Corey Linsley is as good as gone. The sooner that Green Bay Packers fans accept that, the better. It’s a shame, because Linsley was (deservedly) the NFL’s first-team All-Pro center and the Packers’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in 2020, but the realities of the league and the team’s financial situation in the year 2021 make his return a virtual impossibility.
The Packers, recognizing that this was a strong possibility even before the COVID-19 pandemic threw the salary cap into disarray, have been getting their house in order to handle Linsley’s departure for the better part of two years now. General manager Brian Gutekunst’s efforts to thoroughly bolster the interior of the Packers’ offensive line date back to the 2019 offseason, showing an intent to give the team the ability to move on when Linsley’s contract expired.
That contract, a three-year extension, was one of Ted Thompson’s final gifts to the franchise, along with a new deal for Davante Adams. Both of those extensions went into place just before week 17 of the 2017 season, just weeks before Thompson stepped down from his GM post. Linsley got $25.5 million on that deal with $8 million up front in a signing bonus that spread out over four years (including 2017) to keep his cap hit mostly palatable throughout the contract.
Three main factors likely preclude Linsley signing a third contract with the Packers. First, he turns 30 years old this offseason, which informs point two: his recent injuries. Although he has missed just three games in the past four years, Linsley has dealt with nagging back issues consistently of late. Finally there are the finances, as a top-tier center should expect to receive at least $10 million and probably north of $11 million per year for fair market value.
Again, the writing has been on the wall if you look closely enough. Here’s a chronology of the Packers’ acquisitions on the interior of the offensive line.
2019 Free Agency: RG/RT Billy Turner
Although Turner was primarily a tackle in 2020, bouncing back and forth between the right and left sides, he spent most of 2019 as the team’s starting right guard. The Packers signed him to a four-year contract as part of Gutekunst’s big free agency splurge and his deal, though surprising in its total value, has turned out to largely be a solid value at $7 million per year.
With the team’s right guard play being an unmitigated disaster in 2018, with Justin McCray taking a major step back and veteran Byron Bell playing no better, the Packers saw Turner as a short-term investment to solidify the guard position and a long-term one to provide insurance in case Bryan Bulaga left in free agency, which he did in 2020. Notably, Turner did move back in to right guard when Linsley was out for three games this season, though with Wagner now released, the right tackle job should belong to Turner as long as he’s healthy.
2019 NFL Draft: Elgton Jenkins
With their second-round pick in 2019, the Packers landed a stud interior lineman capable of playing nearly any position across the front five. Elgton Jenkins settled in at left guard, taking over for Lane Taylor early as a rookie, but his flexibility was on display in 2020 as he lined up everywhere but right guard. Jenkins’ background as a college center (or at least that being his primary position at Mississippi State) suggests that the Packers may view him as the long-term answer at center, but he started week one at right tackle, showing a remarkable versatility that could result in him playing nearly anywhere along the line.
At the very least, Jenkins is one of the better interior linemen in the NFL regardless of position, and his selection in the second round in 2019 is a sign that the Packers needed a long-term talent infusion on the inside.
2019 Contract Extension: Lucas Patrick
A former undrafted free agent — nay, a rookie minicamp tryout invitee — Patrick has worked his way from that modest status to key backup to full-time starter this last season. But in December 2019, he signed a two-year contract extension for just under $3 million, buying out a year each of restricted and unrestricted free agency. That contract came at the end of a season in which he played 14 games but did not make a start and only took the field for 137 snaps, though he had about doubled that snap count in each of his first two seasons.
Still, the Packers saw Patrick at the time as a critical depth piece along the interior and a potential starter. Indeed, he was thrust into the starting lineup almost immediately in 2020, as Taylor went down with a second straight season-ending injury in week one, and ended up playing all three interior spots. This two-year bridge contract has kept him in Green Bay for Linsley’s last year and presumably the first year after he leaves, ensuring some continuity. Patrick’s ability to play center, like that of Jenkins, was likely a key consideration here as well, as the two would both be candidates to succeed Linsley, with the other likely lining up at one of the guard spots.
2020 NFL Draft: Three sixth-round interior linemen
This brings us to last offseason, when the Packers did little in free agency. However, what they did with their three sixth-round draft picks — one compensatory pick, one choice that came from the Titans in a trade, and their own sixth — shows a team looking to hit on a few late lottery tickets.
The choice to use three straight picks on interior linemen hearkened back to Gutekunst’s wide receiver spree in 2018, when he grabbed three players at that position on the third day of that year’s draft. By drafting Jon Runyan, Jr., Simon Stepaniak, and Jake Hanson, the team tripled down again in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough and building up the depth for the future.
In year one, it appears that they have one definite keeper, as Runyan backed up his excellent Combine performance (he was one of only a few college tackles to hit the Packers’ ideal athletic thresholds across the board) with encouraging relief performances in regular season games. The team also thought enough of Stepaniak to activate him off the PUP list late in the season, even though he did not make it into a game, while Hanson toiled on the practice squad all season.
If even one of these three picks turns out to be a reliable starter, this was a worthwhile gambit. Runyan has the best chance based on early returns, and he may well be a starter in week one of 2021.
If and when Linsley moves on, the Packers have a solid group of players on the interior and a clear set of good options for a succession plan. When David Bakhtiari returns in 2021, the line could well look like some combination of the following:
- Bakhtiari, Runyan, Jenkins, Patrick, Turner
- Bakhtiari, Jenkins, Patrick, Runyan, Turner
- Bakhtiari, Runyan, Patrick, Turner, Jenkins
The last option is a bit off-the-wall, but with Jenkins’ start at right tackle in week one while Turner was out with an injury, it isn’t as crazy as one might think. The Packers could even re-sign Lane Taylor to a cheap deal for some veteran depth and let him and Runyan duke it out for a starting job — after all, Taylor was the week-one starter at right guard in 2020.
Taylor’s return might make even more sense with Bakhtiari out early on; that could let the Packers roll with a Turner, Runyan, Patrick, Taylor, Jenkins line to start the season and alleviate the perceived need to add veteran depth at the tackle position.