Packers’ offensive linemen out to prove themselves in 2013

This is the fifth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.


Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6

Projected starters: Bryan Bulaga (left tackle), Josh Sitton (left guard), Evan Dietrich-Smith (center), T.J. Lang (right guard), Marshall Newhouse (right tackle)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Don Barclay, *David Bakhtiari, Derek Sherrod, Greg Van Roten, JC Tretter, Andrew Datko, Lane Taylor, Patrick Lewis, Garth Gerhart

The breakdown:

There are several numbers that will be on the minds of the Green Bay Packers’ offensive linemen when they report for training camp. The most important among them is 51. That’s the NFL-worst number of times that Aaron Rodgers was sacked last season. Rodgers is now attached to a number of his own: 110, as in $110 million. That’s a lot of zeros ($110,000,000.00). The Packers’ success between now and 2020 is dependent on Rodgers, but he can’t do much without help from the offensive line. Rodgers also isn’t likely to stay healthy if he’s sacked 51 times every year.

Another number for Green Bay’s offensive linemen to be aware of is 20. That’s the ranking of the Packers’ rushing offense in the NFL last season, which was actually the best they’ve been in that category since 2009. Green Bay can’t go through another year finishing in the bottom half of the league running the ball, and part of that responsibility is up to the Packers’ offensive linemen. They should have help in improving that statistic with rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in the backfield, but if there aren’t holes to run through, it won’t matter who Rodgers is handing it to (unless Adrian Peterson suddenly is on the trade block).

Green Bay has a new-look offensive line to help the team try to overcome those troubling numbers. Coach Mike McCarthy decided that something had to change, so he moved everyone to a new position except for the center. But even starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith is fairly new to that spot, taking over for Jeff Saturday in Week 16 last season. Bryan Bulaga is now at left tackle, one year after McCarthy dismissed that possibility due to his belief at the time that Bulaga was a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle. Josh Sitton will stay next to Bulaga, jumping from right guard to left guard. McCarthy’s explanation was that he wants his two best offensive linemen on the left side, and Bulaga and Sitton are definitely the two best on the team.

The growing pains shouldn’t be too severe for Bulaga, Sitton, T.J. Lang and Marshall Newhouse at their new spots. While they’ve all already had a chance to take snaps at those positions during minicamp and organized team activities, the first couple days of training camp may be a bit awkward. But it shouldn’t be long before it feels natural for each of them. That will be when the true test begins to see whether this experiment from McCarthy pays off.

Best position battle:

Who will be the starting right tackle? With Bulaga now at left tackle, part of the offensive line shift included sending Newhouse to right tackle. However, Newhouse isn’t a lock to be the starter at that position. He’ll have competition from Don Barclay, David Bakhtiari and possibly Derek Sherrod.

Newhouse took the majority of snaps with the starters during minicamp, so he’ll enter training camp as the default No. 1 right tackle on the depth chart. Newhouse has the most experience of the four players battling it out for this starting job. He’s been a starter since Week 4 of the 2011 season, being exposed to many of the NFL’s elite pass-rushers while trying to protect Rodgers’ blind side. There’s slightly less pressure at right tackle and Newhouse showed signs of improvement late last season. But with McCarthy’s promise (yes, he promised) to improve the running game, Newhouse isn’t the best option in that regard.

Barclay is a true run-blocker. After being undrafted in 2012, Barclay made the active roster as a rookie and ended up starting six games after Bulaga’s season-ending hip injury. In those starts, Barclay showed that he was the team’s most reliable run-blocking offensive tackle. The issue with Barclay, at least based on his one NFL season, is that what the Packers would be getting with him in improving the run game, they’d be losing with his pass protection.

Bakhtiari is a long shot to start right away as a rookie, but he was a fourth-round pick for a reason. If Bakhtiari can be a blend of what Newhouse would bring in pass blocking and what Barclay would bring in run blocking, he has a chance to elevate quickly into the starting lineup.

The wild card is Sherrod. Two years after being drafted in the first round, Sherrod should not be written off as a bust. He simply hasn’t been healthy. The broken leg he suffered as a rookie was a devastating injury and one that Sherrod has struggled to recover from. But he’s only 24 years old and clearly had a lot of talent before his injury. Unless he’s forever damaged from the effects of the broken leg, Sherrod could still team up on the opposite side of Bulaga, just as general manager Ted Thompson pictured it when he drafted the two of them in back-to-back first rounds.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:

1. Vikings; 2. Bears; 3. Packers; 4. Lions

All of the teams in the division have some questions along the offensive line. Minnesota ranks atop this list because the Vikings have the best center in the NFL (John Sullivan) and 2012 fourth-overall pick Matt Kalil developing at left tackle. Right tackle Phil Loadholt also performed well last season, but Minnesota’s starting guards have a lot of work to do. Chicago shook up its offensive line by signing Jermon Bushrod away from the New Orleans Saints to play left tackle, a move which then slides J’Marcus Webb to right tackle. The Bears also used their first-round pick to draft right guard Kyle Long and also signed former New York Jet Matt Slauson to play left guard. Detroit’s offensive line is a bit of a mess right now. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus was very good last season, but he was signed away in free agency by the Indianapolis Colts. Veteran left tackle Jeff Backus retired after 12 seasons, forcing 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff into that spot.

Sitton says:

“I think we’re all a little surprised. That’s a big move. You don’t see a four-position switch on the offensive line very often, so it’s definitely surprising, but at the end of the day, it’s football. We’ll get used to it. We’ll continue to grow and hopefully it’ll be a good change for us.”

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