Packers Positional Breakdown: The Offensive Line
LOCKS: David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, J.C. Tretter, Bryan Bulaga, Corey Linsley
ON THE BUBBLE: Lane Taylor, Aaron Adams, Derek Sherrod, Don Barclay
LONG SHOT: Garth Gerhart, Jordan McCray, Andrew Tiller, John Fullington, Jeremy Vujnovich
PREVIEW: Heading into 2014, the Green Bay Packers have a great starting lineman in four of the five positions. Sitton, Lang and Bulaga have all played together for multiple seasons, while Bakhtiari seems to belong in this group.
The question mark is at center. The Packers enter this season with their fourth different starting center for the fourth straight year -- not an ideal situation for protecting your $100 million quarterback. Nonetheless, the Packers have faith in second-year pro J.C. Tretter to take over for the departed Evan Dietrich-Smith, who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tretter was an All-American offensive tackle at Cornell, starting 20 consecutive games but never at center. Moved to that position last season, Tretter never had a chance to try his hand in the middle due to an ankle injury that ended his season in May. His challenger, Corey Linsley out of Ohio State, started 26 games at center for the Buckeyes and was an All-Big Ten Conference first-team pick in 2013. Linsley is strong, as shown during his 35 reps of 225 pounds during the bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine. Tretter is more athletic than Linsley, but Linsley has more experience. However, both lack any experience at the NFL level, and the weak spot on the Packers offensive line appears to be the middle.
Center is not the only position that is giving the Packers a headache though. Tackle has also been a position of frustration for Green Bay over the last two seasons. In both 2010 and 2011, the Packers chose an offensive tackle in the first round of the draft, however, Green Bay has seen minimal return from these selections -- Bulaga and Sherrod.
Don't get me wrong. Bulaga has had his moments, including starting 12 games at right tackle for the Packers during their 2010 championship season. Since then, however, Bulaga has played in just 21 of 32 games and missed all of last season with a torn ACL.
Sherrod has had a rougher go at the pro level since his playing days at Mississippi State. Sherrod’s rookie season in 2011 ended with a broken leg against the Kansas City Chiefs -- playing just four games prior -- and has struggled to resume playing since. Sherrod has played in just 12 games in his first three seasons, and earlier this offseason, the Packers did not exercise a fifth-year option for Sherrod, leaving his future in question heading into 2014. With such a small sample size, it is hard to determine what kind of a player Sherrod is at this point.
With injuries to the top tackles that the Packers were projecting to be long-term stalwarts at their respective positions, the team has been forced to plug in an undrafted free agent in Don Barclay and 2013 fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari, with the latter penciled in as a starter at left tackle for 2014.
Before Bakhtiari came on last season, the Packers had Marshall Newhouse, who has since signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, at left tackle and his performance was in need of an upgrade. Bakhtiari had an up-and-down rookie season. He started every game, including the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers and played against the oppositions' best pass rushers. Bakhtiari was thrown into the fire last year and played as well as you could expect, so look for the young offensive tackle to improve in his second season.
With that said, the Packers might have struck gold in Bakhtiari at left tackle and Bulaga at right tackle if both can stay healthy this season. Both players are solid run and pass blockers, have shown the ability to play well at the NFL level, have a nasty attitude that is needed to deal with defenders and have much to prove heading into the season.
When it comes to left and right guard, Green Bay can rest easy, as Sitton and Lang are starters together for the fourth consecutive season. Sitton is one of the most underrated offensive guards in the NFL. He has a big body and the smarts to take on some of the biggest defensive linemen in the game. Named to his first Pro Bowl in 2012, Sitton has been durable -- missing just two games since 2009 -- and gifted as a left guard. Lang has since improved his play after moving from left guard to right in 2013. Continuity is important on the offensive line and the Packers have maintained that continuity at the guard positions.
With the issues at center aside, the Packers main problem on the line is keeping the quarterback upright, which has been an eye sore for Green Bay since QB Aaron Rodgers took over as a starter in 2008. Last season, the Packers were ranked 24th in allowing sacks with 45, surprisingly better than the 51 takedowns allowed in 2012, good for 31st in the league.
Rodgers is partly to blame for the number of sacks given up because he holds onto the ball too long, but the line’s responsibility is to keep the quarterback clean, which they have failed to do. Since 2009, the Packers have not placed better than 19th in allowing sacks and have allowed 226 total sacks -- an average of 45 sacks per season.
Despite a better running game last year, the Packers biggest need remains the improvement of their pass blocking, especially with a higher divisional emphasis on getting to Rodgers this season.
The Packers open the season at a loud venue in Seattle against the 2013 Super Bowl Champion Seahawks. With a new, inexperienced center, the beginning of the Packers season could be very rocky. As we saw last season, Green Bay lives and dies with Rodgers at the helm. If the offensive line cannot keep Rodgers upright, the Packers will have to look for other options at quarterback in the not-too-distant future.