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NFL Draft

Packers Pushing Limits On Offensive Line Play

  • The Draft Network
  • May 21, 2021
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There’s an easy trap in the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams fell into it from 2018 into 2019, coming off a Super Bowl berth with the league’s hottest offense, talent drain came for the depth chart and coaching staff alike. The team’s 2019 offense took a step back, but the Rams dealt with bad injury luck—especially along the offensive line. It neutered their offense and forced a re-prioritization coming into the 2020 season. But injuries weren’t the culprit alone. The front office invited the issue.

In the 2019 offseason, Los Angeles thinned out its starting lineup by letting John Sullivan and Rodger Saffold walk away from expensive deals. Sullivan was probably replaceable; Saffold certainly wasn’t. For their replacements, the Rams went for middle-round draftees, targeting guard/tackle swing players in Bobby Evans and David Edwards in the 2019 draft. They joined incumbent 2018 middle-round players in Brian Allen and Joseph Noteboom in training camp competition.

The injuries certainly hurt, but the Rams elected to go cheaper and target youth on the offensive line that offseason, believing (wrongfully) that they could get away with it, given how their offense was built. They couldn’t; they had to scramble with different alignments, in-season trade acquisitions, and in general, bad offensive line play for the entire 2019 season. But the Rams bounced back. They got healthy, and the younger players—Austin Corbett and Edwards—forced into starting roles in the 2019 season started settling into more consistent play in 2020. Their offensive line isn’t as dominant as it once was, but it more than got the job done last year.

The Green Bay Packers’ dominant offensive line likely came in the 2019 season. Bryan Bulaga played 15 regular-season games at right tackle, David Bakhtiari didn’t miss a single game at left tackle, and Corey Linsley was an iron man at the pivot as well. The terrible guard play of 2018 offered by Byron Bell and Justin McCray had been cast aside as free-agent addition Billy Turner and then-rookie Elgton Jenkins both stepped into new roles and dominated. It was arguably the best offensive line in the league. The system helped. Head coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers were still riddling out the details of how quickly the ball had to get out and how the play-action fakes needed to work, but by the playoffs and into the next season, the quarterback and the offensive line were working hand in hand.

Prior to that 2020 season, Bulaga walked in free agency and signed with the Los Angeles Chargers. It was a defensible move: Bulaga was on the wrong side of 30, had dealt with injuries for much of his career, and was likely to demand a strong contract after denying the Packers’ attempt at a restructured, lower cap figure last season. With the rest of the line shored up, the Packers were fine to sign a street free agent—Rick Wagner, in this case—and expect strong line play overall in 2020. But Wagner dealt with injury, Jenkins bumped out to right tackle to fill his shoes, and then Turner did. Jenkins also had to take over at center once Linsley got hurt, which forced Lucas Patrick to play both guard spots throughout the season, especially once Turner started kicking out to left tackle after Bakhtiari got hurt.

Did you get all that?

Injuries happen and dealing with them is a nightmare. Much like the Rams before them, the Packers had built out the roster with versatile pieces like Turner and Jenkins, so they were able to plug whichever gap was most concerning with a variety of different combinations and generally keep the offensive line play afloat. Rodgers got rid of the ball quickly, run-pass options froze some defenders, and everything was salvageable. But the lesson to learn here isn’t that teams can get away with it. It’s that even minor, nagging offensive line injuries can have huge ramifications to the unit’s chemistry, and accordingly lead to a dropoff in play. Just because teams got by on the skin of their teeth doesn’t mean they will again.

The Packers may not have learned that lesson. With star center, Linsley, and star running back Aaron Jones both approaching free agency and enough money to pay only one, the Packers elected to return Jones; Linsley followed Bulaga’s path to Los Angeles and joined the Chargers. This one was a little tougher to defend. Linsley was 29, coming off of his first-ever first-team All-Pro bid, and had played a full season in three of the last four years. But Linsley walks, as does Wagner (who’s still unsigned). In free agency, Green Bay made no accompanying moves. Now, the Packers’ starting offensive line looks like one of the hodgepodge lines they had to scramble for during last season: Bakhtiari in at left tackle (once he comes back off of his ACL injury), Turner holding down right tackle, and some combination of Elgton Jenkins, Patrick, and the existing depth along the roster.

The depth Green Bay can look to aren’t middle-round picks over the last couple of years. The Packers took three sixth-round linemen last season in Jon Runyan, Jake Hanson, and Simon Stepaniak. All project as interior players in the league, and Runyan played 159 snaps last year as part of the Packers’ patchwork efforts. In the 2021 draft, fourth-round selection Royce Newman and sixth-round pick Cole Van Lanen joins Runyan and Stepaniak as college tackles likely to play guard in the NFL while second-round pick Josh Myers seems like the best projection to “win” a job in camp as a rookie. He played center for Ohio State, just like Linsley did, and may succeed Linsley’s role this season. It looks nice on paper; there’s a ton of options. Someone should win the starting job, right?

Well, one sure hopes so. But with an aging quarterback behind center—for now, or it may be a second-year gunslinger with no experience—it’s interesting that the Packers have elected to go younger and cheaper along the offensive line. It’s not as if the defense carried the Packers to back-to-back NFC Championship berths; no, it was the offense. And lest we forget, while Rodgers delivered an MVP season in 2020, he wasn’t necessarily dominating during 2019. The most consistent, reliable feature of the Packers’ success under LaFleur has been the offensive line. Now, he’s pushing the limits of that strength. 

The Packers’ offensive line is thinner and less experienced than it’s been in recent seasons. With high expectations for a Super Bowl berth in the building, a running back now on a market-level extension, and a volatile quarterback situation that requires daily monitoring, a sudden dropoff in offensive line play could neuter the team altogether. Even if it’s just the one-year blip of the Rams, that could be enough for the tenuous relationships in Green Bay to finally snap.

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