The Green Bay Packers' offensive line has improved markedly the past two seasons, but the biggest question is who will be the team's fourth starting center in four years.
Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari had a successful rookie season and returns as the starter to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers' blind side.
Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY Sports
By Paul ImigFOX Sports Wisconsin
This is the fifth in a series of 14 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' July 26 start of camp.
TODAY'S POSITION: OFFENSIVE LINE
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
LT - David Bakhtiari LG - Josh Sitton C - JC Tretter RG - T.J. Lang RT - Bryan Bulaga
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Don Barclay, *Corey Linsley,*Derek Sherrod, Lane Taylor, Garth Gerhart, Andrew Tiller, John Fullington, Jeremy Vujnovich
During the 2012 season, the Green Bay Packers' offensive line wasn't a very good overall group. Aaron Rodgers was sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL and the running game lacked in production. ProFootballFocus rated the Packers' run-blocking that season as fourth-worst in the league.
Two years later, Green Bay's offensive line is quite good and has the potential to be great. It starts with having what is perhaps the best guard duo in the NFL, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. Individually, Sitton is arguably the best guard (and is certainly among the top four) in the NFL. He was finally recognized as a second-team All-Pro selection in 2013, one year after making his first Pro Bowl. But going by the advanced tracking at ProFootballFocus, Sitton was rated the No. 2 guard in the league last season and in 2010. In 2012, he was ranked sixth, and in 2011 he was ranked fifth. That combination of consistency and elite-level play gives the Packers a big head-start with their offensive line. Having Lang on the other side offers a strong, dependable complement. Lang was rated as a top-20 guard last season.
The two tackle spots aren't as secure, but there is plenty of talent there. David Bakhtiari goes into Year 2 after a successful rookie season, one that saw him thrust into the role of protecting Rodgers' blind side after Bryan Bulaga's preseason torn ACL. Bakhtiari performed well considering the difficult circumstances, giving Green Bay enough to prove that he could do the job for the next decade. He'll have to improve his run-blocking, though. Bulaga's back from injury, but he's no longer the left tackle. He moves back to what had been his regular spot at right tackle. It's a contract year for Bulaga, so he'll have to convince the Packers that he should be deemed a core player.
The starting center position will be addressed below, but that's the one spot that is still to be determined.
Green Bay has a solid group of backup offensive linemen. Derek Sherrod is finally healthy, and he'll serve as Bakhtiari's backup. Head coach Mike McCarthy has stated that Sherrod looks more natural and feels more comfortable on the left side of the line. Don Barclay had to give up his starting job to Bulaga, but he's going to be the first lineman in off the bench at three different positions: right tackle, right guard and left guard. Barclay's ability to take on so many tasks makes him a very valuable member of the team. If the Packers keep eight offensive linemen on the regular-season active roster (with one spot going to the loser of the JC Tretter / Corey Linsley battle), it would leave Lane Taylor on the outside looking in after making the team as a rookie last season.
Best position battle:
Whoever winds up snapping the ball to Rodgers this season will be the fourth center in four years to start for Green Bay. It's between Tretter, a second-year player who just began playing the position late last season, and Linsley, a rookie who is much more familiar with center after playing it at Ohio State. Barclay and Garth Gerhart will also get some opportunities in training camp, but it'd take a remarkable performance from one of them to take the job from Tretter or Linsley.
Tretter is the leader going in. He's a smart player (Cornell-educated) that the Packers seem to trust in the role. Tretter was a 2013 fourth-round pick, and considering that neither of the two starting guard spots is opening up anytime soon, his chance to be a starter is at center. But Green Bay didn't draft Linsley in the fifth round this year for no reason. Having big-game experience at center will serve Linsley well in the competition, but it's not an easy job for a rookie to come in and grasp immediately.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:
1. Vikings; 2. Bears; 3. Packers; 4. Lions
There's no obvious top team in the division on the offensive line. Minnesota gains the edge by being the most balanced. ProFootballFocus ranked the Vikings as a top-10 offensive line last season in both pass protection and run-blocking. Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt are a good starting-tackle duo, Brandon Fusco is a high-quality right guard and John Sullivan is one of the best centers in the NFL. Chicago was a great run-blocking team but a poor pass-protection team last season. Matt Slauson proved to be a good addition at guard, but the Bears will rely on fellow guard Kyle Long -- a 2013 first-round pick -- to really emerge soon. The Packers come in at a close third-place here, mainly because of questions at center and the need for Bakhtiari and Bulaga to have a strong season together. For Detroit, Larry Warford had a great rookie season at guard and Dominic Raiola continues to be a steady veteran, but the Lions have too many other question marks along the offensive line.