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If Josh Sitton hits free agency, the Packers should consider a reunion

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If the Bears decline Josh Sitton’s 2018 option, the Packers should pounce.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Just before the opening week of the 2016 season, the Green Bay Packers surprisingly released Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton rather than allow him to play out the final year of his contract. That decision broke up the best guard combination in the league, a move completed by T.J. Lang’s departure to the Detroit Lions last offseason. While Lang remains entrenched in Detroit, the Packers could receive a chance to fix part of that mistake in the coming months.

Sitton, who just completed his second season with the Chicago Bears, has a team option for 2018. Between Feb. 9 and March 10, the Bears must elect to either pick up that option (worth $8 million when coupled with his workout and roster bonuses) or decline it, allowing Sitton to hit unrestricted free agency. Should the latter occur, the Packers should think long and hard about bringing back the veteran guard.

On paper, the Bears have plenty of motivation to keep Sitton in town. The team invested considerable resources to acquire quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and ensuring adequate pass protection could prove the difference between developing the 2017 first-round pick into a franchise passer or adding him to the pile of busted Bears signal-callers. Furthermore, Sitton continues to play at a high level, and while he has missed six games since arriving in Chicago, he remains a reasonable value at a cap hit around $8.6 million.

At the same time, the Bears could let Sitton walk and bring in his successor through the draft. Many prognosticators have tied the team to an offensive lineman like Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson in the first round, including SB Nation’s Dan Kadar. For Chicago to get the most out a high selection like Nelson, opening a spot along the interior offensive line makes some sense. And while Sitton remains a reliable pass protector, the future looks more limited for the soon-to-be 32-year-old. While letting Sitton leave Chicago still seems like a stretch at this stage, the possibility cannot be entirely discounted.

But does a reunion make sense for the Packers? While Green Bay allowed 51 sacks in 2017 (fifth most in the NFL), much of the blame falls on the shoulders of Brett Hundley, who made nine starts, played the vast majority of a 10th game, and routinely held onto the ball too long (3 seconds on average, fourth longest out of the 41 qualified passers, per NFL Next Gen Stats). As for the ground game, the Packers finished the season ranked fourth in offensive rushing by DVOA. Taken in context, Green Bay’s offensive line performed admirably this past year.

Still, the Packers depended on 34-year-old veteran Jahri Evans to keep the O-line operational. Evans outperformed expectations considering he remained unsigned until one day before the 2017 NFL Draft, but he didn’t provide the consistency or all-around game of his predecessor Lang. Evans could return to Green Bay for his 13th NFL season, but the deterioration from the All-Pro form he displayed with the New Orleans Saints would likely continue unabated.

While Sitton too has regressed in recent years, he remains an above-average guard familiar with the Packers offense and personnel. He could step in for Evans at right guard, where he played the first five seasons of his NFL career. Alternatively, Green Bay could place Sitton back at left guard with Lane Taylor moving over to the right side where he previously played. Either configuration would provide a stronger offensive interior than the one Green Bay had last season.

That improvement could become critical should the Packers endure more issues at offensive tackle. Since signing a multiyear extension in 2015, Bryan Bulaga has endured several injuries including a season-ending ACL tear this past November. The team has given no indications that it plans to move on from Bulaga, but the severity of his injury could force the front office to consider other options, even underperforming former second-round pick Jason Spriggs. If Green Bay has to break in a new starter at right tackle, having a solidified interior O-line would help expedite the transition.

Bringing back Sitton could provide benefits off the field as well. By all accounts, the veteran guard got along well with his fellow offensive linemen as well as Aaron Rodgers. The latter could prove especially meaningful given Rodgers’ contract status. The Packers will likely open negotiations with Rodgers on a new deal sometime over the next 12 months. While Rodgers doesn’t appear likely to leave Green Bay, returning one of his favorite linemen could erase any doubt.

But would Sitton consider a reunion with the team that unceremoniously cut him on the eve of the 2016 season? While he might harbor lingering angst, the organization has changed drastically in the time since his departure. Brian Gutekunst now directs the front office while former general manager Ted Thompson has moved into the background as a glorified scout. Eliot Wolf, then the director of football operations, has left for the Cleveland Browns. Unless head coach Mike McCarthy ultimately made the push to cut the Pro Bowl guard -- unlikely given his dependence on Sitton in the past and his reported desire to see the team add talent rather than lose it in free agency -- it seems Sitton would find a more agreeable situation than the one he left two seasons ago.

All of this highlights the value for both sides in reuniting. Sitton can return to the place where he won a Super Bowl and compete for another while the Packers can improve their offensive line and reduce the risk of another major injury sidelining Rodgers and derailing their season. It would make for the rare win-win proposition in the NFL.