Packers grades: Aggressive approach could be in store for rebuilding offensive line
Fourth in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series with 2018 grades.
GREEN BAY - Five years ago, the Green Bay Packers had perhaps the NFL’s best guard tandem. Their offensive line was anchored by Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, a pair of Pro Bowlers. They were solid at right tackle, with injury-plagued-but-proven Bryan Bulaga. Their two biggest question marks were left tackle, where a fourth-round pick named David Bakhtiari had just finished his second season, and at center.
More than half the Packers' offensive line features the same names the team carried into the 2014 season, but its makeup in 2019 hardly resembles that group. Bulaga remains an injury-plagued-but-proven right tackle, but gone are Sitton and Lang. Bakhtiari, a first-team All-Pro left tackle and maybe the league’s best pass blocker, is the unquestioned strength of this offensive line. Corey Linsley, just a rookie in 2014, has blossomed into a quality center.
The challenge before general manager Brian Gutekunst this offseason is building the rest of his offensive line around Bakhtiari and Linsley. He must first determine whether Bulaga, who turns 30 next month, can stay healthy enough to play a 16-game season. The Packers’ two biggest question marks reside at guard, especially on the right side.
It is an inverse formula the Packers used to reach the NFC Championship game in 2014, but if there’s one position you want to have no concerns about on an offensive line, it’s the one the Packers count as their best.
Bakhtiari might be the second-best draft pick of the Ted Thompson era, behind only Aaron Rodgers. Consider what the Packers yielded with the 109th overall pick in the 2013 draft. Bakhtiari has been selected first- or second-team All-Pro three times, though, laughably, he has been voted to the Pro Bowl only once. In 2018, he was the lone left tackle on the first team, giving him a case for being the league’s top offensive lineman. The production yielded from that 109th overall pick is exceptionally rare. Since 1984, the only other offensive lineman drafted outside the top two rounds to be selected first-team All-Pro at left tackle was Philadelphia’s Jason Peters in 2013.
A year after using former All-Pro guard Jahri Evans as a stopgap, the Packers tried to take the same, cost-efficient approach last offseason. They planned from the beginning to use Justin McCray as a starter, though he’s best used in a reserve role. When he struggled, their Plan B was veteran Byron Bell, whom they signed as a free agent for barely above the league minimum (one year, $1.6 million). They did nothing at right tackle, placing their faith in Bulaga being healthy for a full season despite returning from his second torn ACL. It was a tepid approach with the offensive line clearly taking a back seat to other roster needs. With the value new head coach Matt LaFleur places on the offensive line, it’s easy to envision the Packers taking a more aggressive stance this offseason.
Jobs at right tackle, right guard and left guard could be open when camp commences, but the biggest need on the Packers' offensive line remains the same as a year ago: right guard.
Cases could be made for Bulaga and Lane Taylor getting another year at right tackle and left guard, though both positions warrant competition and demand foresight. There is no starter at right guard, and not just because Bell is a free agent.
By this point, the Packers would have liked for 2018 fifth-round pick Cole Madison to be ready as a viable starter, but it’s apparent he no longer figures into their long-term plans after choosing not to report to training camp and never returning to the team last season because of personal reasons. The right guard vacancy opened two years ago when the Packers chose not to match the three-year, $28.5 million contract Lang signed with the Detroit Lions. Lang has played in only 19 of 32 games the past two seasons, so the Packers’ decision has merit in hindsight, but this needs to be the offseason they find his replacement.
David Bakhtiari: Asserted himself among the best pass blockers in the NFL, if not the best. Excellent athlete who plays with quick feet and nimble frame, enabling him to shadow speed rushers while keeping balance against bull rush. Biggest struggle of the season came Week 11 vs. Miami, when he allowed 1.5 sacks against Dolphins end Robert Quinn. Arizona’s Chandler Jones beat him with a bull rush Week 13. The previous week, he failed to pick up a good exterior stunt against Minnesota’s Sheldon Richardson. An otherwise splendid season. “I think he has Hall of Fame potential,” Rodgers said in December. Grade: A
Bryan Bulaga: Still a B-level (above average) player when healthy, but major injury concerns exist as he turns 30. Returned from second torn ACL in his career to play 14 games in 2018. Missed two games with a knee injury late in the season, but returned for Weeks 16 and 17 despite his team being eliminated from the playoffs. Failed to finish four other games because of an assortment of injuries. Of the four regular starters (excluding right guard), Bulaga’s 781 snaps (72 percent) were the fewest. Grade: C+
Corey Linsley: Played every snap for the second straight season. In first season of a three-year, $25.5 million contract, Linsley showed he’s deserving of a salary that places him among the 10 highest-paid centers. Named a Pro Bowl alternate. “I don’t believe in the NFC that there’s four centers better than him,” Rodgers said late in the season. A key cog in Packers’ pre-snap communication, directing traffic. Occasionally failed to pick up interior stunts, including Week 1 against the Bears on a sack that injured Rodgers’ knee. Grade: B+
Lane Taylor: Missed the entire offseason program because of ankle surgery, not returning until early in camp. After a solid 2017 season, didn’t look like the same player in 2018. Protection issues from early in Taylor’s career returned. Struggled especially against interior speed rushes. Allowed a sack Week 3 against Washington’s Da’Ron Payne. Couldn’t handle Aaron Donald in Los Angeles, beaten by an outside and inside move for a pair of third-down sacks in the second half. A week later, New England’s Trey Flowers beat Taylor with a speed move to the outside for a third-down sack. Packers will have to decide whether Taylor’s issues were because of the ankle, or if at age 29 he’s begun an early decline. Grade: D
Byron Bell: Opened season as a Plan B option at right guard, but the veteran started nine games. His season ended when a knee injury placed him on injured reserve. A journeyman along the offensive line, it was his first time starting exclusively at right guard. Praised for his veteran presence in the locker room, Bell provided some depth but isn’t a full-time starter. Grade: D
Justin McCray: Allowed a sack in each of the first three games and lost his starting job to Bell before Week 4. Oddly, struggled more staying square and engaged with blockers on the interior, where his natural position is guard, than he did the previous season taking snaps at tackle. Regained his job when Bell was placed on IR late in the season, but again struggled. New York Jets end Hendry Anderson beat McCray for a sack and a pressure leading to a sack Week 16. In all, allowed a sack in four of his five starts. Grade: D-
Lucas Patrick: Played sparingly in 14 games as a backup, making four starts. Teammates love him because of his toughness. He’s the first to defend them on the field, as seen when he started a scrum after Atlanta Falcons safety Brian Poole hit Rodgers late and high while sliding Week 14. Allowed a pressure against Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett that led to a sack. Grade: D-
Jason Spriggs: Another poor year for the former second-round pick. Allowed three sacks in two starts (against Atlanta and at Chicago), though two sacks came against Bears star Khalil Mack. Allowed two more sacks spelling Bakhtiari briefly at Minnesota. Three seasons after the Packers traded up to draft him 48th overall, Spriggs has not shown enough to guarantee himself a spot in their future. Grade: F
Alex Light: An undrafted rookie out of Richmond. Spent entire season on 53-man roster but did not play until Week 14. Served a one-game NFL suspension and had just 26 snaps from scrimmage. Grade: Incomplete
Nico Siragusa: Signed from Baltimore’s practice squad after Byron Bell was placed on injured reserve in December. Did not play. Grade: Incomplete
Adam Pankey: Spent past two seasons on practice squad. Promoted to active roster in early December. Played one snap, coming in Week 14 against Atlanta. Grade: Incomplete