Olivia Reiner and Tom Silverstein analyze a New York Jets' play that highlights quarterback Sam Darnold's mobility out of the pocket. Olivia Reiner, PackersNews
GREEN BAY – There are some critical areas of the football team Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst must punch up so that the next head coach, regardless of where his expertise lies, can be successful in 2019.
None may be more important than the offensive line.
Over the course of the season, discussions with current and former college and NFL coaches and executives about what’s wrong with the 5-8-1 Packers most often turn to the offense and the play upfront.
Few can pinpoint exactly where the problem is.
Some point to the gaping hole at right guard, which Gutekunst foresaw and tried to repair by drafting Cole Madison in the fifth round and signing veteran Byron Bell in free agency. Madison looked promising in the offseason, but personal issues that affected the rookie’s ability to concentrate on football led to him taking the year off.
Gutekunst was hoping second-year pro Justin McCray would build off a promising first season, but he regressed, and the aging Bell assumed the starting position after just three games. Bell fought like a tiger and gave the Packers everything he had, but age and injuries limited his effectiveness before a knee injury ended his season.
On the same side of the line, veteran Bryan Bulaga was coming off ACL surgery and had a limited amount of training camp to get ready for the season. He was rusty out of the gate and gave up 4½ sacks in the first six games.
He played better as the season went on and managed to start every game until injuring his knee against Arizona. During the season, he battled back and knee injuries that may have affected his mobility and forward drive.
At left guard, Lane Taylor was coming off ankle surgery that kept him out of OTAs and later in the season suffered thigh and ankle injuries. After allowing just a pair of sacks in 2017, Taylor struggled in the middle of the year when the Packers were facing their most difficult defensive challenges.
There’s no shame in giving up sacks and pressures to the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald, New England’s Adrian Clayborn and Minnesota’s Sheldon Richardson, especially on the road. But it was disconcerting to see some of Taylor’s struggles with quickness and stunts, which the Packers seemed to see a lot of this season.
The big question Gutekunst faces is how far he goes in addressing the offensive line.
Does he use his first draft pick, which could be in the top 10 if the Packers lose to the New York Jets on Sunday and the Detroit Lions the week after? It’s not a great draft at the top for tackles and a lot of times the best athletes at the position have played in spread offenses and may never make it in the NFL.
Does he go after a free-agent starter like Chicago’s Bobby Massie or Carolina’s Darryl Williams?
Does he spend multiple picks on offensive linemen later in the draft and hope they develop quickly under a new coaching staff? Does he continue to add young offensive linemen like Madison and let them compete with Bulaga, Bell, McCray, Jason Spriggs and Lucas Patrick?
First, Gutekunst has to evaluate his own line.
It performed well in the run game, but it never got a chance to see how far it could go because former coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers too often abandoned it. As good as running back Aaron Jones was (5.5-yard average), he didn’t do it without the help of the line.
The trio of Jones, Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery averaged 4.66 yards per carry over the first 14 games of the season.
In the pass game, figuring out who is responsible for sacks and pressures is difficult because Rodgers bails out of the pocket time after time, often choosing to run even when there are easy completions in front of him.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley have had good years. Bakhtiari has allowed about the same number of sacks he did a year ago and Linsley is having his best year in protection. He has not had a single penalty called on him after getting called for holding five times last season.
At the same time, it wouldn’t be far off to say that Rodgers is responsible for a dozen or more of the 46 sacks the Packers have allowed this season (tied for fourth most in the NFL). There are times he holds the ball so long waiting for a big play to open, even the best offensive lineman couldn’t keep an opponent at bay that long.
"There’s a lot more into it than with that basic drop-back passer who stays in one spot,” Bulaga said. “I think it’s different in every situation. Like if you look around, (Kansas City’s Patrick) Mahomes, he moves around like Aaron, these guys who can manipulate the pocket and get themselves in and out.
“It’s different. It’s just different.”
It also means Gutekunst can’t just draft any guy and plug him into the system. If the quarterback were Peyton Manning and the line knew he was going to be in the pocket until the whistle blew, they wouldn’t be unknowingly guiding their opponent into the quarterback, which often happens with Rodgers.
There are going to be some tackles with long arms and great feet that Gutekunst is going to have to bypass because they aren’t smart enough or mobile enough to handle all the changes Rodgers makes at the line of scrimmage and the number of plays he extends.
“It’s like DBs vs. a scrambling quarterback,” interim coach Joe Philbin said. “They have to stay with the play and they have to continue and play everything until the whistle.
“Offensive linemen in our system have to do the same thing. It’s sometimes hard to orchestrate because you can’t always predict when that extension of the play is going to occur. We certainly get reps at it in practice. The guys have some concept with it but, again, they don’t have eyes in the back of their head, either.”
It’s not to say that the linemen don’t benefit from having a guy like Rodgers at quarterback. When he’s healthy, he manipulates the pocket and escapes sacks as well as anyone in the NFL.
Bakhtiari said there are occasions that Rodgers bails him out.
“There’s times where we’ll get beat from a point, but Aaron will be able to manipulate the guy and put the guy back on you,” Bakhtiari said. “The way he moves in the pocket, he’ll make a guy pull up and then get back off him and then we can get back on him.”
“(He has that) ability when a guy does get beat, he can get out of the pocket and move around. It can be a double-edged sword.”
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It’s why rebuilding the offensive line isn’t as easy as just drafting the top available offensive linemen. Former general manager Ted Thompson mostly drafted left tackles and then tried them at other positions, figuring he was getting the most athletic guy from that college team’s offensive line.
It worked in many cases. But another consideration now is whether the player can adjust to a pro-style offense given the number of spread offenses being run in college.
“That’s the way college football is going, spread offense, not a pro-style deal,” Bulaga said. “You have to look at the teams that really run pro-style. I mean, I’m going to brag and say Iowa. Wisconsin does it. Alabama does it, Notre Dame does it. Linemen that come out of those schools normally transition very well.
"Look at the two Notre Dame kids this year, (Quenton) Nelson and (Mike) McGlinchey. They were in a program that did very similar things to what San Francisco (McGlinchey) does and what Indy (Nelson) does and it translates well.”
There’s a chance Gutekunst will decide not to keep the 29-year-old Bulaga so he can take $6.75 million off the salary cap and let Bell walk. But he must know he has replacements. Spriggs, McCray and Patrick haven’t proved to be big upgrades and there isn’t anyone else on the roster better than Bulaga.
As badly as he’d like to inject new blood on the right side, he might feel it necessary to keep Bulaga around, even at his $8.35 salary-cap number. If he finds a free agent better than Bulaga, he could go in that direction,
There could be some talent on the street. In addition to Williams and Massie, New England’s Trent Brown, New Orleans’ Michael Ola and Miami’s Ju’Wuan James headed for free agency. But their teams will try to lock them up beforehand.
There are some good guards who might make it to market also.
Somehow, Gutekunst has to restock the cupboard on the offensive line. The hard part is finding ones who will fit in with Rodgers.