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Packers’ 2019 Free Agents: Easy decisions coming on the Offensive Line

Brian Gutekunst should move on from one player while keeping the rest.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Over two weeks, Acme Packing Company will break down the Green Bay Packers’ 2018 roster position-by-position, providing our grades for each spot and looking ahead to free agency. Today, we continue with the offensive line.

Compared to the previous seasons, the Packers offensive line took a step backwards this year.

Byron Bell and Lane Taylor’s below average play along with Bryan Bulaga playing through nagging injuries attributed to the step back. Brian Gutekunst should stay patient with the two as Taylor and Bulaga are prime bounce back candidates in 2019.

The Packers have starters David Bahktiari (2 years), Lane Taylor (2 years), Corey Linsley (2 years) and Bryan Bulaga (1 year) all under contract and I doubt we will see any changes coming from that group. There could be a surprise money-saving cut with Bulaga but, with a fairly weak free agent class, I don’t see that as an option unless Gutekunst is 100% confident in Jason Spriggs (1 year remaining) or a draft pick as replacements.

The Packers do have a hole at right guard and may look internally to fill that void. Anthony Coyle, Gerhard de Beer, Alex Light, and Nico Siragusa are all under contract for 2019. Just from his playing time in 2018, I would guess that Light would have the inside track from those names but a more likely name could be in the list of Exclusive Rights Free Agents listed below. Let’s take a look at what decisions the Packers need to make along the offensive line.

Byron Bell - Guard/Tackle

NFL Experience: 8 years
FA Status: Unrestricted
Expiring Contract: 1 year, $1.7 million
2018 Stats: 12 games played, 9 games started at right guard

I’ll start off with a positive about Byron Bell. After my initial dislike of the move, I’m glad the Packers brought him in this season. While his play was not very good, his versatility to play guard or tackle was valuable. I think having him struggle could be a blessing in disguise as I’d rather have him play badly on a one year contract than ruin the confidence of a younger player by throwing them into the fire before they are ready.

Now on to the bad. Bell started at right guard for nine games and it was nine games too many. He came into the season as a backup with a good amount of experience so I felt he might be good if he was needed in limited quantities. He ended up taking over the right guard spot after Justin McCray’s shoulder injury in week three and never gave the position back until he was put on injured reserve in mid December. For nine games Bell struggled and didn’t give the Packers or any of the fans a reason to feel confident in him going forward.

The Packers should definitely pass on re-signing Bell. Pro Football Focus rated him as the 73rd-best guard out of 80 qualifiers this season. He was top ten in quarterback pressures given up and just couldn’t seem to gel with the Packers offense overall. On top of that, Bell is over 30 years old and, if Brian Gutekunst stays true to the previous regime’s history of letting offensive linemen go after 30, there won’t be a place for him. It’s time to give the young guys a shot or possibly even making a high draft pick on a lineman to fill the right guard void.

Justin McCray - Guard

NFL Experience: 2 years
FA Status: Exclusive Rights
Expiring Contract: 1 year, $555,000
2018 Stats: 12 games played, 5 games started at right guard

Justin McCray had a very positive 2017 season and the Packers rewarded his good play with the right guard spot in 2018. However, fate had another result for McCray in 2018. McCray looked decent in the first three games of the season but he wound up with a shoulder injury during the Washington game in week three. Byron Bell took over and McCray never played his way back on the field until Bell went to injured reserve late in the season.

The biggest thing to look for in that situation is this: Was the shoulder injury just too much for him to overcome getting his spot back or was he not able to beat out Bell in practice? If McCray’s shoulder was the issue, there isn’t too much to be worried about. Shoulder injuries take a lot time to recover from and they are hard to play through even with the smallest of injuries, especially on the offensive line.

Now, if his shoulder was fine and he just couldn’t beat out Byron Bell to get his spot back, then we have an issue. As I’ve mentioned, Bell struggled mightily this year and if McCray couldn’t impress the coaches enough to get back on the field, it might be time to move on from him.

An important part of bringing McCray back next season is that he’s not going to cost a lot of money. With that, he will probably come back next year. His potential from 2017 gives him a second chance from a bad season this year. He’ll have a chance to get the right guard spot back and if not, he will at least be a solid back if he’s healthy.

Lucas Patrick - Guard/Center

NFL Experience: 2 years
FA Status: Exclusive Rights
Expiring Contract: 1 year, $555,000
2018 Stats: 14 games played, 4 games started (2 games at left guard, 2 games at right guard)

Lucas Patrick is building himself into a solid player. He’s the perfect type of blue collar player that works in Green Bay. He started out on the practice squad and keeps moving up the depth chart each year. This past season he ended up being one of the top reserves for the interior of the offensive line.

Patrick was vital in getting solid play when Lane Taylor and Byron Bell struggled with injuries. He ended up starting two games at each guard spot and played well with his opportunity. Patrick still needs to shore up his run blocking and pass protection before he gets a full time starting job but he will be in play for the starting right guard spot in 2019 if the Packers keep him around.

With that, Patrick is in the same boat as McCray. He’s not going to cost a lot of money and he keeps improving his game each year. So, he definitely should be back next year and will compete for that starting right guard spot. He actually reminds me a lot of the career path of TJ Lang. Started off low on the depth chart and kept grinding away and improving year after year until he started getting playing time. Hopefully, Patrick turns into the type of blocker Lang was for the Packers too.

Adam Pankey

NFL Experience: 2 years (1 accrued season for free agency)
FA Status: Exclusive Rights
Expiring Contract: 1 year, $550,000
2018 Stats: 1 game played

Adam Pankey is another intriguing young player for the Packers. He was promoted from the practice squad on December 8th and only got limited snaps in the Falcons game this season. With Pankey being on the practice squad most of the last year, he fits the mold of most Packer reserves from the offensive line. They are low draft picks or undrafted free agents that were molded carefully and patiently by offensive line coach James Campen.

With Adam Stenavich taking over for Campen, Pankey will need to impress to make the team. He doesn’t have much tape to give Stenavich a look at what he can do but he versatility to play both guard and tackle are important. He actually has a similar career path of Lucas Patrick so far and should be in the plans for 2019. Will he compete for a starting spot? Possibly but doubtful. He’ll would need to jump ahead of a few more established players but, at minimum, he should give some depth and potential for the Packers moving forward.