Dougherty: Sitton move was Taylor made

Pete Dougherty
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There aren’t many stunners when NFL teams cut their rosters anymore. Most of the hard calls come in February and March.

But the Green Bay Packers’ release of Josh Sitton on Sept. 3 surely counted as one. And you should have seen my email inbox that weekend. The reactions ranged from bewilderment to outrage. But mostly the latter.

The move was proof for many Packers fans that general manager Ted Thompson was unfit for duty.

They wondered, is Thompson insane? Does he even care whether he wins? Why would he cut a Pro Bowl player? How could this possibly be?

Now here we are, about 3½  months later. Could anyone watch the Packers’ 14 games this season and truthfully conclude the team is any worse off with Lane Taylor at left guard instead of Sitton? No. Way.

It’s an object lesson in how things often work in the NFL. Most players are replaceable, especially once they’ve inched past their prime. Some positions are more important than others. And better to part with a guy a year early than a year late.

Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy made the move — believe me, there’s no way the coach wasn’t on board with this big a decision — because they thought they had a potential problem in the locker room.

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Sitton, always headstrong and opinionated, had asked the team for a contract extension during training camp. Thompson declined. His priority was left tackle David Bakhtiari. Implied in that decision was that Sitton’s age (30) and history of back problems meant the Packers might let him walk in free agency in the offseason.

Sitton didn’t take the snub well. The Packers thought he became more difficult and openly defiant, and they thought that would only get worse as the season went on. They saw signs it might trickle down to younger teammates.

This is an area where McCarthy and Thompson are especially attuned. Several times a year McCarthy goes out of his way to say that the locker room “is the most important room in the building.” When it comes to maintaining a healthy chemistry there, he and Thompson aren’t messing around.

So once they were convinced that Taylor could hold up as the starting left guard, they let Sitton go. And the season has proven them right. Taylor was ready; they’re no worse off for the change; and a potential chemistry issue was averted.

That isn’t to say Taylor is the better player. I talked to an NFL scout this week who has watched video of both. He said Sitton remains a top pass protector, though age and injury have cost him bend and strength in run blocking, and that he resorts to holding more than in the past.

Also, Pro Football Focus has graded Sitton as the fourth-best guard in the league and says he has not allowed a sack or quarterback hit all season. Whatever the limitations of independent scouting, it’s clear he’s still a good player.

Taylor is more inconsistent. The scout said he seems prone to having a bad series here and there, rather than just a bad play. PFF ranked him No. 47 at guard. Then again, it also says he has allowed only one sack and two quarterback hits.

Going into the season I assumed Taylor would have a couple of patently bad games, whether it was because of match-ups or inexperience or whatever. But that never happened. He has proven to be a starting-caliber player from the start.

So the Packers made a tough decision, and they got it right, even though many of their fans thought they were crazy at the time. And in a couple of months, they will be facing another, on their other starting guard, newly minted Pro Bowler T.J. Lang. This will be among Thompson’s most difficult calls of the offseason.

Lang is exactly the kind of player you want to reward. He has been an exemplar of professionalism for years and especially this season. He made an expedited return (three games missed) from a broken foot and has played all season with a painful, chronic hip injury that will require surgery in the offseason. He’s not only suited up, he’s performed well despite the injuries.

This is a guy you want on your team.

However, he’s also 29 and will add the hip surgery to a long list of operations in his career. The Packers have to wonder how this will affect him as he hits the 30-year-old mark and beyond. It’s a legitimate concern.

Then there are the Packers’ two long lists for the offseason: their own free agents, and their most immediate needs.

Their free-agent list includes Lang, Nick Perry, Jared Cook, Datone Jones, Eddie Lacy, Micah Hyde, JC Tretter and Christine Michael. I would guess at least five of that group will be back next season, maybe more. It won’t be cheap.

And that’s without adding any new help. Their greatest needs are cornerback and outside linebacker, as well as possibly receiver or tight end, and running back. Maybe Thompson will do what he almost always does and leave it to the draft. But maybe — don’t laugh — he’ll try free agency as well.

If so, that takes money. With a projected $10 million jump in the salary cap next year, the Packers will have about $35 million in cap room, according to Over The Cap and Spotrac.

That sounds like a lot, but add in the draft and it can go fast.

So it comes down to money — how much Lang costs, and how much the Packers need. There are primary and secondary positions, and guard is the latter. With all the moving parts, it’s hardly worth predicting what will happen right now.

All we know is things can change quickly and yet hardly at all in the NFL. Josh Sitton and Lane Taylor showed us that.

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