Outside of special teams, nothing is more confusing, more obfuscated or more esoteric than offensive line play; We all know that Joe Thomas is supposed to be one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL right now, but do you or I really know that? I’ve never watched a game specifically focused on Thomas (which would of course require me to watch a Browns game…..so no thanks), and I suspect that even Browns fans probably haven’t really paid all that much attention to him. The only real reason I know of Joe Thomas at all is 1) he went to Wisconsin and 2) I’ve been told he’s one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL today. At least with other positions, there are splash plays or statistics we can fall back on whether it be sacks, yards after the catch, Dwight Freeney’s spin move, the back shoulder catch etc. But for offensive linemen, none of that really exists; the “pancake” has never really gotten off the ground as a established metric of offensive linemen success nor does a great block ever make the Sportscenter highlight reel. Add on top of that there are actually 5 positions on the offensive line, and we get a confusing mess of contradictory statements; offensive linemen must all work together, but each have different jobs. Tackles are tackles and guards are guards, except some are left tackles but not right tackles and some are right guards but not left guards. Center is a unique position, unless it isn’t and you put a guard in there. There is a distinct difference between “interior” linemen and “bookend” offensive linemen, unless of course you kick your tackle to play guard.
In all of that, the Packers are faced with a conundrum; there are 5 positions and traditionally 2 backup positions, making 7 offensive linemen total. What I’ve done is made a mental excercise of some combinations of offensive linemen that are likely to happen when the Packers roster is reduced to 53. A couple rules: I’d highly doubt the Packers carry any more since offensive linemen aren’t all that useful on special teams meaning they’d almost always be on the inactive list. Of course the Packers have had more than 7 offensive linemen in the middle of the season due to injuries and what not, but its obviously not their first choice. Also there needs to be a backup for both tackle and guard; supposedly there is a significance between the two but Ted Thompson probably disagrees since the vast majority of offensive linemen that have been on the Packer’s roster were college left tackles.
Locks to make the team: Josh Sitton, TJ Lang, David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga - I don’t think there’s much argument that these four players will be on the Packers 53 man roster come week 1. Of the bunch Lang and Sitton have been the most impressive as well as the most consistent; both were paid quite handsomely and have arguably been worth the money so they aren’t going anywhere. Bakhtiari was the surprise of the 2013 season who ended up playing left tackle for the entire season after initially being drafted as potentially a center. While I think many fans seem to have forgotten he wasn’t actually all that good last year overall, being a 4th round rookie and getting thrown to the wolves right from the get go gives you a pass somewhat and I am optimistic that he will improve greatly in his sophomore campaign. Bulaga is probably the trickiest of the bunch; he was one of the up and coming offensive linemen but has been hampered by two consecutive freak injuries which leaves his future a little in peril; my guess is that Bulaga ultimately wins one starting tackle position (not sure which one though), at very worst there aren’t 3 other tackles on the Packer roster better than him.
Option 1: Derek Sherrod, Don Barclay, JC Tretter/Corey Linsley – If it’s keep the best players available, then this is likely the rest of the group. Derek Sherrod is still a 1st round pick and since the Packers didn’t pick up his 5th year option, his salary is minimal and the Packers will always try to get a return on their investment (see: Justin Harrell). Don Barclay becomes the interior swing man who also provides insurance in case Sherrod gets injured again or can’t overcome his previous injuries while JC Tretter and Corey Linsley duke it out for the right to be Aaron Rodger’s pivot. Both Linsley and Tretter are eligible for the practice squad (due to his injury last season, Tretter was only active in 3 games and thus did not accrue one year of experience), so it’s likely who ever fails to get the spot immediately gets signed to the practice squad. One issue is that both Tretter and Linsley are mid round draft picks and it’s unlikely that Thompson prefers to let either one of them go.
Option 2: Don Barclay, JC Tretter, Corey Linsley - At some point that Packers just decide to cut their losses and give up on Sherrod (ironically Sherrod is one game over being practice squad eligible as well). The Packers feel its not worth the risk of carrying an injury prone offensive linemen that might never regain his form after a horrific injury and see enough in both Tretter and Linsley that they keep one as the starting center and the other as the swing interior linemen. Don Barclay stays on the team and serves as the swing offensive tackle. Obviously it would take quite a lot for the Packers to release Sherrod; as a 1st round pick of the new CBA, his salary is very manageable at a little over $1 million (and basically all guaranteed) and has the best measurables of all the offensive linemen.
Option 3: Derek Sherrod, JC Tretter/Corey Linsley, Lane Taylor – In terms of economics, Barclay is the most expendable tackle as a former undrafted free agent and is unproven as a guard. The Packers decide to keep dark horse Lane Taylor (another surprise addition to last year’s squad), who was a guard in college and played there for the Packers last season. Derek Sherrod shows enough in the tank to warrant him getting the backup tackle spot with hopes that he resigns a modest 2nd “prove it” contract while JC Tretter and Corey Linsley fight for the starting center position with the other taking a spot on the practice squad. Personally, I think Barclay is good enough for this not to happen, but the Packers would be sticking a square peg in a round hole by having both Barclay and Sherrod on the team (since neither is all that proven at guard)
Option 4: Derek Sherrod, Don Barclay, JC Tretter/Corey Linsley/Lane Taylor – In a stunning turn of events, Don Barclay actually emerges as the starting center, Derek Sherrod then naturally becomes the backup swing tackle while Tretter, Linsley and Taylor all fight for the last spot as the reserve interior linemen. Out of all the possibilities, I think this scenario would be the Packers dream situation; head coach Mike McCarthy has already swooned at how Barclay can play all 5 spots on the offensive line and gives him potentially the most experience line combination. Of course the lynch pin to all of this is Barclay at center, and unfortunately Barclay has already tried his hand at center before with disastrous results; I’m not sure how much center he has been practicing during the offseason, but with a healthy Tretter and finally a true center in Linsley on the roster, I highly doubt there is enough time to experiment more with Barclay at center.
Overall, I think this exercise highlight really how difficult and fluid the offensive line is to predict; can either Tretter or Linsley rise up to be the center (and what happens if neither is any good at center)? How good could Tretter or Barclay be at guard (both were tackles in college). Could Barclay potentially be a center? How healthy is Derek Sherrod truly? Do the Packers want to commit to the run and keep Lane Taylor, who is a mauling run blocker? Who do the Packers think they can hide away on the practice squad? How sold are they on Derek Sherrod’s long term performance? All these questions need to be addressed and hopefully all the answers will be known by the time the 1st game rolls around.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.