We close out our look at the offensive evaluations with a peak at the offensive line. I think the way any given Packer fans sees the offensive line comes down to whether that individual is an optimist or a pessimist. An optimist will probably view the line as something needing upgrading, but primarily upgrades to depth and center are needed more than anything else. To justify this point you’ll hear arguments about generally good pass protection, the ability to give three seconds for most plays, and high rankings in pass protection for the unit from various websites (most notably PFF). Oh, and injuries. You’ll hear a lot about injuries and how those injured players should be back and contributing next year. Meanwhile the pessimists will talk about the Packers needing two to three starters AND multiple backups for the offensive line. Those giving this argument will bring up an abnormally high amount of sacks (second most in the league); the dire need to protect Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers abysmal running game. Those arguments have been hashed out many times over the past couple weeks and will probably continue until the kickoff of the first preseason game for the Packers (or longer).
It’s against this backdrop we get our glimpse of how the line may look for 2013. I have to admit to being a bit more of an optimist in this analysis, but it’s hard to deny the serious questions surrounding this unit. I’ll warn you, it doesn’t get much prettier when we actually look at who is under contract for next year.
Signed for 2013:
The most obvious starting point here is Josh Sitton. Sitton is coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2012 and was easily the Packers best offensive lineman. He also happens to be one of the best right guards in football. He’s under contract for the foreseeable future and in the prime of his career. This position is in a good place.
The only offensive lineman right now who can challenge Sitton for the best Packer offensive lineman title is Bulaga. Bulaga has found a good home on the right side and has shown that he is capable of blocking effectively in both the running and passing game.. He had rocky patches early in the season (most notably against Seattle in week 3), but then quietly put together a very strong season before coming down with a hip injury. Right now most signs point to him being ready for camp and picking up where he left off before going down.
The last good piece of the offensive line comes with Don Barclay. Barclay was a pleasant find near the end of the season and performed about as well as you could expect a rookie third or fourth string tackle to play when pressed into service. Barclay could provide some much needed depth at the tackle position.
Would the real T.J. Lang please stand up? In 2011 Lang put together a pretty solid season. Lang also showed some ability to play LG at times in 2012, including a perfect pass protection grade from PFF in his final game of the year against the49ers. Other times though he looked bad or just plain lost. There is a good chance the Packers are going to try and break in a new center again next year, and so they can’t deal with a struggling LG at the same time. Lang needs to get his act together or the Packers need to think about upgrading this position.
The other area of the line many are going to look to upgrade is left tackle, here hoping the Packers can find a better answer than Marshall Newhouse. Newhouse did not have a bad season in 2012; he just did not really have a good season either. The problem is that he is protecting Rodgers’ blind side and often going up against the best pass rusher the opposing team has to offer…and he is simply not the best the Packers have to offer in the pass protection. Newhouse is okay, and can probably muddle through with some help most weeks, but he isn’t the long term answer and an upgrade could go a long way to helping the offensive line.
Perhaps the biggest question of the offensive line right now is what to make of Sherrod. Will he be healthy next year? Will he good…or at least challenge Newhouse for the starting LT position? Both of these questions are good and neither can really be answered yet. Here the optimist has faith and the pessimist has reservations. Unfortunately there won’t be any real answers until mini-camps open around May.
The Sherrod situation could get ugly fast, but the rest of the depth at offensive line is already a mess as it stands right now. Van Roten showed some flash in the preseason and provided depth late in the regular season, but is nothing to write home about. Datko recovered from a bad start to training camp but could not crack the 53 man roster despite the rash of injuries to the offensive line. At this point the rest of the players signed don’t appear to be much more than guys.
Perhaps the ugliest reality for the Packers though is the state of the center position. Jeff Saturday was a disappointment and is now retired. Evan Dietrich-Smith is a restricted free agent and so not under contract right now (although it’s highly likely he’ll be back). This means that the only guy under contract for the Packers right now who can play center is Garth Gerhart. Yeah it’s really that bad at the position.
Position Grade: D+
I’m an optimist and so I can’t give a failing grade….yet. I’ll hold out hope for Sherrod and Bulaga to bounce back. I’ll give Lang one more year to show 2011 wasn’t a fluke. I’m even game to resign EDS and give him a real shot at winning the starting center job next year. The problem is that this is a whole lot of hope and not many answers. It gets scarier when you look at the depth behind the starters. Here the players are raw at best and simply not NFL caliber players at worst.
Need for Improvement: 8.5 (out of 10)
This is bound to be one of the lowest grades given in this series, but I’m still not convinced that the offensive line is the greatest need. As a result I can’t quite put this down as a 9 or 10 yet. Now if news comes out that Bulaga, Sherrod, or Newhouse have some sort of offseason set back then that changes everything and OL becomes the most important position no matter which of the five OL positions is being drafted.