Taylor has proven to be a solid starter after replacing All-Pro Josh Sitton two years ago. In the middle, center Corey Linsley earned a three-year, $25.5 million extension after playing every snap in 2017.
Together, the trio forms one of the better left sides of any NFL offensive line. Just one problem: the right side.
In order of distress, the Packers enter camp with significant unknowns at right tackle and right guard. It was surprising that new general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted just one offensive lineman, and fifth-rounder Cole Madison projects more as an interior lineman than tackle in the NFL. While starting right tackle remains wide open, the Packers have some comfort in sliding Justin McCray into the right guard slot.
Competition along the offensive line isn’t limited to a pair of starting jobs, though. Behind Bakhtiari, Taylor and Linsley, every spot remains unfilled. The Packers have a wealth of young, developmental talent, but very few proven linemen.
Roster locks: David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley.
Good bet: Justin McCray.
On the bubble: Bryan Bulaga, Kyle Murphy, Jason Spriggs, Lucas Patrick, Byron Bell, Cole Madison, Adam Pankey, Dillon Day.
Long shots: Kofi Amichia, Austin Davis, Ethan Cooper, Alex Light.
Biggest offseason move
The Packers' two primary acquisitions were Madison (draft) and Bell (free agency), but their offseason was better highlighted by what they didn’t do. Namely, the Packers opted not to spend a high draft pick on a right tackle, not to re-sign veteran guard Jahri Evans and not to release the injured Bulaga. Retaining Bulaga was especially notable, as it indicates the Packers aren’t sold on any candidate to replace him on their roster. Instead, the Packers seem poised to hold onto Bulaga as long as they can, knowing they can stash him on the physically unable to perform list while he recovers from his torn ACL. If Bulaga starts on PUP, he wouldn’t require a spot on the 53 to start the season.
Pretty much every spot behind starting left tackle, left guard and center is a battle, but starting right tackle is the big one. At right tackle, the Packers badly want either Jason Spriggs or Kyle Murphy to seize the vacancy and not look back. Spriggs, a second-round pick in 2016, would be the preferred choice, but his career has been marked by injuries and disappointing play when healthy. Murphy, a sixth-round pick in 2016, has also had injury issues after playing only three games last season because of a broken foot. The Packers signed Bell seemingly for insurance if Spriggs and Murphy can’t hold down the position until Bulaga returns. Bell was a starting right tackle early in his career, but played as a backup last year in Dallas.
Keep an eye on
McCray could ease some of the Packers' offensive line angst if he secures the starting right guard job without difficulty. Still, it isn’t guaranteed McCray will seamlessly step into a starting role after serving as a super sub in 2017. While right guard is McCray’s natural position, he played only one snap there last season. The rest of the year was spent rotating between right tackle and left guard. McCray took exclusive first-team reps at right guard this spring, and he’s the clear favorite to win the job, but it’s worth monitoring his transition back to his natural position. If McCray falters, Lucas Patrick won’t be far behind.
How many offensive linemen will the Packers keep on their initial 53? As it was a year ago, they’ll have some tough choices to make when deciding how many to carry out of training camp. Entering last season, former GM Ted Thompson cast a large net with 10 offensive linemen comprising almost 20 percent of their initial roster. It certainly isn’t out of the question for the Packers to keep that many again, and they were well served to keep so many last season because of injuries. Regardless, in a game increasingly built on speed, keeping so many big guys isn’t ideal. Will Gutekunst make the tough decisions his predecessor avoided last season? Stay tuned.
Bulaga will end the season as the Packers' starting right tackle. That could change if either Spriggs or Murphy prove in camp they are ready to secure the job for good, or if Bulaga hits a bump in his recovery. But so far, Gutekunst and coach Mike McCarthy have said all feedback from Bulaga’s medical situation is positive. If the Packers were going to release Bulaga, they likely would have done it by now. The mere fact he remains on the team suggests the Packers still view him as an asset, one that could factor into their long-term plans.