Saturday key to improved offensive line
This is the fifth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' July 26 start of camp.
July 10: Quarterbacks
July 11: Running backs
July 12: Wide receivers
July 13: Tight ends
July 16: Offensive linemen
July 17: Defensive linemen
July 18: Linebackers
July 19: Safeties
July 20: Cornerbacks
July 23: Specialists
July 24: Coaches
July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp
July 26: Fans' guide to camp
TODAY'S POSITION: OFFENSIVE LINE
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8
Projected starters: C Jeff Saturday (14th season), RG Josh Sitton (5th season), LG T.J. Lang (4th season), RT Bryan Bulaga (3rd season), LT Marshall Newhouse (3rd season)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): OT Shea Allard, OG Don Barclay, OG Jaymes Brooks, OG Grant Cook, *OT Andrew Datko, *OG Evan Dietrich-Smith, OG Ray Dominguez, C Tommie Draheim, *C Sampson Genus, *OT Derek Sherrod, OT Herb Taylor
The breakdown: The Packers lost center Scott Wells, arguably their best offensive lineman last season, and still may have gotten better in front of Aaron Rodgers. That is because the arrival of veteran center Jeff Saturday gives Green Bay a huge dosage of big-game experience, especially in working with an elite quarterback. After all, Saturday spent his entire 13-year career snapping the ball to Peyton Manning while both were with the Indianapolis Colts.
Even now at age 37, there is very little sign of Saturday slowing down. He hasn't missed a single start in the past three seasons and has made the Pro Bowl in five of the last seven years. He has proven to be very comfortable working in a fast-paced, pass-first offense and is now the clear-cut leader of an otherwise very young group of linemen.
To Saturday's left, Lang is set to begin his second season as a starter. In the 2011 training camp, Lang was competing with Sherrod for the left guard job. Now, Lang is one of the top priority names on the Packers' upcoming free agent list of players who need a new contract after this season. Only 24, Lang had a very solid 2011 season and stayed healthy throughout.
To Saturday's right, Sitton is one of the best right guards in the entire NFL. Coming off a fantastic Super-Bowl winning 2010 season, Sitton was rewarded with a five-year contract extension for $34 million, with nearly $10 million guaranteed. Though injuries prevented Sitton from being quite as good in 2011 as he was in 2010, at age 26, he still has plenty of time to get even better.
At left tackle, Newhouse is a very interesting case. A year ago, it appeared very unlikely that Newhouse would be starting any time soon. A fifth-round pick in 2010, Newhouse didn't play at all as a rookie. Then in 2011, for the second consecutive year, the Packers drafted an offensive tackle in the first round. First was Bulaga, and then Sherrod was added. Plus, coach Mike McCarthy still very much liked the veteran presence of Chad Clifton at left tackle. But once Clifton went down with injuries in 2011, and with Bulaga seemingly set at right tackle, Newhouse moved ahead of Sherrod on the depth chart and ended up starting 13 games for Green Bay last season.
As mentioned, Bulaga is the starting right tackle and will not be moving to left tackle. McCarthy made it clear earlier this offseason that Bulaga, in his opinion, is nearing Pro-Bowl caliber at right tackle and doesn't want to move him. Bulaga followed his coach's statement by adding that he was happy at right tackle and had no desire to switch. Nearly every NFL team has their best offensive tackle protecting the quarterback's blind side, but with Bulaga on the right, the Packers may be the one exception.
Best position battle: Can Sherrod win the starting left tackle spot over Newhouse? If Sherrod is able to play early on in training camp, he could make a hard push for that spot. However, Sherrod is coming back from a broken leg late last season and was not able to take part in the team's offseason practices as he continued his rehabilitation. That meant Newhouse was able to take all the snaps at left tackle during mini-camp and OTAs. But Sherrod was a first-round pick just one year ago. Bulaga appears to have the right tackle spot locked in for himself for the next decade, which means it's either left tackle or bust for Sherrod. There's nowhere else for Sherrod to go. He didn't perform well at left guard when given a chance at that spot last year as a rookie in training camp. Plus, his frame (6-foot-5, 321 pounds) is much better suited for offensive tackle. So how much longer can McCarthy keep Sherrod off the field? If Newhouse outperforms Sherrod in training camp, Sherrod may soon find himself as a full-time backup in Green Bay.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Vikings; 4 Bears. None of the offensive lines in the division are elite at the moment. In 2011, the Lions gave up the fewest sacks (36) among the teams in the NFC North, but that was only good for 17th overall in the NFL. The Packers were close behind in 21st with 41 sacks allowed, with the Bears and Vikings each allowing 49. The addition of Saturday moves the Packers to first in this ranking, but not by a lot. The Lions used their first-round draft pick on offensive tackle Riley Reiff, and the Vikings picked offensive tackle Matt Kalil with the No. 4 overall pick. If Kalil solidifies Minnesota's offensive line, they could quickly become a steady group for young quarterback Christian Ponder. Chicago's line had quarterback Jay Cutler feeling woozy early last season, leading the league in sacks allowed for several weeks prior to Cutler's season-ending injury.
Saturday says: "I tell people all the time, I've had a blessed career and now you're just capping it off. I told them when I got here, obviously Aaron Rodgers is the MVP, so there's a reason you're the number one player in the league, because you're playing like it. The guy gets it done. Just all the guys I've seen here so far, getting to know everybody, guys know what they're doing, they know this offense, they feel comfortable in the system and it's fun to be a part of it."
Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.