When the Packers selected their left tackle of the future in the first round of last year’s draft, it turned out Bryan Bulaga was needed as the right tackle of the present.
That’s a prime example of why, as General Manager Ted Thompson likes to say, “You never have enough big guys.”
So even though for 2011 the Packers appear set at four of five starting spots across the offensive front, with some promising youth developing in the background, the line will be given its due attention later this month.
Thompson has drafted at least two offensive linemen within the first five rounds each of the last three years, giving the coaches ample opportunity to develop quality players. Not all have stuck, but the law of averages requires a steady infusion of newcomers almost annually.
As for the current starters, barring injury the smart money is on the Packers beginning 2011 with Chad Clifton at left tackle, Bulaga at right tackle, Scott Wells at center and Josh Sitton at right guard.
After some early knee issues in 2010, Clifton played what some consider the best football of his career down the stretch. Clifton, who turns 35 in June, told packers.com after the season that he physically feels better than he has in a long time and he’s prepared to keep going. After quarterback, a reliable blind-side protector may be the most valuable asset on any offense, and Clifton’s value when healthy is immeasurable.
Bulaga is still the likely long-term successor to Clifton, but for now he has a home after replacing Mark Tauscher at right tackle following Tauscher’s shoulder injury last October. It’s unclear whether Tauscher will be back.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said after the 2009 season that Wells and Sitton were the club’s two most consistent offensive linemen, and their steady play on the interior continued through 2010.
Wells, a remarkable find as a compensatory seventh-round draft choice in 2004, lost his job at the start of ’09, got it back and hasn’t let go. Sitton, a fourth-round draft pick in 2008, started every game for the second straight year and is a rising star the rest of the league is only beginning to appreciate. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate last season and was honored by the NFL Alumni Association as its offensive lineman of the year.
The only spot seemingly up for grabs is left guard, where Daryn Colledge has started all but a handful of games over the past five years and has fought off repeated attempts to unseat him. Colledge is a potential unrestricted free agent when a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, as is guard/center and fellow 2006 draftee Jason Spitz.
Should either or both depart, the first player to step through the open door could be T.J. Lang, a fourth-round pick in 2009 whose progress in year two was hampered by offseason wrist surgery. There’s been an ongoing internal debate whether Lang’s best position is guard or tackle. He played the latter in college and as a rookie and he could become the Packers’ long-term right tackle if and when Bulaga takes over for Clifton, but he’ll likely be given the chance to compete at left guard.
Two other developing youngsters to keep an eye on are second-year pros Nick McDonald and Marshall Newhouse, though the absence of an offseason program due to the labor situation hurts guys like these the most. Neither was active for a single game in 2010, with Newhouse finishing the season on injured reserve with a bad back.
Their presence on an ultra-competitive Super Bowl roster speaks to their potential. McDonald made the team as an undrafted rookie last year, working at both guard and center, largely on his preseason game tape. He also may have improved the most of any lineman in 2010 despite no game experience after Labor Day. McCarthy hinted late last season that he’s anxious to see McDonald compete for a spot in 2011, maybe at left guard. He’s also a possible replacement in the middle for Wells sometime down the road.
Newhouse, a fifth-round pick in 2010, is also versatile with the ability to play guard or tackle, but his future may be at tackle because scouts and coaches consistently refer to his “good feet.” As long as his back issues clear up, he’ll be in the team’s plans, both as a backup ready to step in and a possible future starter.
Two additional prospects the Packers know a lot about already are interior swing man Evan Dietrich-Smith and tackle Chris Campbell. Dietrich-Smith was on the roster all of 2009 as an undrafted rookie, was released following training camp last season, and then was brought back at the end of the regular season for playoff depth. Campbell was on the practice squad as a rookie for all but one week last season and is considered a project, but his eye-catching size (6-5, 328) makes him more than an afterthought. Remember Wells began his career on the practice squad, too.
One final member of the current roster is second-year guard Adrian Battles, but he’s had only minimal exposure to the coaching staff. He was signed to the practice squad in week 16 last season as a rookie.
Overall, whether the Packers have greater up-front depth at tackle or at the inside positions probably depends on where Lang fits best. Newhouse’s development and return from injury, as well as Colledge’s and Spitz’s futures, factor in as well.
In any case, with Clifton entering his 12th year and Wells his eighth, more big guys are likely on their way.
Mike Spofford is a 1995 Masters graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who worked as a sports reporter for two daily newspapers in Wisconsin, covering the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Spofford has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006.