Flexibility key as Green Bay Packers tinker with offensive line combinations
GREEN BAY – Figuring out where they should play their five best offensive linemen may be as big a challenge for the Green Bay Packers as figuring out who they are.
The exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers on Friday night figured to give coach Matt LaFleur more information about what direction to take, but complicating matters is whether they will have left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Elgton Jenkins back from the physically unable to perform list before the season starts.
At this point, the Packers must proceed as though both will be on PUP, which means they would miss at a minimum the first four games of the season.
Jenkins is the most likely to start on that list since the Packers rarely allow anyone who has suffered a torn left ACL to return to the field before 10 months of healing. With Jenkins’ surgery taking place around Dec. 1, his return likely wouldn’t be until October.
It’s been 20 months since Bakhtiari tore his left ACL, but his knee injury isn’t related to the ACL and so it’s just a matter of when he feels ready to play and the medical staff clears him. The Packers publicly have avoided putting a timetable on Bakhtiari’s return, so whether they think he’ll be ready for the regular season isn’t known.
Whatever the case, it would be remiss of the coaches not to prepare as though neither will be available for the season opener at Minnesota on Sept. 11. But they also need to be flexible given Bakhtiari and Jenkins will be back at some point, thus, with the exception of center Josh Myers and left guard Jon Runyan, everyone is playing multiple positions.
“It makes things easier if everybody was just playing one spot and that's what you get to focus on,” center/guard Jake Hanson said. “But that's not the reality of it. So, we all have to be able to move around and play well in whatever position we're at, not just the ones that we’re most natural at or most comfortable at.”
Hanson is a classic example of the great unknown heading into the season.
He played center in college and worked mostly there his first two seasons, but after the Packers drafted Myers, he began working more at guard. It was mandatory for him to know guard to be a backup, but he had such a good offseason that he was inserted into the starting lineup at right guard at the start of camp.
The former starting right guard, 2021 fourth-round pick Royce Newman, lines up at right tackle with the No. 1 offensive line, but he also will bounce back to right guard when the coaches work rookie Zach Tom at right tackle.
The starting offensive line most often has been Yosh Nijman at left tackle, Runyan at left guard, Myers at center, Hanson at right guard and Newman at right tackle.
But don’t memorize that lineup. It could all change this week based on performances Friday night, change again when Bakhtiari comes back and change once more when Jenkins comes back.
The player most affected by all the uncertainty is Nijman, whose best chance for a permanent spot this year is at right tackle. But with Bakhtiari out, Nijman hasn’t had a rep at right tackle since early in camp and has not been able to compete head-to-head with Newman, Tom and Cole Van Lanen on the right side.
So far, no one has taken that job and run with it.
“Whenever you look at the offensive line, it's the collective,” coach Matt LaFleur said prior to the 49ers game. “It doesn't matter if four guys are doing the right technique or doing the right assignment, all it takes is one guy (to mess everything up). You need all 11.
“I think that it's easy to point to David and Elgton, who have been so instrumental in our success here and been great players. But we've got a lot of young guys. Although we do feel good about the group there’s still a lot of growth in front of them.”
Through the first weeks of camp, LaFleur has been most concerned about pass protection.
If Bakhtiari can come back in time to start the opener, then the coaches will probably move Nijman to right tackle — provided Newman, Tom or Van Lanen aren’t outperforming him — and leave right guard as the position open for competition.
Having Bakhtiari and Nijman at the two tackle positions would greatly improve the team’s pass blocking and make LaFleur feel a lot better about protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
In that case, Hanson, Newman, Van Lanen and probably Tom would be competing for the right guard position. Hanson is also the backup center, Newman is playing both spots on the right side, Van Lanen is working at every position but center and Tom has worked at left and right tackle.
So, the player who is best able to handle the transition from position to position might wind up being the starter.
“A lot of it's out of my hands,” Van Lanen said. “So, I just kind of go out and play my best ball at any position I get put in and whatever happens from there happens. I prepared for it this offseason, to kind of have that role and play everywhere and be ready to go.”
Where things really get complicated is if or when both Bakhtiari and Jenkins come back. Bakhtiari will play left tackle, but where does Jenkins go? Does he go to right tackle, where he would be an even better option than Nijman and give the Packers one of the best pass-blocking tandems in the league?
Does he go back to his original position of left guard? What happens to Runyan if that happens? Can Runyan move to right guard?
And what happens if Bakhtiari can’t stay healthy? Do they go with Nijman and then switch to Jenkins when he returns?
So much is up in the air.
But the priority is to find the five best and heading into next week’s practices, which will include two joint workouts with the New Orleans Saints, there will be a lot more data to study. It could be at the end of this week, or the next, general manager Brian Gutekunst starts searching for a veteran to fill a spot the young guys can’t.
“We're always going to kind of kick the tires as we go through the preseason, and we get down to that 53 cut,” Gutekunst said. “There's obviously big opportunity there as guys are making the roster. But we do have two significant players that haven't been out there that will be coming back.
“I think as we've gone the past few years that really hasn't been like that, like when we went out and got somebody, we didn't have guys coming off the shelf of that caliber. So, if there's opportunities out there that we think we can help us, certainly going to look at that.”
For now, the competition continues.