Aaron Rodgers is so critical to the Packers’ success that three-fifths of his offensive line is comprised of left tackles.
“That’s always a goal, to keep Aaron off his back,” Packers offensive lineman Nick McDonald said.
Yeah, when your quarterback is the current Super Bowl MVP, your offensive line’s responsibility is pretty clear: Take care of “The Man.”
In General Manager Ted Thompson’s quest to do just that, he has surrounded Rodgers with the makings of one of the top offensive lines in the game. Veteran Chad Clifton, one of the league’s top pass-blockers over the last 11 years, remains a fixture at left tackle. Bryan Bulaga, a left tackle at Iowa and the Packers’ first-round pick in 2010, is at right tackle. Derek Sherrod, a left tackle at Mississippi State and the Packers’ first-round pick this year, is at left guard.
“We have to protect our quarterback. We’ve got to get into the 20s (in sacks). He’s taking too many sacks,” Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin said of Rodgers, who was sacked 31 times in 2010. There was also the matter of a couple of games lost to a concussion, the result of scrambling out of the pocket.
Protecting Rodgers, which is to say protecting the franchise, is being entrusted this season to arguably the best collection of offensive line talent the Packers have enjoyed in the Mike McCarthy era.
“You have Chad, kind of the left tackle that’s been there forever. We just have to be smart with him during training camp. He’s in much better shape this year than he has been coming into camp. He’s two years removed now from the four surgeries he had, so he looks good,” McCarthy said, complying with a request that he evaluate his team’s offensive line.
“Scott Wells and Josh Sitton, I felt last year performed at the highest level in our offensive line, and it looks like they’ve picked up right where they left off. I’m very impressed with those guys,” McCarthy said.
“Bryan Bulaga has really improved from last year. I think he would be classified as a young man that’s making the jump from year one to year two. He looks a lot more comfortable. He’s playing faster.
“And left guard is wide open. T.J. Lang and Derek are competing for that. Nick McDonald would have a chance, but we feel we need to play him more exclusively at center,” McCarthy added.
Another young blocker with long-range potential has surfaced in this training camp. Marshall Newhouse, a 6-4, 320-pound tackle who was a fifth-round pick in ’10, is beginning to make his move.
“I watched him on a number of snaps today and I thought he did a lot of nice things playing both left and right tackle,” McCarthy said of Newhouse following Tuesday’s practice. “And there’s a bunch of young guys after that. It’s a group that has a chance to be probably one of the better offensive lines that we’ve had in my time here.”
Bulaga is the fastest riser currently. Considered to have been a “steal” late in the first round of the ’10 draft, Bulaga moved into the starting lineup one month into the regular season and elevated his play throughout the postseason. He is continuing his ascent this summer.
“He has Clay Matthews over him frequently (in practice). That’s good work for both of those guys,” Offensive Line Coach James Campen said of Bulaga.
When the Packers selected Sherrod with the final pick of the first round of this year’s draft, the immediate question was: Which first-round pick, Bulaga or Sherrod, will become the Packers’ left tackle when Clifton retires?
Does it matter as long as Rodgers is upright?
“You’re always looking to get your best five. You get to learn the pro game from inside out; that’s an advantage,” Campen said in explaining the thinking behind making Sherrod the first-team left guard from the start of training camp. “He’s not crossing the ball. He’s not having to get into a right-hand stance.”
Wells is a steady and underrated center, and right guard Sitton is coming into the prime years of his career.
“It’s a big year, obviously. I think I’ve come into my own as a guard in the league. I can focus on me and the small things and work to keep getting better. The first goal is to win a championship. After that, personal things come, like Pro Bowls. I’m a competitive person, so I want to be the best I can be,” Sitton said.
McDonald, who is being groomed as a guard-center swingman, and guard-tackle T.J. Lang provide depth.
“In my three years, this is definitely the youngest line we’ve had. We’ve got a lot of talent. We’ve got a lot of guys that can play. The key this year is building on the good things we did last year,” Lang said.
It begins with protecting Rodgers.