GREEN BAY, Wis. — A $110 million quarterback needs to stay healthy. In order for that to happen, there has to be solid protection from the offensive line, with the left tackle playing the most important role in that.
With the Green Bay Packers’ new financial commitment to Aaron Rodgers, making him the highest-paid player in the history of the NFL, the team’s success hinges on their quarterback’s ability to stay on his feet. If Rodgers isn’t given enough time in the pocket to launch the type of passes downfield that earned him that contract over the past five years as Green Bay’s starter, that huge payday could become a burden on the Packers’ future.
Rodgers was hit far too often last season, being sacked 51 times, more than any quarterback in the league. General manager Ted Thompson didn’t address the offensive line in this year’s draft until the fourth round, selecting two players — David Bakhtiari and J.C. Tretter — who won’t be expected to compete for starting jobs as rookies.
There’s a wild card in all of this, though. While the Packers drafted a defensive lineman with their top pick in 2013, Green Bay is essentially adding another new first-round pick to its roster for next season. Derek Sherrod, the offensive tackle whom the Packers drafted in the first round in 2011, will join the group in front of Rodgers and could potentially be the answer to Green Bay’s protection problems.
“I’m really counting on Derek Sherrod to be a factor,” coach Mike McCarthy said Saturday night. “He’s a different man since the second surgery after the season. He’s making progress.”
Sherrod did not perform well in training camp as a rookie two years ago, failing to win a starting job. That year, Sherrod wasn’t even the first offensive tackle off the bench, getting beaten out for that spot by Marshall Newhouse. When Sherrod got on the field in Week 15, he suffered a devastating injury, breaking his right leg.
Since that injury more than 16 months ago, Sherrod has not played a single snap in a game. But, with three months to go until the Packers open training camp, Sherrod has a while longer to continue his recovery.
“I don’t have a timeline for you, but (Sherrod) is definitely a lot better than he was during the season,” McCarthy said. “He’s someone we have to get healthy, get him in there and get him ready.”
Sherrod just turned 24 years old, so he’s still a very young player. In the 2011 draft, he was the sixth offensive tackle selected overall. All of that talent and potential hasn’t disappeared. It’s just been sidelined with an unusual and challenging injury. That’s why Sherrod isn’t a bust of a top pick, at least not yet.
Perhaps Sherrod is the answer at left tackle and maybe he’s not. Thompson valued the importance of keeping the quarterback well protected in the pocket three years ago, even before Rodgers was an NFL MVP and had eight zeros on the end of his contract. It was in 2010 that the Packers drafted Bryan Bulaga in the first round and followed it up a year later with Sherrod.
Thompson had the right plan in place. Now it’s up to those two players to make it work and perform like first-round picks to help ensure that Rodgers doesn’t have a repeat performance as the league’s most-sacked quarterback.
McCarthy is confident that won’t happen again, though, commenting at the conclusion of the draft that Green Bay’s left tackle position “looks good” for next season.
“We have a lot of opportunity that we need to create for a number of different guys,” McCarthy added. “We’re going to sort that out and go through it with the players first.”
Newhouse has started every regular season game at left tackle for the Packers since Chad Clifton exited with a hamstring injury in Week 5 of the 2011 season. Newhouse, a fifth-round pick in 2010, has steadily improved over the past two seasons but is still the most likely candidate on Green Bay’s starting offensive line to be replaced.
McCarthy kept open the possibility that Bulaga could switch from right tackle to left tackle next season.
“We’ve talked a number of different things,” McCarthy said.
If Bulaga does move to the left to protect Rodgers’ blind side, it could allow an opportunity for Sherrod to take over as the right tackle without quite as much pressure on him.
Sherrod’s renewed health, along with the additions of Bakhtiari and Tretter, has the Packers believing that Rodgers will be more comfortable next season when he drops back to pass.
“Certainly the competition barometer went up a heck of a lot,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “So that’s a good thing to have. And the men that are already in that room understand that, and they understood that before this draft certainly. Our competition just got better.”