A brief overview of three storylines that could help determine the outcome of the Sunday night showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If the Green Bay Packers were looking for signs that Jason Spriggs could be their right tackle next season, they didn’t get them.
On Sunday, in his first game since coming off injured reserve because of a hamstring injury, Spriggs bombed as a second-half injury replacement for Justin McCray.
Not that anyone would expect him to play well after an eight-week layoff. He’d struggled before the injury, so even if the time on IR gave him a chance at a re-set, it also meant he wouldn’t be game sharp.
The problem is, the 2016 second-round pick again failed to even show flashes that a starting job is in his future.
It’s worth bringing up because it’s not too early to start thinking about 2018. And because of what has happened in the last month, you can add right tackle to the Packers’ greatest needs this offseason. As if that list isn’t long enough.
Going into training camp, the Packers were in great shape at tackle. The David Bakhtiari-Bryan Bulaga duo was one of the best in the league. They were the pillars of the offensive line and protected Aaron Rodgers against the great outside rushers in the NFL.
With those two in place, general manager Ted Thompson even felt safe in parting with his veteran starting guards, Josh Sitton and then T.J. Lang, in a six-month span dating to last fall.
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But Bulaga’s torn ACL two weeks ago changes the outlook at tackle. He now has had three major injuries in little more than five years – a fractured hip in November 2012, a torn ACL in ’13 and now a torn ACL this year. Though he’s only 28, Bulaga has had more than his share of wear.
An even bigger issue is his return next season. Recovery from an ACL is usually at least 10 months. That means Bulaga won’t resume football activities until mid-September at the earliest, and he’ll need a few weeks to get game ready after that. He might even have to open the regular season on the PUP list, which would mean sitting out the first six weeks. He could end up missing anywhere from a few games to half the 2018 season.
So there’s a real question whether Thompson will even bring him back, especially at the $6.75 million Bulaga is due next season. Maybe they’ll negotiate a pay cut with the chance to earn some of the money back in incentives. But if the Packers think his body is breaking down, and he won’t be the same player or will keep missing games, they might just move on.
This is just the kind of circumstance Thompson was thinking about when he traded up in the second round of the 2016 draft to select Spriggs. If Spriggs were panning out, no problem. He’d take over, and the train would keep rolling.
But nothing Spriggs has done this season, before or after his hamstring, suggests that’s a possibility.
On Sunday against Baltimore, Spriggs replaced McCray (knee) and looked like the same player he’d been before his stint on IR.
On the hoof, Spriggs is a prototypical modern-day tackle – a 301-pounder with a tight end’s physique to help keep up with the great speed rushers of the NFL.
But he hasn’t played that way. Just like in training camp, in pass protection Sunday he was slow out of his stance and not as athletic as advertised when trying to recover. In 22 snaps in place of McCray he was put on skates by the bull rush a couple times, committed a cardinal sin by allowing a sack on an inside rush, and failed to pick up a twist. Also, on fourth-and-one in the third quarter he didn’t block anybody, which allowed Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley to shoot through his gap and help stop Jamaal Williams for no gain.
As hard as it is to believe, the squatty McCray, a center-guard by trade, is the better right tackle.
At this point, Spriggs might have to move to guard to try to salvage his career. Regardless of where he plays, you have to think the Packers will bring him back for his third training camp just to be sure. But unless he improves a lot this offseason, he could get cut after only two years with the team.
If that’s how it turns out, Spriggs will have been one of the biggest swings and misses of the Thompson era. It’s not just the fanning on a second-rounder. That happens to the best of them. But Thompson traded two extra picks – a fourth and a seventh – to move up nine spots to get him.
That means Thompson didn’t miss on one pick, or even two. He missed on three. Then think of all the good offensive linemen he has landed in the fourth round – Bakhtiari, Sitton, Lang, JC Tretter. That hurts.
Right now Kyle Murphy, drafted 152 picks after Spriggs last year, is the Packers’ likely starter at right tackle for the 2018 opener. Murphy, who is on injured reserve (foot), clearly is the better prospect of the two.
But the Packers already were looking at possibly replacing one starter on the offensive line, right guard Jahri Evans. He has been a great targeted signing in free agency, and maybe he can squeeze another year out of his 34-year-old body. But he also might be at the end of the line.
Now, there’s the vacancy at right tackle, too.
Thompson should have a nice draft haul next year – all seven of his own picks plus four compensatory, including possibly a third-rounder for Lang. But the GM also has a long wish list.
He needs outside pass rushers – not just one – and another cornerback. He also needs some field-stretching, fear-inducing speed at receiver or tight end. And now you can move tackle up the list as well.