For the better part of the past two decades, the Green Bay Packers’ starting offensive line has been a sure thing, at least during offseason workouts. Rarely has the team drafted a player on the line with the immediate intent being for him to start in week one.
In fact, this has arguably never happened under Ted Thompson’s leadership. Even the team’s two first-round offensive linemen during Thompson’s tenure — Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod — were backups to start their rookie years. In fact, the only two draft picks who started as rookies did so as a result of injuries. David Bakhtiari took over at left tackle for Bulaga after a torn ACL shut him down for the 2013 season, while Corey Linsley stepped in for JC Tretter in 2014 at center in the final preseason game and never looked back. Of course, both have put themselves squarely in the top tier of players at their positions in the league as a result of their play.
However, last season saw uncertainty at the right guard position at this time of the year, and there is little consensus on who the week one starter will be in 2019 as well. Beyond that, there are some other moving parts that could change the approach for this line, and there is a non-zero chance that as many as three new starters could be in the lineup this fall.
With new personnel like free agent Billy Turner and second-round pick Elgton Jenkins joining recently-returned Cole Madison, the Packers have a multitude of talented, if unproven options for various spots on the line. Let’s take a look at some different combinations that could end up being the Packers’ starting five when they play the Bears in week one to begin the 2019 campaign.
Bakhtiari — Taylor — Linsley — Turner — Bulaga
For now, given the investment in these players, this looks like the most plausible scenario if everyone is healthy through training camp. Bulaga remains the starter at right tackle — after all, he’s still an excellent player when uninjured — while the team sticks it out with Lane Taylor for another year at left guard.
Then, the investment in Turner in free agency results in him winning the competition to start at right guard, though he would likely be the first man up at right tackle if and when Bulaga goes down.
This is a line long on experience, but with some question marks outside of Bakhtiari and Linsley. For Taylor, the fundamental question is whether he is athletic enough to fit in with Matt LaFleur’s offense. Turner is a more athletic player, but the question becomes whether he is a better fit at guard or tackle. And as always, Bulaga needs to stay healthy. Still, this unit gives the Packers the best depth, with Elgton Jenkins and some combination of Jason Spriggs, Lucas Patrick, Cole Madison, Justin McCray, Alex Light, and Adam Pankey contributing.
Bakhtiari — Taylor — Linsley — Jenkins — Bulaga
Let’s say that Jason Spriggs plays his way off the roster. That could mean that the Packers prepare Turner to play tackle full-time and open up the right guard spot for a full competition. Jenkins, by virtue of his athleticism and high level of play in college, is probably the best bet, though Madison and Patrick look to be candidates as well.
This leaves Turner as a pricey swing tackle, backing up both bookends in 2019 before presumably taking over for Bulaga in 2020 when the veteran’s contract expires. However, it requires less shuffling if there is an injury, as each position (aside from center) has a plug-and-play backup.
Bakhtiari — Taylor — Linsley — Jenkins — Turner
Whether due to injury or due to an unexpected change in approach to Bulaga’s roster status, this setup is a possibility as well. See above, but Turner takes over at right tackle a year earlier than expected.
Still, the Packers seem to value Bulaga highly, so the gap on the roster created by cutting him seems like it will not be worth the $6.5 million in cap room such a move would free up.
Bakhtiari — Jenkins — Linsley — Turner — Bulaga
Here’s where things could get really interesting. Taylor has two years left on his contract, but the structure is such that the Packers would get some cap relief if they were to cut him loose. If LaFleur simply doesn’t feel that he’s a fit and if Jenkins and Madison look ready to be major contributors right away, this could be an option.
The athleticism on this line is very impressive, and the 2020 line that would project to have Madison and Turner on the right side looks even better. But for the upcoming season, moving on from Taylor seems like a move that would be difficult for the Packers to accommodate.
Then again, they did this very thing in 2016 when Ted Thompson released Josh Sitton at final cuts with Taylor waiting in the wings. It would be some impressive symmetry if a similar situation hits Taylor three years later.
The projections above tend to assume that Jenkins is the next option behind Turner at guard. However, Patrick’s starting experience, Madison’s athleticism, and McCray’s tenacity could earn them the job over the rookie. In that case, Jenkins would almost certainly be the primary backup at all three interior spots. Note also that Jenkins likely becomes the Packers’ insurance policy at center from day one — as an experienced and successful college center, he is almost certainly the player who would be tasked to deliver the football to Aaron Rodgers should anything happen to Linsley.