Packers 2014 Preview: The State of the Offensive Line

Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

With OTAs nearing completion, what conclusions can we reach regarding the Packers' offensive line?

Much to the chagrin of Packers brass, the issue of offensive line stability has persisted since the breakup of the "Great Wahle of Green Bay" following the 2004 season. That line, composed of Chad Clifton, Mike Wahle, Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, and Mark Tauscher, stood as the standard by which the entire league judged their starting linemen. Then starting quarterback Brett Favre rarely endured pressure from opposing pass rushers and sacks even rarer still. Undoubtedly, Favre's career renaissance during the early 2000s doesn't occur without Green Bay's stellar offensive line play.

In the time since, the team has assembled the occasional quality unit, 2007 specifically. However, the Packers offensive line hasn't approached the consistently that characterized its performance in the early 2000s.

While Clifton and Tauscher remained credible blockers through the end of the decade, the Packers struggled to settle on interior blockers to complement them. Josh Sitton finally materialized as a staple of the unit in 2009, but the rest of the line remained in flux. From 2005 to the present, the Packers dolled out double-digit starts to the likes of Tony Moll, Will Whitticker, Jason Spitz, Daryn Colledge, and a well-past-his-prime Jeff Saturday. The Packers ultimately uncovered capable linemen in Scott Wells, T.J. Lang, and Evan Dietrich-Smith, but their starting tenures rarely overlapped, and only Lang remains with the team to this day.

The Packers' inability to assemble a stable line has manifested itself in unfortunate ways. Entering 2014, quarterback Aaron Rodgers will take snaps from his fourth starting center in as many years. T.J. Lang will open week 1 working with a different player on either side of him for the third consecutive season. But the most alarming development may be that, barring an unlikely training camp battle victory for Don Barclay, Green Bay will run out a different set of starting offensive tackles for the fifth year in a row.

However, while those facts succinctly encapsulate the struggles of the offensive line, they don't preclude the Packers from putting a quality unit on the field in 2014.

As a rookie, David Bakhtiari garnered considerable praise for his performance in the place of injured starter Bryan Bulaga. An undersized blocker who left Colorado as an early entrant into the draft, Bakhtiari's year-one expectations were limited to acclimating to the Packers' blocking scheme and adding weight. That changed the moment Bulaga's ACL snapped in the Family Night scrimmage in August. With neither Don Barclay or Marshall Newhouse viewed as viable replacement options, head coach Mike McCarthy pulled the proverbial redshirt off of Bakhtiari and tossed him into the starting lineup. While his weight hindered his performance in the run game for most of the year, Bakhtiari provided steady pass protection, earning the trust of the quarterback and the coaching staff in the process. Now more experienced and reportedly thicker and stronger than a year ago, Bakhtiari appears ready for the same year two jump the Packers enjoyed from Bulaga in 2011.

Though often denied their due credit, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang form one of the NFL's elite guard tandems. Since breaking into the starting lineup, Sitton has established himself as the Packers' top offensive lineman. In 2013 he performed at his highest level yet, earning his first All-Pro honors. Having only missed a total of two games in the last five years, he's as reliable as they come. While not in the same class, Lang provides amble support in both run blocking and pass pro. He's also capable of kicking into center, and like Sitton, Lang almost never misses games to injury. The Packers can check the boxes here and move on.

But that's where the guarantees end. At least officially, competition during training camp and the preseason will determine the other two starting offensive linemen. While the Packers have some intriguing options at both spots, all come with major questions.

At right tackle, Bryan Bulaga is the presumed frontrunner while Don Barclay, a starter a year ago, battles him. Bulaga was once a rising star on the Packers offensive line. After he performed ably as a rookie during the team's Super Bowl run, he blossomed into one of the league's best right tackles in 2011. Bulaga appeared well on his way to establishing himself as one of the team's core players before a devastating hip injury cut his 2012 season short and a torn ACL ended his 2013 before it even began. Sporting a large brace on his left knee, Bulaga hopes that a year and a half away from the field won't derail his attempts to return to the starting lineup.

