The Packers’ offensive line had to compensate for injuries probably more than any other position group in 2011.
The unit held up fine, a testament to its depth and the coaching of James Campen, who routinely has been charged with cross-training young linemen to play multiple positions, an effort that has paid off on numerous occasions.
Here’s where the Packers stand along the offensive front at the moment, heading into the offseason.
Center—Scott Wells’ eighth NFL season was his best, as he earned his first Pro Bowl trip. Personally, it came at the perfect time for Wells – as he’s about to become an unrestricted free agent.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy made it clear after the season that he wants Wells back. If Wells does go elsewhere, that would constitute the biggest hole the Packers would have to fill on the offensive side of the ball.
Backup Evan Dietrich-Smith has been with the Packers off and on for the past three years, but he’s never been a regular starter. Undrafted rookie Sampson Genus spent all of 2011 on the practice squad.
Guard—Starters T.J. Lang on the left side and Josh Sitton on the right, fourth-round draft picks in consecutive years (2007-08), could be in position to hold those spots long-term.
Lang became a full-time starter for the first time in 2011 and now will enter the final year of his rookie contract. Sitton was signed to an extension prior to 2011 but battled some nagging injuries after not missing a snap on offense for two straight seasons (2009-10).
Dietrich-Smith filled in at guard when needed, while the other backups were cross-trained guard/tackles, including undrafted rookie Ray Dominguez, none of whom had to play guard any significant amount.
Tackle—This was where injuries hit the Packers the hardest in 2011. First, right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down for a few games early in the season, then left tackle Chad Clifton was lost for the bulk of the season. Then, Bulaga missed time, again, late in the year.
The ability of second-year pro Marshall Newhouse to step in at both spots, despite not having played a single snap as a rookie and then not having a traditional offseason program due to the lockout, saved the offense from potentially major problems.
Rookie first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod was also starting to come around when a broken leg abruptly ended his season in Week 15. Midseason pickup Herb Taylor and practice-squad player Chris Campbell would have been the next options had any more injuries occurred.
How this position shapes up for 2012 may be the hardest to project. Will Clifton be brought back for a 13th season, or will the playoff game against the Giants, for which he returned after missing 11 games, be his last with the Packers? That may depend on the recovery of Sherrod, who was told by the doctors when the season ended that he can expect his surgically repaired leg to heal in time for the 2012 season.
Also, will Bulaga, a first-round pick in 2010, stay on the right side or shift to the left? Which side is Newhouse’s best, and will he become a long-term starter or that versatile third swing tackle that every team needs and loves to have?
Summary—If Wells returns, the interior of the Packers’ line will remain intact for 2012. If he doesn’t, a major investment either in free agency or the draft could be needed to find his replacement. The tackle position is the most unsettled, but not in an alarming way. Clifton’s future remains uncertain, but Bulaga and Newhouse are both experienced players now, and if Sherrod is recovered and ready to compete in training camp, the Packers will have three young, up-and-coming tackles battling for the two starting spots.
Position-by-position series: Running backs