Analysis: Packers need free-agency infusion on offensive line
One point the 2018 season finale drove home was that the Green Bay Packers have to rebuild their offensive line, and fast.
Granted, the Packers lined up Sunday with a badly banged-up offensive line. Three players who started the game (David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga and Lucas Patrick) were listed as questionable going in, and by the second half two of them (Bakhtiari and Patrick) were reinjured and on the bench. Meanwhile, Lane Taylor was on the field as an emergency backup after being held out of the starting lineup because of a knee injury.
Still, general manager Brian Gutekunst will have to address the offensive line in the offseason, and with quarterback Aaron Rodgers turning 36 next December, there’s not time to develop a couple of draft picks for a year or two into starters. Gutekunst needs the help immediately, which means he’ll have to go shopping in free agency.
The Packers will need a starting right guard, and with Taylor not playing as well this year as the previous two seasons they probably will need someone to at least push him for the job on the left side. And if Gutekunst cuts the 29-year-old Bulaga in the offseason at a salary-cap savings of $6.75 million, the Packers will need a new starter at the crucial right tackle position as well.
None of those replacements is on the roster now.
Depending on whether Gutekunst cuts Bulaga and tight end Jimmy Graham this offseason, he could have in the range of $50 million to $55 million in cap room to improve his roster, though he has plenty of positions he might address.
But offensive line might offer the best position group to get the best bang for a buck, as opposed to overpaying for, say, a pass rusher. Gutekunst will probably have to sign at least two offensive linemen who are starting caliber, whether it be a former high-end player who’s a salary-cap casualty in his declining years, as Jahri Evans was in 2017, or a decent veteran another team was unwilling to pay for whatever reason.
Even if Gutekunst drafts a lineman with a pick in the first three rounds, he can’t count on that player starting immediately. So he might want to sign three linemen in free agency to make sure he’s covered.
We saw Sunday the shambles the Packers’ offensive line had become by season’s end. The Detroit Lions’ defensive front totally dominated the line of scrimmage in their 31-0 win over the Packers.
Patrick and right guard (and later left tackle) Justin McCray are both tough players who give their all, but they struggled against a Lions’ interior rotation that included run stopper Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Ricky Jean-Francois and John Atkins. Patrick, playing with an abdominal injury, especially had problems run blocking, and both he McCray gave up too much push in the middle of the line in pass protection.
Really, the Packers’ rushing numbers told the story: Their lead back, Jamaal Williams, had twice as many carries (eight) as yards (four).
The Packers have two good linemen in key positions with Bakhtiari at left tackle and Corey Linsley at center. But they need to fill around them this offseason.
Taylor was a solid left guard in 2016 and ’17, but his play slipped noticeably this season. The Packers can hope he has a bounce-back year in 2019 but shouldn’t count on it. And even though Bulaga had a decent game Sunday, he finished out the season playing on a bum knee that has to make the Packers wary about whether he can get through 2019.
In other words, the Packers need two or three linemen who can play right away. That means Gutekunst and his pro scouts have a lot of work to do on the free-agent class this offseason.
Not so safety
One thing we learned as the season finished out is that safety Kentrell Brice isn’t a starter. Another is that second-round draft pick Josh Jackson might be better as a safety than cornerback.
Early in his career, Brice looked like he was a potential rare find as an undrafted player who turns into a solid NFL starter. But while he brought speed and striking ability to the position, he gives up too many plays in deep coverage to play regularly.
The five-yard touchdown pass the Packers allowed to T.J. Jones in the first quarter was all on Brice. The Packers were in quarters coverage, and Jackson played Jones’ crossing route in the back of the end zone exactly as he should have. Knowing his help (i.e., Brice) was in the middle of the field, he stayed outside Jones. When no other receiver came into Jackson’s zone, he trailed Jones along the end line.
But when Jones entered Brice’s zone in the middle of the field, Brice was in no-man’s land. He’d drifted outside toward slot receiver Brandon Powell even though linebacker Blake Martinez already was dropping to the short zone on that side. Brice didn’t see Jones at all and could only watch as Jones caught the open touchdown pass 10 yards away in what should have been Brice’s zone.
The other safety on the play, Tramon Williams, played his side exactly like Brice should have. When Williams saw linebacker Josh Jones pick up tight end Levine Toilolo on a short route in front of him, he turned to look for the outside receiver on his side. If Brice had done the same, the Packers might have made the third-and-goal stop.
At this point, it’s unclear whether Josh Jones will ever be a starting safety, or if his role will be mostly as an inside linebacker on passing downs. Williams was a solid stopgap at safety after the trade of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but the Packers might prefer moving him back to slot corner and having a longer-term answer at safety.
Jackson might be their best option for one of the two starting spots. His strength is his skills as a ballhawk. He had problems since training camp using his hands too much in coverage at cornerback because of his lack of pure speed. You have to think the Packers will seriously consider moving him to the back end this offseason as they try to solve their issues at safety.
» The eight-yard touchdown pass the Packers allowed on a fake field is about as demoralizing as it gets. It’s hard to blame any of the down linemen for not seeing it because they’re in three-point stances, but Jackson, Brice and Martinez all were standing on that side of the Lions’ formation and failed to see Toilolo lined up wide to the left until the ball was snapped to kicker Matt Prater for the easy pitch and catch. Giving up four points extra on a special teams play like that can take the life out of a team.
» Kudos to Linsley for being the only player on the Packers to play every snap on his side of the ball this season. Same to the 35-year-old Williams, who played 99.5 percent of the defensive snaps.