March 23, 2012. This date may not stick out to most but to the die-hard Packer fans who have been around a while, it should. It's the day that Jeff Saturday signed his 2 year deal with the team and put on a different uniform for the first time in his 13 year career. The significance of this is that this was the first big-name free agent the team had signed since Charles Woodson back in 2006. Many will recall that it was customary for the team to dip into free agency and bring in the occasional big name. We all remember the Reggie White signing. Keith Jackson, Andre Rison, Desmond Howard, Seth Joyner. The list could go on but it seemed to come to a screeching halt after the Woodson signing. Not to say the team didn't dip into free agency, but I'm not talking about undrafted free agents or castoffs from other teams training camp. I'm talking about "marquis, big name guys". General Manager Ted Thompson seemed to want nothing to do with bringing in a seasoned and high-priced vet to infuse talent into his roster. Thompson's philosophy was, and still very much is, "win now and prepare for the future". In order to do that, it's necessary to keep the team young and develop the cream of that young crop to become the nucleus. Thompson did just that over the course of 5 years, sometimes to the dismay of Packer fans who swore that if he would just sign that one guy, it would be the answer to all of the team's woes. Thompson stayed the course and the team eventually won a Super Bowl ring after the 2010 season. But after seeing the team falter in the playoffs this past winter, he quickly realized that some change was in order. The defense needed some fixing and that meant some pieces elsewhere may be on the move.
One such piece was center Scott Wells, who signed a free agent deal with the St. Louis Rams worth $24 million over 4 years and with $13 million guaranteed. Thompson clearly didn't want to tie up that kind of money on a player who may have already reached the peak of his playing ability and heading into his 30's. So he went to work looking for another option. The O line struggled at times last year, in part due to injury and shuffling of the piece to mitigate the losses. Heading into this season, a solid solution at center was necessary. Enter Jeff Saturday, who chose the Packers over other suitors as the place where he would continue his career. In Saturday, the Packers have a solid veteran signal caller on the line and a virtual player/coach that can help bring some of the young lineman along. He surely isn't a long-term solution, but in keeping with the "win now" portion of his philosophy, Thompson showed he means what he says. Given the importance of the passing game and protecting their biggest prize in QB Aaron Rodgers, no unit is more crucial than the O line and the addition of Saturday is proof that the team agrees. Behind Saturday is 2nd year OC Sampson Genus. Genus was acquired as an undrafted free agent last summer. Having played both center and defensive tackle in college, he has a good idea of what opposing D tackles are likely to do. Given time to understudy Saturday and increased reps in the team's offense, Genus could very well be the next center of the future in Green Bay.
Heading into this season, one of the big storylines was the competition at the left tackle position and who would replace the recently departed Chad Clifton, the Pro Bowl left tackle for the past decade. Clifton was released in mid April largely due to an ailing back that was not going to allow him to be as effective as he had been in recent years. The 2000 2nd round pick was a steady force for the Pack, appearing in 3 Pro Bowls during his tenure with the team. Replacing him will be no easy task, to say the least. The front runners for the starting role appeared to be Marshall Newhouse, who filled in most of last season when Clifton wend down, and 2011 1st round selection Derek Sherrod. As players reported for camp on July 25th, it became apparent that Sherrod would not pass his physical due to his still-recovering broken right leg. You may recall Sherrod suffered the injury during last season's lone regular season loss at Kansas City. The leg was actually broken in multiple spots so the team knew the recovery process would not be a quick one. It's unclear when or if Sherrod may be ready to participate in any training camp activities. There is the possibility that Sherrod may be placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. During preseason, a player that is placed on PUP can be activated at any time and resume practicing with the team. If Sherrod is not ready to play by the end of camp, he will then move onto the regular season PUP list, which means he would miss at least the first 6 games of the regular season. If that happens, expect Newhouse to remain at left tackle. The team drafted Andrew Datko in the 7th this year round to help create some depth at the tackle position. His size and frame are ideal as an NFL tackle goes, but he does have some injury concerns. He has had nagging shoulder problems and missed some games the past 2 years. He's an athletic and strong player who seems more suited to the RT spot than left. Unless someone emerges, Datko will likely be looked at to provide depth on both sides of the line.
The offensive guard spots are both locked in with incumbent starters Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. The 2 have drawn comparisons to another great pair of guards in that of Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle. It was during that time that former Packers' running back Ahman Green posted nearly 1,900 yards rushing in 2003. With the Pack's current offensive system, we aren't likely to see a performance like that from a running back anytime soon, but it does provide peace of mind that the inside of the line is as solid as they come. Lang took over as starter last year after Daryn Colledge signed with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent. Prior to that, Lang had spent some time at both guard and tackle and struggled with his consistency. He also had some injury issues but has moved past that and proved to be reliable in 2011. Sitton continued to be as dominant at the right guard position as most any other in the league. He was voted as an alternate in this past year's Pro Bowl and has been deemed by many to be the Pack's best O lineman. His gritty style on the field and humorous demeanor off helps keep the entire unit relaxed and cohesive. Behind Lang and Sitton are two youngsters in that of Even Dietrich-Smith and Ray Dominguez. You may recall it was ED-S who was the victim of the now infamous "stomp" incident involving Ndamukong Suh last season. He was previously with the team heading into the 2010 season and was let go at the end of training camp. He re-signed with the team nearly halfway through last season and remains a viable backup at either guard position. Dominguez was on last year's practice squad after being signed as an undrafted free agent in July 2011. He was later activated to the team's active roster in October and in place of Nick Collins. Dominguez is young (24) and has the frame to succeed at the NFL level with some increased practice time in the offensive system.
Overall, the O line seems pretty well set with the exception of Sherrod's health status. The unit will need to continue to perform well in order to give QB Aaron Rodgers time to work his magic. If the Packers have intentions of returning to another Super Bowl, the line will have to be among the league's best in 2012.
- Jason Perone, @wsb_Jason