McGinn: 'Criminally underrated' Lang in limbo
GREEN BAY – More than one NFL executive in personnel expected the Green Bay Packers would allocate Josh Sitton’s money to T.J. Lang in the form of a contract extension not long after their stunning release of Sitton two months ago.
Sources now say general manager Ted Thompson informed both veteran guards this summer that management would work on extensions for younger players before getting around to them.
Sitton ended up in Chicago on Sept. 5 and Lang, a starter for the last six years, might be following him out of town as an unrestricted free agent come March.
“Ted doesn’t give a rat’s (expletive) about PR,” an NFL personnel man and friend of Thompson’s said last month of negative reaction from some fans to the release of Sitton. “You take a PR hit like that, you would try to (extend Lang). But Ted is not motivated to do stuff like that.”
Lane Taylor, the replacement for Sitton at left guard, probably has been the least effective of the five offensive line starters through six games. At the same time, Taylor has played substantially better than scouts expected for a line that has been solid.
Perhaps emboldened by Taylor’s adequate performance and saving $6.55 million against the salary cap by axing Sitton, Thompson might foresee the line in 2017 having a re-signed JC Tretter and the other center, Corey Linsley, in some form or fashion filling Lang’s berth at right guard.
“Obviously, this philosophy has always been get your best five on the field,” Lang said Thursday. “Obviously, I don’t know their plans.”
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Lang indicated there had been no negotiations between his agent, Mike McCartney, and management. He replied, “Absolutely, yeah,” when asked if staying in Green Bay was his preference.
“We’re six weeks in,” Lang said. “Nothing’s changed from my end.”
Taylor’s level of play can’t begin to compare to Sitton’s before his foot injury, according to several scouts. There’s a drop-off, and by waiting until the 11th hour to attempt to trade Sitton the Packers lost a draft choice either in 2017 or as a compensatory selection in 2018, assuming he would have left as a free agent in March.
The entire unit has been able to play over the slippage at left guard. It would be more difficult to get by next year if the other half of the Packers' exceptional guard tandem was gone as well.
“We’ve got a decision on T.J., which I hope won’t be a difficult one,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in mid-October. “You can never have enough big bodies who can move and play. Our offense is all about athleticism … we’ve got to have guys that can move around and pass block, but also be athletic enough to cover down.”
Taylor’s shortcoming is moving and hitting at the linebacker level and in the open field. Put a defender in front of him and he can give as well as he gets for 60 minutes.
“He’s so frickin’ strong,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said, referring to Taylor. “If he gets to your chest, you’re screwed. I might as well just stop.”
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The incentive for Lang to do an extension is the lure of guaranteed money that might double or even triple the $5.5 million guaranteed portion of the four-year extension that he signed in August 2012. If he gets hurt this season, it’s goodbye guaranteed money.
On the other side, the Packers should be motivated as well. Doing a deal with Lang now rather than in March probably would save them as much as $2 million per year on an annual compensation basis.
Several weeks ago, an NFL executive said he didn’t think Lang warranted being an $8 million a year player. After studying Lang on tape, the personnel man foresaw Lang getting between $8 million and $10 million per year if he reached the unrestricted free-agent market.
“When they get to market, man, it is the wild, wild west,” he said. “Most of these guys, if they’re top three or top five in the free-agent class, they are going to get paid, and a lot more than they should.”
The fact the Packers apparently haven’t even started negotiations might be an indication that Lang is headed for free agency.
“Most agents, when it gets halfway through the season, they say, ‘Hey, let’s go to market,’ ” said the executive. “It usually blows your mind what these guys get.
“If you look at the franchises and owners, it’s such a win-now deal. They don’t care about the money. You can massage the cap. It’s just a matter of how much guaranteed money and the cash flow your owner will allow.”
As always, the Packers are flush with room beneath the salary cap at $8.165 million, 11th most among the 32 teams.
Thompson doesn’t have an owner to appease. If he would ever elect to “go for it,” team president Mark Murphy wouldn’t bat an eye.
Under the direction of Thompson, the Packers are one of the only teams in the league that guarantees almost no base salaries. They also minimize their risk by loading most contracts with per-game roster bonuses that aren’t paid if a player is injured.
Each year, the Packers wind up about $7 million beneath the cap. Then they roll that amount into the succeeding year and the same cycle begins all over again.
When the season started, it seemed as if the Packers might want to extend Eddie Lacy or Jared Cook, or at the very least re-sign them before free agency.
Now it’s possible the injured Lacy never will play for the Packers again; if he’s back, his compensation shouldn’t be close to what it might have been. Cook, who has been hurt as well, figures to be at near minimum salary if he receives an offer.
