Assuming Chad Clifton is released in the next few weeks, the Green Bay Packers will begin next season with a new starter at left tackle for the first time in a dozen years. That player will be either Marshall Newhouse, Derek Sherrod or Bryan Bulaga.
Newhouse started 11 games at the position last season after Clifton suffered a severe hamstring injury in week 5, and while the final numbers weren’t very pretty (10.5 sacks, 41.5 pressures and 14.5 bad runs), the second-year player from TCU never backed down and rarely got dominated while lining up opposite a murderer’s row of pass rushers. Newhouse has ideal feet for the position, but he was inconsistent with his technique. His biggest problems were sloppy hand placement and a tendency to shuffle to cut off the rush instead of kick-sliding. These flaws will be addressed and hopefully corrected during the offseason. Whether that’ll be enough to turn him into an above-average left tackle remains to be seen.
Sherrod was really starting to come on prior to suffering a serious leg injury in December. Last year’s first-round pick may or may not be ready for the start of training camp, but he obviously won’t be able to take part in any minicamps and OTAs for a second consecutive offseason. That will put him at a distinct disadvantage if and when he reports to St. Norbert. Had Sherrod not suffered the leg injury, I think he would’ve been the odds-on favorite to replace Clifton. The former Mississippi State star has great size, long arms and above-average feet. All he needed was extensive work in the weight room and a ton of reps – two things that won’t happen now until the spring of 2013.
That leaves Bulaga, who started 12 games last season and proved to be one of the NFC’s best right tackles. And while nobody ever likes to move a Pro Bowl caliber offensive lineman, I think it’s a gamble worth taking. The former Iowa star may not have the ideal arm length to play on the left side, but everything else about him suggests he can more than adequately protect Aaron Rodgers’ blind side. Bulaga is a solid technician who can recover when he gets out of position and run pass rushers wide of the pocket. More importantly, he’s one of those players who just refuses to lose. You get the sense that Bulaga would hold his own if asked to play corner (that’s hyperbole, but you get the point).
So those are the three contenders for the soon-to-be vacant (I assume) left tackle position. The Packers could begin next season the way they ended last season, with the hope that Newhouse makes as big a jump from year two to three as he did from year one to two. But why roll the dice when you have a player as talented and dependable as Bulaga on the roster? Let your best tackle play on the left side and let Newhouse continue to develop while facing lesser competition. Assuming Sherrod is healthy, he can back up both spots in ’12 and then compete for a starting job in ’13.