By Pete Dougherty, Green Bay Press-Gazette
This offseason the Green Bay Packers didn’t sign an unrestricted free agent on the offensive line or select a player at that position group until the fourth round of the NFL draft.
Yet, coach Mike McCarthy is looking for measurably better play from his line via position changes. Namely, McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen moved their best two lineman, tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton, from the right side to the left.
There’s a decent chance this group won’t have a new starter – Marshall Newhouse, the left tackle the last two years, and Don Barclay, who started six games (regular season and playoffs) in place of the injured Bulaga, are the leading contenders for the starting job at right tackle. Yet McCarthy and Campen are projecting the position changes to produce better results than in 2012, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked 51 times (second most in the league) and the Packers’ run game ranked No. 20 in yards and No. 22 in average yards per carry.
The linchpin of the move was Bulaga to the crucial left tackle position.
“Certainly now you can run the ball behind (Bulaga and Sitton),” Campen said. “Pass block – let them play against the better rushers on the back side of the QB. Bryan is such a great guy from the standpoint he just does what you ask him to do and he takes his job very seriously, he’s all football. He does things right. The one (bad) game last year, Seattle, after that one look at his other games, the guy was playing big-time football.”
General manager Ted Thompson in fact drafted Bulaga in the first round in 2010 as the left tackle of the Packers’ future. With Chad Clifton still healthy enough to play well at that time, Bulaga began his rookie season as a backup and ended it as the starting right tackle after Mark Tauscher’s season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4.
The next year, Thompson drafted another left tackle prospect, Derek Sherrod, with his first-round pick. That made it appealing to keep Bulaga at right tackle, where he was settling in as an ascending player.
But by this offseason, circumstances had changed again.
Newhouse, a fifth-round pick in 2010, had shown some promise and improvement in two years as a starter, but he still struggled against some of the premier outside pass rushers. He finished 2012 with 12 sacks allowed in 18 games (playoffs included) after giving up 12½ sacks in 14 games in ’11.
Also, Sherrod’s future looks shaky because of the broken lower leg that’s sidelined him since December 2011. He still was unable to return to the field this offseason, more than 1½ years after his injury. Though the Packers appear to expect him to practice in training camp, it’s far from a given that Sherrod ever will return to NFL form.
Bulaga, in the meantime, has shown the feet and technical skills of an NFL left tackle – his straight-backed posture as a pass blocker is reminiscent of Clifton. The main question with Bulaga coming out of college was arm length — his 33¼-inch arms are on the short side for a left tackle. By comparison, Newhouse’s arms are 34 inches, and Sherrod’s 353⁄8 inches.
But after two seasons of developing Newhouse on the left side, McCarthy and Campen have decided Bulaga is their best alternative for the crucial role of protecting Rodgers’ blind side. That, even though Bulaga is coming off a broken bone in his hip that sidelined him the final seven games last season, and before that, the worst game of his young career, when he was beaten cleanly for two sacks in the first half against Seattle in Week 3.
“He bounced right back (from Seattle) and goes about his business,” Campen said, “(ticked) off about it, sure, but he can get over things quickly. He displayed mental toughness the very minute he had to step on and play for Mark the Super Bowl year. Guy goes in and starts 12 games and is the youngest player to ever start a Super Bowl and win against great players. I mean, Pittsburgh’s defense? So he’s been around and met every one of those challenges. I fully expect him to meet this one.”
Bulaga took part in all offseason practices, so the recovery from his hip injury hasn’t been an issue.
“I wouldn’t even know he was injured,” Campen said of Bulaga’s play this offseason.
The position changes mean that T.J. Lang moves from the starter at left guard for the past two seasons to the right side, and that Newhouse, Barclay and fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari will compete for the job at right tackle, with Sherrod possibly in the running if his leg has improved substantially since the end of offseason practices. Lang was hindered last year by elbow and foot injuries but played in all but one game, playoffs included. He also started three games as an injury replacement at right tackle.
The Packers thought enough of the 26-year-old Lang to sign him last August to a contract through 2016, including paying him a $5.5 million signing bonus. So it will be a major upset if he’s not a starter.
“We had to get the left side better, so it is what it is,” Campen said. “(Lang) has embraced the right guard position. He’s played over there, he and Marshall have both played the right side in games, started games. Their transition might be a little bit easier than the other two guys, although Bryan has a lot of retention from playing left tackle a few years ago for Iowa. Josh (Sitton) has never played in a left-handed stance.”
Newhouse might be the slightest of favorites to win the right-tackle job, but Barclay showed last year he can’t be dismissed after making the team as an undrafted rookie and then starting the final four regular-season games and two playoff games at right tackle. Barclay also worked this offseason at right guard and center.
“(Barclay) played well, got better every week,” Campen said. “It was really evident when we played at Minnesota (on Dec. 30), he struggled, came back out here against the same player (i.e., Brian Robison in the playoffs) and did a hell of a job. That’s just a tough-minded, tough kid that isn’t going to back down from a challenge. You want to sit there and box (Barclay), good luck.”
Evan Dietrich-Smith is the likely starter at center after replacing Jeff Saturday for the final two games plus playoffs last season. At the NFL scouting combine in February, McCarthy in essence said he regretted not having trusted Dietrich-Smith to be Scott Wells’ successor last year.
“The thing with (Dietrich-Smith), two years ago he took his job professionally inside the walls and outside, got himself in a position to be the guy,” Campen said. “He knows he has a lot of work to do from a command standpoint, tempo standpoint, to be the energy the offense needs. He’s been doing that and practicing that through the OTAs.
“I think he’s doing a great job with that. Here’s a guy who was a free agent and didn’t play center, and has made himself into a good football player. He certainly isn’t tapped out. He needs to get better, and he will get better because it’s important to him.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football