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Packers 2020 OL Additions: Veteran starter buttresses reliable rookie

Signing Rick Wagner proved invaluable even if he struggled in the NFC Championship Game. And while the Packers didn’t get much from two of their three rookie linemen, the third offered important versatility.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers
Rick Wagner did exactly what you expect from a veteran swing tackle: offer solid play.
Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2020 season. Today, we finish our analysis of the offensive line.

Brian Gutekunst’s approach to the Packers’ offensive line in the spring of 2020 embodies his blend of a more aggressive free agent approach with the traditional Ted Thompson draft-and-develop strategy of team building. It also typifies how Gutekunst handles problem spots. Every offseason he’s been the GM, Gutey paired a free-agent acquisition with a draft pick at key positions, and in fact in all three offseasons, he snagged multiples either through signings or the draft at those need positions.

The ‘20 offseason brought the Packers veteran tackle Rick Wagner, who we assumed would started at right tackle, and a trio of drafted offensive linemen, only one of whom actually saw the field. Jon Runyan Jr, who Aaron Rodgers dubbed “Mr. Reliable,” saw playing time im Week 1 due to injury and wound up pressed into duty multiple times over the course of the season.

Despite myriad injuries and shuffling along the line, the group played like the best line in football, thanks in large part to the depth Gutey provided last spring. The Packers line excelled overall, topping the NFL in ESPN’s win rate stats, kept Rodgers clean, opened holes in the run game and set the tone for the best offense in football.

Rick Wagner

How acquired: Unrestricted free agent signing
Contract: 2 years, $11 million
Stats: 9 starts, 16 games active, 58.8% of offensive snaps

Wagner entered training camp as the presumed starter from the outside, but the team rotated Billy Turner in at tackle with Lucas Patrick and Lane Taylor getting time at guard. Turner rotated between guard and tackle on the right side, making it all the more surprising that Elgton Jenkins ended up starting at right tackle in Week 1 with Lucas Patrick at guard when Turner was on the shelf with an injury.

Whether that’s a long-term plan with Jenkins or not, Wagner ended up taking the lion’s share of backup tackle reps, not Jenkins, who ended up having to play just about every position on the line at some point. With injuries to the interior, with Corey Linsley and Billy Turner missing time, Wagner stepped in and did so admirably. He finished 25th in pass blocking efficiency by Pro Football Focus’ charting among tackles who played at last 300 pass blocking snaps, a fraction ahead of Turner.

Wagner didn’t just get it done as a pass-blocker either, finishing 24th in offensive grade among tackles with at least 500 total snaps.

Jon Runyan Jr.

How acquired: Selected in the 6th round (192nd overall) of the 2020 NFL draft
Contract: 4 years, $3.47 million
Stats: 0 starts, 16 games played, 15.4% of offensive snaps, 18.7% of special teams snaps

Injuries forced Runyan onto the field right away in Week 1 against the Vikings, a harbinger of things to come for the rookie from Michigan. In a four week stretch he played 31, 0, then 50 and 50 snaps with starters missing time. His back-to-back heavy snap performance against the Colts and Bears offered particularly tantalizing potential.

The moment never looked too big for him; he didn’t make many mental errors, and his transition from tackle to guard never slowed him down even with a modified offseason. DeForest Buckner makes NFL vets look silly on a weekly basis, but the Packers stout interior, with the help of Runyan, limited the Indy star to just 1 tackle and little impact overall on the game. In all, he allowed just 4 hurries in 80 pass block reps.

Don’t be surprised when JRJ enters 2021 as a preferred starter somewhere along the interior, whether it’s guard or center. He could follow a J.C. Tretter-esque path from Day 3 college tackle to quality NFL center.

Ben Braden

How Acquired: Signed to the practice squad Oct. 21st
Contract: Not reported
Stats: 0 starts, 4 games active 4 offensive snaps, 4.2% special teams snaps

Another former Michigan guard ended up on the Packers roster after a previous appearance on Green Bay’s practice squad. Originally signed in 2019 to the practice squad, Braden returned in October after the Patriots released him. Braden joined the active roster for a handful of games didn’t play a meaningful role on the team, though more meaningful than the two other rookies besides Runyan from the 2020 class.

Whether or not Braden can make it back on the 2021 club will rely on how the coaches feel he developed from ‘19 to ‘20. Clearly the coaches and front office thought enough of him to bring Braden back, but he also spent time with the Jets twice and the aforementioned stop in New England.

A practice squad emergency body may be his destiny.

Jake Hanson

How Acquired: Selected in the 6th round (208th overall) of the 2020 NFL draft
Contract: 4 years, $3.45 million contract.
Stats: N/A

When a draft pick doesn’t make the team out of training camp, be concerned. The Packers brought long-time Oregon Duck center back after cutting him, but gave up on the sixth-round pick before he ever had a chance to play an NFL snap, dropping him into their practice squad. They re-signed him last month for 2021 at a base number of $660,000, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Hanson, with plenty of pass-blocking reps and experience, was supposed to be a pro-ready prospect coming out of the ‘20 draft and turned out to be the opposite. He’s a late Day 3 flyer, but so far, not so good for him.

Simon Stepaniak

How Acquired: Selected in the 6th round (209th overall) of the 2020 NFL draft
Contract: 4 years, $3.447 million
Stats: N/A

When the Packers drafted Stepaniak, they knew the ‘20 season would likely be a redshirt year after he tore his ACL in December. Green Bay didn’t activate him until Dec. 9, and he didn’t play a snap, so we don’t know what he’s capable of in the NFL.

A guard coming out (interesting because the Packers generally prefer to draft tackles to convert), Stepaniak wasn’t a heralded prospect by any means, hence his fall to the sixth round, and the only measurable we have is his bench, though he put up 37 reps, the second-most at the combine.

Clearly the Packers liked him enough to activate him late in the season, which probably says more about guys like Hanson than anything else. Stepaniak will have to compete to earn a roster spot in ‘21.