The Packers have used high picks on tackles, but it's fifth-rounder Marshall Newhouse who is thriving.
By PAUL IMIGFS Wisconsin
GREEN BAY, Wis. --Marshall Newhouse has come a long way in the past year. The Packers' third-year left tackle has been performing well as Aaron Rodgers' blind-side protector, showing steady improvement since he first took over the job in Week 5 last season.
There have been a few negative moments for Newhouse, such as allowing five sacks in Green Bay's first seven games. He's also coming off his worst performance of the season, getting beat badly three times by St. Louis Rams pass-rushing defensive end Robert Quinn.
But Newhouse has had far more positives this season, preventing the right defensive ends of the 49ers (Week 1), Saints (Week 4) and Texans (Week 6) from laying a finger on Rodgers.
"He's a smart guy that doesn't make mental errors," offensive line coach James Campen said. "He knows where he's supposed to be, understands schemes and understands defensive philosophies to put himself in a position to be successful."
Considering that Newhouse was the last pick of the fifth round in 2010, the expectation was not for him to be a starter this early in his career, if ever. Packers general manager Ted Thompson used the team's first-round draft picks in both 2010 and 2011 on offensive tackles, selecting Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod.
"I figure I got drafted because I had a skill set that could work in the NFL, and it was up to me to kind of improve upon it," Newhouse said. "I was given an opportunity, and I feel like I've been capitalizing on that opportunity."
Newhouse, 24, didn't get on the field at all as a rookie. He was a healthy inactive the first 14 games before a back injury suffered in practice landed him on injured reserve.
Following the NFL lockout in 2011, Newhouse quickly beat out the rookie Sherrod as the top reserve at both tackle positions in training camp. After that, it didn't take long for Newhouse to get his first chance to prove himself in a game.
His first regular-season snap came in Week 3 last season, when Bulaga injured his knee. Newhouse finished that game at right tackle and started at that spot a week later. But when veteran left tackle Chad Clifton injured his hamstring in the next game, Newhouse took over on the left side and has started every game there since.
"(Newhouse) has progressed steadily," Campen said. "Even though he's had a bad play or two in a few games, he's corrected those and moved on. Just like last week (in St. Louis), second play of the game he gives up a sack, the rest of the game he had a couple other plays, but for the most part he played pretty solid.
"He kept going along and getting better. I think that he's progressing the way we expected him to progress."
The Packers are fortunate that Newhouse has continued to progress this quickly, especially with Sherrod not being ready to take over at left tackle. The broken leg Sherrod suffered in Week 15 last season still has him on the road to recovery and unavailable. It's becoming increasingly possible Sherrod will not be medically cleared at all this season.
"He's not ready," coach Mike McCarthy said Friday of Sherrod. "That's really all I can tell you. I know he's frustrated. But we all saw the injury. It was a serious injury, definitely something that we're not going to rush back. We'll give him every opportunity, but he's just not ready yet."
With Sherrod on the sideline, Newhouse entered the 2012 training camp as the starter at left tackle. Green Bay drafted offensive tackle Andrew Datko in the seventh round, but he didn't pose much of a threat to Newhouse.
"(Newhouse) earned the job," Campen said. "He clearly earned the job."
There is no plan for Bulaga to ever switch to left tackle, regardless of Newhouse's development or Sherrod's recovery. Bulaga has settled in at right tackle, the position where McCarthy said this offseason he believed the 23-year-old former Iowa Hawkeye was on his way to becoming a Pro-Bowl-caliber player.
Bulaga hasn't followed up his successful 2011 season very well, though. In Green Bay's three losses, he has really struggled. Bulaga has played considerably better, however, in the Packers' four wins.
As Newhouse continues to play every snap at left tackle, he'll only get better. His play over the first 22 games of his career has dictated that. Even with the much more high-profile draft picks of Bulaga and Sherrod on the roster, Newhouse may already be Green Bay's best offensive tackle.
"I feel like I've improved and I'm confident in my abilities," he said.