Dougherty: Packers must find help for thin offensive line
Not to belabor the obvious, but the Green Bay Packers have a problem at offensive line.
Not with their starters. They’re good there.
But they lack depth in a league where injuries are inevitable. This shortcoming has been evident since the preseason started, and it became more so Saturday night with starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga sitting out against Denver because of an injured ankle.
The Packers are shockingly thin behind their starting five. With Bulaga out Saturday night, their pass blocking suffered. Noticeably. And their No. 2 line had trouble in the run game and protection, as it has all preseason.
The issue is so obvious the Packers really aren’t even dodging it.
“We need to keep getting better at those tackle spots,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers after playing only two series (10 snaps) against the Broncos, “figure out who the swing tackle is going to be and who the next guard is going to be.”
Right now, the best candidate for all those spots might be second-year pro Kyle Murphy. He has been the sixth-best lineman in camp and has outplayed 2016 second-round pick Jason Spriggs, at least at right tackle.
But Murphy has hardly worked anywhere else. Can he play left tackle? That might be a stretch, but you never know. Guard? He really could be the next-best option there. Either way, if knowing that didn’t seem that important going into camp, it is now.
For starters, think about what would happen if left tackle David Bakhtiari had to miss some time. Two years ago we saw how that gummed up their offense when he missed three games because of a sprained ankle. It took until the third week (a playoff game at Washington) for the Packers to discover that JC Tretter could at least get them by.
This is a good time to note what a luxury the Packers had in Tretter the last three years. He was a starting-caliber center, and indeed started 10 games without the offense missing a thing. But in a pinch he could play guard or left tackle, too. They had to let him walk in free agency – you can’t pay a backup offensive lineman $5.58 million a year – but that’s the kind of line depth only good drafting gets you.
And that’s exactly why general manager Ted Thompson traded up in the second round to draft Spriggs two years ago. But Spriggs clearly isn’t the guy the Packers should turn to first. They’d have to help him so often with extra blockers, their offense wouldn’t be the same. That’s a hard way to play.
We saw the potential problems Saturday night – Spriggs alternated series with Murphy at right tackle with the starters.
The Broncos have the NFL’s best pass rusher in Von Miller, and Spriggs twice blocked him one-on-one early, including keeping him off Rodgers on an extended play.
But then on a third down, Miller brought the heat and torched Spriggs with an inside spin move for a sack. No shame there in and of itself – Miller has made a lot of guys look bad – but Spriggs had help on the outside from running back Ty Montgomery. He can’t give up the inside, even to Miller.
Then later, Spriggs took a blatant holding penalty rather than give up an easy sack when second-round pick DeMarcus Walker beat him cleanly to the inside. If you play left tackle in this league, those are the kinds of guys you see every week.
You can’t write off Spriggs yet –1998 second-round pick Mike Wahle had a rough time early in his career before finding his best position (guard) and becoming a good player. But we know one thing for sure: Spriggs can’t be Bakhtiari’s backup right now.
So the best play probably would be moving Bulaga to left tackle, with Murphy replacing him. That’s not what you want, either, because it weakens two spots. The other option is trying Murphy on the left side. But who knows if he can play there?
Things look just as shaky inside. The Packers’ top reserve interior lineman, Don Barclay, is out with a bad ankle injury, and it’s not clear if he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. He’s no Tretter, but at least he has started 24 games at various positions. He probably can get by.
With Barclay out – and maybe even when healthy – Murphy might be the best option at backup guard, too. Remember, until they signed Jahri Evans in free agency, they were going to give Murphy a shot at the starting job there.
And if center Corey Linsley gets hurt? Look out.
Barclay is option No. 1, but he’s hurt and never has played center in a game.
The Packers seem to like Lucas Patrick, and he and Justin McCray are giving it their all. But neither looks ready to play in an NFL game that counts. Plus, Patrick left Saturday’s game because of a possible concussion.
Really, it looks like it’s on Thompson to find a backup guard/center on another roster. A trade is always possible, but there aren’t many for a reason: It’s hard to make deals. GMs hate giving up draft picks, and players usually are worth more to their current team than to another club.
So look for Thompson and his scouts to be on the prowl come final cuts. There's got to be some help out there somewhere.