Don Barclay's journey to this competition was considerably different. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of West Virginia, surprisingly making the Packers' final roster out of the preseason. After T.J. Lang's unsuccessful stint replacing Bulaga following his hip injury, Barclay was summoned to take his place. His performance was rarely pretty, but Barclay provided enough at right tackle to push the Packers into the divisional round of the playoffs. Likewise, when Bulaga's next injury forced the team into damage control, Barclay won the starting tackle job again, this time over Marshall Newhouse. Unfortunately, his performance over the course of the 2013 season left much to be desired. While his pass protection improved from his rookie year, Barclay struggled mightily blocking for Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and the rest of the Packers' ground game. While Mike McCarthy may refer to Barclay as a starting-caliber offensive lineman, it's difficult to see him beating out Bulaga.

The odds look closer to a push at center. When the Packers allowed Evan Dietrich-Smith to walk this offseason for an eminently affordable contract it signaled their belief in second-year player J.C. Tretter. The 6-4 converted left tackle from Cornell possesses great agility for a man his size to go along with a high football IQ. Green Bay is betting on his physical advantages outweighing his inexperience. An ankle injury suffered during his first practice back in 2013 cost him virtually the entire season, though it's telling that the Packers brought Tretter back onto the roster after his lengthy stay on the physically unable to perform list.

Tretter's only competition is fifth-round pick Corey Linsley, a multi-year starter at Ohio State. Unlike typical Green Bay offensive linemen, Linsley isn't a converted tackle. Rather, Linsley played at center the past two seasons, including an undefeated campaign in 2012. That experience could bridge the gap between him and Tretter, the latter standing an inch taller and around ten pounds heavier.

There will be growing pains with whoever wins the starting center job. Neither Tretter nor Linsley has taken as much as a preseason snap yet in the NFL, and both desperately need to build rapport with Aaron Rodgers. The Packers hope that playing between Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang can aid the process, but there will be mishaps early on this season. Whether they persist into January will define Green Bay's 2014.

The starting lineup isn't the only group in flux, however. It's naïve to expect all five starters to play all 16 games, and the Packers have often failed to find adequate depth.

But this year could be an exception. While he hasn't performed like a starter in the past, Don Barclay possesses the experience and versatility to make him the ideal sixth linemen. During his first two seasons, Barclay took snaps at both right tackle and right guard. He also spent some time at center during 2013's OTAs. So far this year, Barclay also earned time with the starting unit at left guard when back soreness sidelined Josh Sitton. If the team trusts Barclay at four of the five offensive line positions, he can be a valuable asset.

Whoever loses the center battle will need to backup at guard as well in order to solidify their roster spot. Since returning from the PUP, Tretter has practiced exclusively at center. Linsley too has taken his reps there, but he also played at guard while at Ohio State and could line up there in a pinch. However, with Barclay capable of lining up at so many positions and T.J. Lang capable of sliding into center, it's hard to see the Packers' backup center being active on game days.

The wildcard of the group is Derek Sherrod. The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations due to a gruesome leg break suffered his rookie year and the medical setbacks that followed. But he finally returned to action last season, even if only for six snaps. This is the first full offseason Sherrod has been able to devote completely to refining his craft. If he can reclaim the form that made him one of the best offensive tackle prospects in the 2011 draft, the Packers could have above average backup at either tackle spot this season.

Still, while the potential exists for the Packers' 2014 offensive line to perform as well or better than any of their units of the past ten years, there are simply too many moving parts to predict that now. Even if the Bulaga/Barclay showdown is mostly for show, the team could truly go either way at center. Green Bay is banking on Bakhtiari taking the leap in his second season, something that appears within his reach but is hardly guaranteed. The discrepancy between the offensive line's ceiling and floor is larger now than at any time since Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera left. If the group gels, it could help propel Green Bay to another title run. If it fails to find consistency, the Packers could be doomed to another one-and-done playoff appearance. Or worse.

Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. He also serves as a contributor to TonySoftli.com and The Football Educator. His work has previously appeared on Hook’em Headlines, Beats Per Minute, and Lombardi Ave.
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