So far the elephants in the room that we have rounded up have been clear issue without simple solutions. For example, Jerel Worthy has a knee injury so more defensive linemen are needed, but who do you get? But what happens when figuring out the right question is harder than coming up with an answer? The Packers face this problem with their offensive line, but where exactly the problem lies is more difficult to track down. Should the team focus on tackle, center, or guard? Is it better to find a guy who may be able to play all five positions or a truly dominant force that specializes in one? With the offensive line depth in both the draft and free agency what is the best way to go? How much should the guys in house be trusted to get healthy or grow into their roles more? Another year of the line being one of the worst in the league is not an option, but a solution is tough to find until the right question can be found.
What Is The Problem?
Long story short, the offensive line was terrible last year. Now the line was not worst in the league –nor was it the worst in the division – but these things are a cold comfort when the line was just generally not good enough in either the running game or the passing game. This cannot continue and upgrades in personnel are clearly needed.
How Did We Get Here?
The cause of this problem can be broken down into three categories: 1) injuries, 2) poor planning, and 3) arrested development (cue the Tobias or Gob quotes).
Injures – The Packers have been quite serious in their efforts to improve the offensive line by drafting an offensive tackle in the first round two out of the past three years. The good news is that each of these players has not been a spectacular bust as we have seen with other teams around the league and in our division. The problem is that both players are also coming back from injuries which throw their reliability into question. If Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod can come back healthy this spring (or at least by this summer) then the Packers should be in great shape at tackle. If both injuries end up being serious then it may be time to panic.
Poor Planning – The Packers started off the year with a couple large gambles along the offensive line. The first was not carrying a legitimate backup for either tackle spot, betting that Sherrod would be healthy enough to return half way through the season. The next was that Jeff Saturday could continue his high level of play. The failsafe was T.J. Lang, who could move outside to tackle should an injury arise and then allow Evan Dietrich-Smith to play his left guard spot. All three of these bets failed. Sherrod never came back. Saturday struggled all year and was eventually benched. Lang could not adequately play right tackle, nor could EDS adequately play left guard. The line quickly became a mess. The only saving grace was the unexpected play of rookie Don Barclay. Barclay holding down the right tackle spot allowed Lang to move back to left guard and EDS to replace Saturday at center.
Arrested Development – The great hope of 2012 not only rested on health, but also the continued growth of T.J. Lang and Marshall Newhouse. Lang received a nice extension in the offseason after a solid 2011 campaign. Newhouse had some experience in 2011 and seemed to be able to take the next step and be a starting caliber offensive tackle. To say that these two failed to deliver on their expectations would be kind. Newhouse continues to be who he always was…average. Newhouse can hold his own against most of the pass rushers of the league, but when he would come across those with an elite skill set he is lost from the word go. He just cannot keep up with Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers, and the other freakishly athletic pass rushers of this league. Lang had a sharp regression. He looked lost more than once and often struggled at both guard and tackle.
The other player who is languishing in a state of arrested development is Sherrod. Sherrod has had a tough hand dealt to him so far in his career. He was drafted during the player lockout and so was robbed of a chance to be part of OTA’s and rookie minicamps. When he did arrive in training camp he was moved to a completely unfamiliar position and struggled as a result. He then suffered a freak injury that not only stole his first real offseason, but also an entire year of competing and training. It’s not that he’s been an outright bust, but rather he has been denied a chance to even get started competing for the position he was actually drafted for in the first place…left tackle. When a player loses a year like that it’s understandable to expect some rust, but in Sherrod’s case it may cause serious damage to his development.
How Are The Packers Reacting?
In some ways the Packers seem to be sticking to business as usual with the offensive line. McCarthy has been giving his normal sorts of offseason quotes supporting players many are questioning. He has said that he is comfortable heading into 2013 with EDS as the starting center, and that EDS is a more natural center than guard. McCarthy stated that Lang’s struggles were due to nagging injuries to his shoulder and elbow. He also praised Greg Van Rotten and thinks he can develop into a solid backup option.
McCarthy supporting embattled players is nothing new, as well as the concept of the Packers betting on the development of players rather than radical personnel moves in order to improve their team. What is different though is the notion that change may be coming. Or as McCarthy put it: "We will be a better offensive line next year. You can write that down."
One idea that is surfacing on how to improve the line is to move Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle. Last year around this time this thought was flat denied by the Packers. It was the belief that Sherrod and Newhouse would be good enough and Bulaga could turn into one of the better right tackles in the game. If a switch does happen for Bulaga the question becomes what has changed? Has the coaching staff lost faith in Sherrod and/or Newhouse? Has the rise of Don Barclay been so significant that they believe he could be a legitimate starter? Is the injury to Sherrod really that bad?
Then again, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk threw out a more nontraditional reason for this consideration. He stated that the Packers may be doing this as a smoke screen leading up to free agency. The idea is that this would distract teams away from the need the Packers have at tackle and allow the team to swoop in and nab one of the bigger name free agents. It’s an interesting idea, but I would be shocked if that were to happen. It seems like the complete opposite of the way the Packers normally do business.
So do the Packers need help more on the outside of the line or the inside of the line? How bad is the need at center? Do the Packers need more credible depth or so they need a starter or two to reinforce the line? These are the questions that Packers seem to be struggling with this offseason. Unfortunately there will not be good answers until after the draft when OTA’s start up. Until then the Packers will have to do their due diligence on the rich draft and free agent class and possibly make a move that will surprise us all.