Packers’ offensive line deep, but how good?
Maybe everything will go according to Hoyle. Several of Ted Thompson’s six veteran draft choices at the position will play better than they ever have before, old pros Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher will hold up beautifully and top pick Bryan Bulaga will make a seamless entry into the National Football League.
James Campen, who enters his fourth season as the position coach, said in late June that he expected the unit to be really good in 2010.
“We have a lot of depth,” said Campen. “The fact we’ll have two or three players in one position, that’s always an advantage, not having to rotate guys around or cross over the ball from right to left.”
On paper, the Packers do seem deep. Of the 14 players in camp, only one figures to have no chance to stick. Mike McCarthy has kept nine linemen to open his first four seasons, and if things break well, the Packers might tap the surplus by acquiring a future draft choice or two via trade.
“That’s a good problem to have,” Campen said.
A year ago, the line was responsible for 30 1/2 sacks, its highest total since 1996 when the unit yielded 33 en route to winning the Super Bowl. The group also had 32 penalties, its most since the 4-12 season of 2005.
The unit probably blocked better for the run than the pass, which was evident by the No. 14 rank in rushing (117.8 yards), the team’s most productive in five years. The average per carry of 4.30 ranked 13th.
McCarthy brought back every lineman that played a snap and his entire offensive coaching staff, but then made it crystal clear that he doesn’t intend to go through 56 sacks again. In late March, he proclaimed, “I think as I sit here today, we’ll be much better in that area.”
Joe Philbin, Campen’s predecessor as line coach and the offensive coordinator since ’07, was asked if strength in numbers would make for better play this season.
“We’ll find out in camp,” said Philbin. “We’ll see how good they are.”
Now here’s a doomsday scenario.
Clifton and Tauscher get old in a hurry, and when they are able to line up their level of play dips dramatically. Bulaga struggles at left tackle. T.J. Lang’s post-surgical wrist takes a long, long time to heal. Breno Giacomini isn’t the answer.
No one emerges at left guard. Daryn Colledge proves that he shouldn’t even have been brought back. Jason Spitz really is a center. Allen Barbre fails again. Marshall Newhouse can’t anchor inside. Lang isn’t able to punch and grab. Bulaga finally is moved inside in October, but by then it’s too late.
After having seen a virtual all-star team assembled at the skill positions, just imagine the heat that will scald anyone and everyone associated with the line if it all goes bad.
“No,” Campen replied after being asked if his butt and that of Jerry Fontenot, his assistant since ’07, was on the line this season. “I mean, how do you answer that question?
“When you look at things we have accomplished, we’ve scored a lot of points and we’ve moved the ball. Has it been exactly clean, the way it’s supposed to be? No. But every year, your butt goes in there on the line, player or coach. You have to perform.”
Four jobs appear set: Clifton at left tackle, Scott Wells at center, Josh Sitton at right guard and Tauscher at right tackle.
That leaves left guard, where it seems possible that one of three players—Colledge, Spitz and Barbre—could start or could be cut. If healthy, Lang might be a contender. So could Bulaga, if the organization hasn’t pigeon-holed itself into developing him as the left tackle of the future.
Coming off a terrible season in which he didn’t play with strength, athleticism or savvy, Colledge is back on a $1.759 million tender. The Packers undoubtedly considered running him off, but in the end likely decided they had nobody better to replace him.
“I wouldn’t single him out as he’s the one guy that needs to perform better,” said Philbin. “Daryn Colledge has played a lot of football. Daryn’s a bright guy and he knows it’s a competitive situation.”
It would appear as though the Packers regard Spitz more highly as a center, and if something were to happen to Wells it probably would be Spitz over Evan Dietrich-Smith as the next man in. Whether the Packers still would want a starting guard with Spitz’s modest size and athletic ability remains to be seen.
Lang might get a long look at left guard; McCarthy says it’s his natural position. But that would require increased strength, and with the wrist in a cast his body-building efforts have been curtailed to an extent.
The tentative plan, according to Campen, was to have Lang compete at right tackle with Tauscher and Giacomini.
After flopping as the starting right tackle in 2009, Barbre now is back at left guard, where he was beaten out by Colledge in 2008. This looks like his last chance.
“He’s seeing things now at guard,” Campen said. “His awareness is better. Very impressed with him.”
Sitton, a fourth-round pick in ’08, is on the verge of establishing himself as a solid starter. He has dropped about 10 pounds, which should enhance his pass blocking and quickness.
“I don’t think two words were said about him all spring because the guy’s doing things right,” said Philbin. “He has a chance to be very good.”
Bulaga was at left tackle exclusively in May and June and the coaches say there are no plans to move him. Some scouts doubt he has the arm length or feet to play left tackle, but the Packers all but accept the fact Clifton won’t survive 16 games and shudder at the memory of Colledge trying to fill in.
“We like his ability to bend and keep his feet in the ground,” Philbin said, referring to Bulaga. “He’s not a high stepper. He doesn’t let his body weight rock from side to side.”
In March, Thompson guaranteed $10.23 million in new contracts for Clifton and Tauscher, both of whom enter their 11th seasons. Neither played all that well last season, but the Packers went 7-1 in the second half, ranked third in points and gained 493 yards in the playoff loss.
“(Clifton) needs to be more consistent, needs to eliminate some of those penalties,” said Philbin. “(Tauscher) looks about the same to me. Ted did give him some money to come back, right? I would hope those guys can still play.”
Giacomini has offered (one snap) and shown next to nothing in two seasons, but the Packers aren’t close to giving up on him. He has prototypical height and arm length for right tackle, but until he starts bending better and playing with some confidence it’s all a hope and a prayer.
“I’ll say this—he looks the best he’s ever looked since he’s been here,” Philbin said. “That I believe, I really do. Now what that means, in no pads, is hard to project. But he is moving faster and being more decisive on the field.”
A disappointed backup last summer, Wells’ fortunes changed in October when Spitz needed season-ending back surgery and Wells got his old job back. Wells and Sitton were the unit’s top dogs.
“He was very solid,” said Philbin. “Maybe (scouts) just look at his height and weight and don’t watch the tape. Pretty good second-level blocker. Got some quickness and some smarts. He has played pretty well for us since he’s been here.”
Newhouse was a three-year starter at left tackle for Texas Christian but didn’t show left-tackle agility in the spring and will work more at guard. He will be compared daily to free agent Nick McDonald, a broad-shouldered, brawling rookie with a bright future.