It's a refrain that has been repeated over and over again this offseason - the Green Bay Packers' offensive line is going to be shaken up in 2017. The team has four notable players on the two-deep set to hit free agency after the 2016 season, plus a couple of other deeper reserves whose contracts expire. Three of those players are starters, and it's likely that the Packers' line will look different next season.
GM Ted Thompson did this spring what he has done often in his tenure - identify a future need and address it a year before it becomes urgent. His drafting of Indiana tackle Jason Spriggs and Stanford lineman Kyle Murphy signify his recognition that injury depth and adding a long-term starter or two was a necessity.
Still, we are left wondering if the Packers can or will extend any of their key free agents during the 2016 season. With just under $10 million in salary cap space (according to Over the Cap), there's a possibility that they might be able to sign one or two of the starters to new deals. Here's a look at what each of these players might look for in free agency if they are to reach the open market next March and what factors might play into the team's and the players' decisions during the season.
David Bakhtiari, LT
6'4", 310; Age 24
We know that left tackles get paid more than any other position on the offensive line, and the Packers have benefited from having a solid left tackle on his rookie contract for the past three years and in 2016. Bakhtiari will come with a hefty price tag, however, if he at least maintains his level of play this season; if he continues to improve, look out. 12 left tackles around the league have contracts that pay them an average of $9 million or more, and 18 get at least $7 million per season. That $7M per year number is probably the bare minimum for Bakhtiari on the open market.
Given that former Steelers tackle Kelvin Beachum got five years and $45M total from the Jaguars this offseason after starting an average of 10 games per year in his first four years (while Bakhtiari has missed just two regular season games in three seasons), that number is definitely a possibility. Thompson might have to pay up in the $8 million per year range if he wants to extend Bakhtiari mid-season, and it would not be unreasonable for the tackle to still want to see what he could get on the open market even if that offer were on the table.
Josh Sitton, LG
6'3", 318; Age 30
A mainstay at guard since 2009, Sitton now a three-time Pro Bowler and has not seen his play dip by any significant measure. He has been less available in practice during the season, but that isn't affecting his play on the field. Sitton is currently the seventh-highest-paid guard in the league, earning $6.75M per year, and due to contract inflation he probably would be in line for another big deal, perhaps in the $8M/year range. That would put him behind only Kelechi Osemele, whose $11.7M/year deal blows all other guards out of the water.
The bet here, though, is that the Packers will want to see him maintain his ability to stay healthy and effective throughout his age 30 season (he turns 30 on June 16th) and that they will work to re-sign him after the season ends instead of trying to reach a deal before then.
T.J. Lang, RG
6'4", 318; Age 28
The other part of the Packers' guard tandem is Lang, whose $6.5M/year deal ends after this season. He hits age 29 in September and is therefore a year behind Sitton in the age equation. He also has appeared to have fewer nagging injuries over the years, missing less practice time, and has missed just two games since taking over as a starter in 2011 - the same number as his teammate over that span. Like Sitton, he is probably in line for a deal around the $8M/year mark.
However, my bet is that Lang would be the most likely of these three players to get a deal done during the season. The guard market is fairly well-established, so he and Sitton likely have a clear idea of what he would get in free agency. Either he or Sitton could get a deal done early on, but Lang's age and injury history seem to me to make him the better choice to lock in right away.
JC Tretter, C/G/T
6'4", 307; Age 25
Tretter's ability to play practically every position on the offensive line was put to the test in 2016, as he filled in as a starter at both center and left tackle while being listed as a center/guard on the official roster. He was of course pegged as the Packers' starter at center in his second year in 2014, before injuring his knee and giving way to Corey Linsley.
The intriguing part about Tretter is the question of whether he could project as a starting-caliber guard. It seems like a no-brainer that the Packers will try to keep Corey Linsley around long-term, and it also looks likely that Jason Spriggs would be seen as the left tackle of the future if they are unable to bring Bakhtiari back. Those moves would limit Tretter to either guard or a continued role as a versatile sixth lineman.
It's not hard to imagine a team going after Tretter in free agency as a starter at center, though, so he would likely want a significant promise of at least an opportunity to start in 2017 as well as appropriate compensation. Would it be worth $3-4 million per year for a potential starter and critical depth piece who can play all over? And would Tretter accept such a deal?
Don Barclay, G/T
6'4", 305; Age 27
Barclay is no lock to make the team in 2016, let alone to return for 2017, but he is on a one-year, league-minimum deal for this season and deserves some mention for his play pre-ACL tear. Post-tear in 2015, however, he was just not good. Even if he makes the team this year, he won't be more than a back-of-the-bench piece.
Matt Rotheram, G/C
6'5", 325; Age 23
Rotheram is technically a free agent next year, but he will be an exclusive-rights free agent so the Packers could keep him around for the league minimum in 2017. He may be groomed as Tretter's replacement as a swing player on the interior; he added some snaps at center this spring to his repertoire. Another year on the practice squad is not out of the question, either, but he could be an intriguing depth piece moving forward.