Meanwhile, Nick Perry is the only player among the 11 headed for unrestricted free agency whose market value has swelled dramatically based on his early-season performance.
Lang, head-strong and opinionated, is an independent thinker and management would be wise not to antagonize him if he’s in their plans. Lang seems amenable to re-signing, but if talks haven’t started in the not-too-distant future he might take it as a sign of disrespect and privately cross the Packers off his list.
Lang owns a home in Northville, Mich., not far from where he grew up, and easily can make an adjustment to a new employer.
“It’s the best start I’ve had,” Lang said, and statistics compiled by the Journal Sentinel bear out that he’s probably been the team’s No. 1 lineman.
Of the 9½ sacks charged to the offensive line, Lang is the only starter without any. In terms of pressures, which are defined as the total of sacks, knockdowns and hurries, Lang has allowed the fewest, four, of the starters. Taylor’s nine is the most.
David Bakhtiari has yielded the fewest “bad” runs with 2½ but Lang is next with three. Taylor ranks fourth at 5½.
Has James Campen, the offensive line coach, brought attention to Lang’s stellar play in the unit’s meeting room?
“It doesn’t even need to be said,” Taylor said. “This is clearly his best year. You can’t even nitpick. Does he even have a pressure this year?”
Lang is “criminally underrated,” according to Daniels.
“He’s the tone-setter on our offense,” Daniels said. “He’s going to knock your head in. He’s so fundamentally sound, he really is. He can actually dictate to you what kind of pass-rush moves you’re going to do.
“I love having him as a teammate but I try to stay out of that (contracts). At the end of the day, they (the front office) know more than I do. I’m a player. I don’t watch film all day.”
Sitton is one year older than Lang, who turned 29 last month. Each entered the season having missed just two games as starters due to injury.
Lang has proven his ability to play through injury. He’s doing it now with a congenital hip problem that has hindered him for a few years. Last week, Lang indicated he had a platelet-rich plasma injection over the weekend to reduce inflammation.
He also had major shoulder surgery in February, concussions in 2015 and ’13, ankle-foot damage in October 2014, a torn ligament in his elbow in October 2012 and wrist surgery in April 2010.
Lang suggested the Packers have discussed with him the possibility of off-season surgery on his hip.
“I’ve played through a lot of injuries before,” he said. “I’ve just got to find a way to get through it.”
On the first day of free agency in March, five veteran NFL guards found new homes for deals averaging between $6.5 million (J.R. Sweezy) and $11.7 million (Kelechi Osemele). It could be argued that Lang plays the game as well if not better than all of them, but four were 26 and one was 28.
Lang’s average per year on his deal from four years ago is $5.2 million, which is tied for 16th among guards. He hasn’t made a Pro Bowl but his teammates think that’s forthcoming in December.
Taylor acknowledged he has played much better in the regular season than in the exhibition season. “Probably a little bit has to do with being more comfortable with the guys I’m playing with now,” he said.
His ability to hold up reasonably well through six games has more to do with his size (6-3, 320 pounds) than anything else. Taking up space has become more and more critical at guard, plus he loves to play.
Lang (6-4, 318) is another tough guy, having played his first two years at Eastern Michigan as a defensive lineman. He and Taylor are representative of the six other starting guards in the NFC North who average 6-5, 316.
At the turn of the decade, the Packers’ lack of bulk and power at guard with Daryn Colledge (6-4½, 310) and Jason Spitz (6-3½, 310) led to bigger men in Sitton (6-3½, 317) and Lang. Center Jeff Saturday (6-2½, 295) was tossed about like an old beach towel in 2012.
In order, Tretter (6-3½, 300) has been a tight end, a left tackle and a center. He’s strong pound-for-pound, but it’s a different world for a 300-pound guard than for a 300-pound center.
Linsley (6-2½, 297) is even smaller than Tretter. His size would disqualify him as a guard if it weren’t for the fact he’s so strong.
Tretter is confident he could become an effective guard, just as he became proficient at three other positions. “But I’m guessing that centers need to be a little faster and a little lighter, and guards need to be able to get movement,” he said.
Could either of the rookie tackles, Jason Spriggs (6-5½, 303) or Kyle Murphy (6-6½, 307), start at guard next season? They’d need to make massive gains in strength and mass just to have a chance of surviving inside.
Precious few players in the last 15 years have signed more than one lucrative (non-rookie) contract with Green Bay. The list includes Donald Driver, Al Harris, Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, Aaron Rodgers, Mason Crosby and Jordy Nelson.
As Thompson evaluates how best to protect Rodgers and the Packers, he’d best give careful consideration to including Lang on that list.