In looking back at the 2015 Green Bay Packers, one position stood out like a sore thumb in terms of lack of depth. That would be the offensive tackle position.
The situation at offensive tackle reared it’s ugly head when the Packers played the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale two days after Christmas last season.
Starting left tackle David Bakhtiari didn’t play due to an ankle injury. Starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga missed most of the second half with an ankle injury. That meant that Don Barclay replaced Bakhtiari at left tackle and Josh Walker took over for Bulaga at right tackle.
Both played like they were swinging gates trying to stop oncoming pass rushers, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers was hit 12 times, sacked eight times and fumbled three times (two of which were returned for touchdowns).
The bottom line is that the Packers did not have a true swing tackle on the offensive line last season. Yes, Barclay had started 18 games at right tackle in 2012 and 2013, but that was before he tore his ACL in 2014.
Even before that injury, Barclay showed that he didn’t have the quick feet necessary to stop edge rushers. That is what the Packers realized when they first signed Barclay as an undrafted rookie out of West Virginia in 2012.
The Packers immediately moved Barclay inside to guard, as he was a better than average run blocker. It wasn’t until the Packers had injuries at the tackle position that Barclay moved outside to tackle, as he had played the position in college.
General manager Ted Thompson certainly addressed the shortcomings at offensive tackle in the 2016 NFL draft.
In the second round, the Packers traded up and selected offensive tackle Jason Spriggs of Indiana with pick No. 48. NFL scout Chris Landry had Spriggs ranked 32nd of his horizontal draft board, just one spot behind Taylor Decker of Ohio State.
Spriggs was a four-year starter at Indiana and he started 47 times in 48 games at left tackle for the Hoosiers.
The 6-foot-51/2, 305-pound Spriggs impressed Landry at the Senior Bowl. Landry put out this report on Spriggs after his impressive week in Mobile, Alabama:
OT Jason Spriggs of Indiana, consistently stood out as one of the most effective pass protectors at the Senior Bowl. The former tight end is big and strong, yet agile and light-footed enough to seal off the edge on opposing pass rushers.
In the sixth round, with the 200th selection in the draft, the Packers picked offensive tackle Kyle Murphy of Stanford.
The 6’6″, 305-pound Murphy started at both left and right tackle for the Cardinal. He was named first team All-Pac-12 in 2015 at left tackle and second team All-Pac-12 in 2014 at right tackle.
Landry had Murphy ranked at No. 97 on his horizontal draft board, but the former Stanford star lasted until pick No. 200. That’s what I call excellent value. This is what Landry said about Murphy in his scouting report:
A former five-star recruit, Murphy was named to the All- Pac-12 first team in 2015. He was a third-team All American. He is a solid football player who does everything very well. He had 34 career starts at Stanford, including all 27 his junior and senior seasons. He can get off the ball quickly, has explosiveness on contact, gets movement with run blocks and gets and keeps good position in pass protection. He plays with a natural bend and can anchor. Murphy is athletic enough to pull and play in space. He just needs to get a little bigger and stronger.
In training camp so far and through the first two preseason games, neither Spriggs or Murphy have disappointed, although both have had their ups and downs.
Spriggs has played a ton a snaps in both preseason games and looked very solid in the game versus the Cleveland Browns at left tackle. Against the Oakland Raiders and defensive end Khalil Mack in the second quarter, Spriggs had some issues.
Mack is one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. Perhaps only J.J. Watt is better. Spriggs allowed Mack to have four hurries and one sack. After Mack left the game, Spriggs still struggled at times, but he never stopped competing and had some nice moments as well.
Murphy didn’t play against Cleveland in the first preseason game due to a concussion issue, but he stood out with his fine play at right tackle against the Raiders.
Murphy was matched most of the second quarter matched against Bruce Irvin, the former Seahawk, who had 25 sacks in four seasons in Seattle. While Spriggs was struggling against Mack, Murphy handled Irvin with relative ease.
Like Spriggs, Murphy received plenty of snaps as well. Both rookies are getting some nice experience this preseason. More importantly, it also looks like both of them have the capability to come in at a moment’s notice to play at a solid level if either Bakhtiari or Bulaga go out with an injury.
There is some even better news on the offensive line front. Barclay is playing very solidly at both guard and center. A lot of people were shocked that the Packers re-signed Barclay to a one-year deal when he was an unrestricted free agent. This was after giving up nine sacks in just five starts at tackle last season.
I tried to explain why the Packers did that in an article I wrote about Barclay in April. The main reason I thought Green Bay brought him back was to move him back inside to guard.
The Packers did do just that, plus gave him several snaps at center backing up JC Tretter, as starting center Corey Linsley has been out with a hamstring injury. Barclay had been given limited reps at center earlier in his career in Green Bay, so playing center wasn’t foreign to him.
It looks like Barclay has resurrected his career this training camp, as he is moving around much better two years removed from his ACL injury.
Tretter has also been exceptional as the starting center while Linsley has been out.
If the Packers keep just nine offensive linemen this season, I believe that the nine linemen will be Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Linsley, T.J. Lang, Bulaga, Tretter, Spriggs, Murphy and Barclay. If they keep 10 linemen, Lane Taylor would probably be the next guy in.
If it comes down to one job between Barclay and Taylor, Barclay has played much better this preseason, plus can play multiple positions, while Taylor is strictly a guard.
The bottom line is that the Packers have the offensive weapons to be really special this year in terms of being productive and putting up points.
But as Landry has reminded me a number of times, the offensive line has to it’s job.
Back in July, Landry had this take on the offensive line, when I asked him how productive Aaron Rodgers will be in 2016.
“I’m not worried about Aaron,” Landry said. “I’m more concerned about the offensive line. That will dictate how effective they will be running the football and that’s going to determine the protection level and what he [Rodgers] can do in the passing game.
“Listen, you never know, but you hope for good health, better health. They [the Packers] have got weapons. I think they have better weapons than they have had in the past. But to me, the success of the offense is going to come down to the offensive line play and how well they are able to hold up there.
“If they do, this offense can flip around and be one of the eight or ten best offenses in the league and be a big, big factor for them going deep into the playoffs. If they don’t, they won’t even win their division, because I think this Minnesota team is pretty good and pretty consistent.
“I think it’s pretty clear where the issues are. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I like at least some of the things I’ve seen. The offensive line to me is one you have to see and grow and develop. They won’t be as good in Week 1 as they will be in Week 7 or 8, but I want to see the progress there. That will determine ultimately how good this team will be.”
So far, there has been some definite headway with the offensive line this preseason. The depth on the line is definitely a work in progress, but the Packers have to be thrilled with the overall play of Spriggs, Murphy, Barclay and Tretter. That all adds up to holding down the fort effectively if injuries do occur with the starters.