There are a lot of questions that need to be answered between now and the start of training camp. One of them deals with the offensive line. There could be a number of changes in the group that is charged with protecting Aaron Rodgers and opening holes for whichever pedestrian back wins the starting job.
Here’s a look at how things stand with the offensive line as of now and how things could play out in the months ahead:
LEFT TACKLE: Marshall Newhouse showed improvement this season, but he’s still a middle of the pack left tackle. Can he get significantly better? That’s a question only the coaching staff can answer. If the answer is no, then Derrick Sherrod will be given every chance to win the job – provided that his broken leg is finally healed. After all, GM Ted Thompson didn’t draft Sherrod in the first round to sit on the bench. And don’t completely discount Andrew Datko, who spent the entire season on the practice squad. The former Florida State star was a more productive college player than Sherrod, and he has a chance to be a solid NFL offensive lineman if he gets stronger and his chronically injured shoulder can hold up.
LEFT GUARD: T.J. Lang began the season very well, but he was never the same after injuring his elbow in October. An ill-fated move to right tackle didn’t help either. He’ll be the starter at left guard unless the coaching staff decides to move him to center – something that was contemplated last offseason. As I wrote in March, I think Lang has the physical skills and smarts to be effective at the position. If he does slide a few feet to his right, Don Barclay could be his logical replacement. The undrafted rookie from West Virginia played surprisingly well at right tackle down the stretch. If he can hold up at that spot, it’s safe to assume he’d do just fine at guard. Barclay is big and surprisingly light on his feet. He needs to get stronger, and he should do just that after spending the next six months in the weight room.
CENTER: This is the position that hurt the O-line the most this season. Jeff Saturday had nothing left and Evan Dietrich-Smith proved in the playoffs that he’s a great backup but just an OK starter. The Packers need to add a bigger body in the middle of the line. That would make a significant difference in the running game. Assuming Lang stays at left guard, Thompson will probably have to use the draft or free agency to fill this spot. Another alternative would be Greg Van Roten, who was promoted from the practice squad in November and finished the season as the No. 7 lineman. A graduate of Penn, GVR has the intelligence needed to play the position. He also has the athleticism. But at 304 pounds, does he have the size and strength to compete with NFL defensive tackles? He doesn’t now, but August is still six months away.
RIGHT GUARD: This is the only position that is 100% set going into next season. Josh Sitton stayed healthy and played more like the stud who earned a big contract in 2010 than like the game but gimpy journeyman who got beat way too often in 2011. At 318 pounds, the former Central Florida star isn’t the biggest or the most athletic guard, but he’s as strong as an ox and as tough as nails. That, along with solid technique, usually allows him to get the best of his opponents. Sitton is only 26, so he should still be ascending. That’s great news for the Packers, but not such great news for the defensive tackles in the NFC North.
RIGHT TACKLE: Bryan Bulaga is expected back after injuring his hip in week 8 and spending the last two months of the season on IR. The former Iowa star struggled early, but he was playing much better prior to getting hurt. There’s always a chance he could move to left tackle and Barclay could remain at this spot, but I don’t see that happening. Bulaga needs to be more aggressive as a run blocker, but gives max effort on every snap and he usually provides steady pass protection. If this group is to be significantly better next season, Bulaga has to be as good as he was in 2011, when he played like a Pro Bowler.