Two cornerbacks, three wide receivers, and a future first round pick — Brian Gutekunst’s first draft as general manager of the Green Bay Packers provided gobs of sizzle. In 2019, he may be looking for the steak. With ‘pass rushers’ checked off the grocery list, the top of the Packers draft board likely looks very unsexy. That’s not a shot at 300-pound offensive linemen; after all, we don’t condone body shaming at Acme Packing Company. But an offensive tackle at 12 or 30, especially with a pass rusher like Brian Burns or a linebacker like Devin Bush still on the board, could send Cheesehead Nation into a tailspin.
If you nodded your head while reading that sentence, prepare your body. It’s coming. Green Bay has spent much of the offseason investigating, studying, and talking to top offensive line talent. It looks very much like Gutekunst has his sights set on a blue chip offensive line upgrade with top draft capital.
The straightforward case for using a premium asset on an offensive linemen who probably won’t play in 2019 rests on two main tenets: nothing is more important than protecting Aaron Rodgers, and there isn’t an obvious plan at right tackle beyond 2019. This draft class, with a slew of offensive tackles who could also play guard, provides a unique opportunity for the Packers to pick a top player with the idea of grooming him for a long-term role.
When Bryan Bulaga stays on the field, he’s one of the best right tackles in football and an elite pass blocker. He’s also not under contract beyond 2019 and isn’t reliable enough staying on the field. There’s a case to be made that 12-14 games of Bulaga is better than 16 games of most offensive tackles in the league—ask the Giants about Ereck Flowers—but if Green Bay is looking for a long-term solution for Bulaga, he may be waiting in this draft.
Ted Thompson moved on from Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang a year too early, but then their bodies broke down, culminating in each retiring this offseason. Bulaga’s body isn’t fully broken yet, but the creaks can be heard from Wisconsin Rapids. Drafting someone in this draft to replace him in a year would give that player the opportunity to learn for a year behind one of the best guys at his position, while also acclimatizing to Matt LaFleur’s offense and life in the NFL.
Don’t underestimate the value of the latter point. The Year 2 leap exists because the transition for college players at any position remains difficult despite the burgeoning schematic overlap. A full year in the NFL with a full-time offseason provides the best opportunity to take a major jump forward developmentally. Offensive linemen struggle even more in the modern NFL because the CBA reduced the padded practices and total practices, making the adjustment from the college to pro game much more cumbersome.
Getting that year in this offense, and in all likelihood having the chance to play a game or two when Bulaga inevitably gets hurt, insulates the Packers against that development curve.
The list of players the Packers have interviewed tells the story. Jawaan Taylor, Dalton Risner, Jonah Williams, Andre Dillard, Kaleb McGary, Greg Little, Chuma Edoga, and Tytus Howard all project to go in the top two rounds. Throw in some Day 3 tackles Green Bay has kept an eye on and the message is clear: they want a premium offensive line upgrade.
They’ve shown more interest in offensive tackles than any other position, which, on its own, may not be surprising. Ted Thompson never drafted guards; he selected tackles who moved to guard. And he did so with sagacious efficiency. He also took Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the first round, players who didn’t fit the typical athletic model they preferred when picking offensive linemen.
If Brian Gutekunst is his football father’s son, so to speak, it’s not out of the question that the Packers would be willing to look outside their tendencies with athletic profile to pick a player they think can anchor their offensive line. That brings together an interesting question: with so many of the above players capable, or perhaps even better suited inside, is it the case they’re definitely looking at a right tackle of the future?
Billy Turner’s contract would make much more sense if the’s a short-term answer at right guard and the perceived long-term answer at right tackle. The positional versatility of so many of the tackles in this draft allow Green Bay to pick one and figure out where he fits best later, opening up the opportunities for players who might not otherwise be great options.
Alabama’s Jonah Williams, for example, doesn’t fit the athletic profile Green Bay generally prefers, but has drawn comparisons to Bulaga already and looks like he could be a solid right tackle. Some evaluators see a Pro Bowl guard. The ability to play both should appeal to the Packers, who brought Williams in this week for a visit. Risner, McGary, Taylor, and Little could fit the same kind of bill, particularly as the first three played right tackle in college. Players like Dillard and Edoga probably have to play tackle only given where they are in their development curve.
Still, the interest in offensive tackle, whether they play inside or outside, portends the end of Bulaga’s tenure in Green Bay. Turner may be the future, or it could be one of these top offensive line prospects. If Gutekunst does go that route, using a high pick on an offensive lineman, he’ll show his cards when it comes to Bulaga’s future.
Considering nothing is more important than protecting Aaron Rodgers, using such high draft capital on an offensive lineman, even to go outside their preferred physical norms, serves as smart team building. It may not be the sexy pick at 12, but it is the prudent one. Signing Billy Turner gives the Packers even more flexibility to take a player whose best position may be inside but could still play outside effectively.
By May, there’s a very good chance we’ll know who the right side of the Packers offensive line will be for the next few years. We just may not know yet who is playing where. Luckily for Aaron Rodgers, that plan probably no longer involves Jason Spriggs.