Before training camp began for the Green Bay Packers, I asked NFL scout Chris Landry how he thought quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense of the Packers would do in 2016, after a disappointing performance in 2015.
Rodgers had a decent year individually, as he threw 31 touchdown passes versus just eight interceptions, but as a team the Packers were ranked just 25th in the NFL in passing offense last season.
Green Bay was also ranked 23rd in total offense.
“I’m not worried about Aaron,” Landry said in July. “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.”
In the 2016 NFL draft, the Packers added some depth to the offensive tackle position by selecting Jason Spriggs of Indiana and Kyle Murphy of Stanford.
Both showed flashes of being very solid additions to the team at tackle this preseason, but they also had a few down moments, which is the norm for a rookie.
The big news on the offensive line in training camp was that starting center Corey Linsley was unable to play due to a hamstring issue, which ended up putting the former Ohio State Buckeye star on the PUP list.
JC Tretter stepped in at center and played so well that head coach Mike McCarthy named him as the starter, even before the injury status of Linsley had been determined.
At that point, it looked like the Packers would have a very solid offensive line from left to right. The Packers would line up with left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, Tretter at center., right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
But the football world was shocked when the Packers released Sitton on the team’s final cut.
Sitton had been considered one of the best guards in the NFL. Over the past four seasons, Sitton had been named to three Pro Bowls and was named second-team All-Pro twice.
There were a number of reasons why the Packers may have released Sitton. One may have been the back issues which have been bothering him the past couple of years. Not to mention the ligament tear below his left big toe, which has also hampered him for a couple of seasons.
But the main reason Sitton was released most likely had to do with his contract status and also the contract status of others on the offensive line.
Sitton, Lang, Bakhtiari and Tretter were all going to be unrestricted free agents in 2017.
Something had to give.
Last week, Lang confirmed a report that both he and Sitton were told their contract negotiations would be put on hold while the Packers worked on younger players’ contracts during the season.
That may not have sat well with Sitton. Pete Dougherty of USA Today Network-Wisconsin also put out a very interesting article shortly after Sitton was released which included a comment from an NFL source.
The source said that in the eyes of the Green Bay organization, Sitton had become haughty and uncommunicative.
When asked about why he decided to release Sitton, general manager Ted Thompson didn’t really add any insight.
“I’m not going to go there,” Thompson said. “Not right now, no.”
Thompson did however have a comment about the former No. 71 of the Packers.
“I will say this,” Thompson added. “Josh Sitton is a heck of a football player and a good teammate. He’s one of the better picks I’ve ever made.”
But when it was all said and done, the Packers released Sitton. And one the eve of the opening game of the 2016 NFL season against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Packers came to an agreement with Bakhtiari on four-year extension worth almost 52 million dollars.
The release of Sitton meant that Lane Taylor would be taking his place and he had a big first test, as he would be going up against Malik Jackson, who came to the Jaguars via a big free agent deal, after playing four years with the current Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
I had another chance to speak with Landry on Thursday on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig show. I asked Landry how he thought Taylor and the Packers offense did as a whole against a very talented Jaguar defense in very hot Jacksonville last Sunday.
“I thought Lane played very well,” Landry said. “I thought JC Tretter and [T.J.] Lang did too. I thought the interior of the offensive line was very solid.”
Landry then gave his take on the situation regarding Sitton.
“One of the reason why they wanted to move on from him [Sitton] was because look, they understand Josh’s value, but they like the players they have,” Landry said. “In terms of the overall structure of what to pay, they weren’t willing to go there at this point. And if it’s going to be a problem and going to be an issue, then they just move on.
“Just another note. This move certainly helped out the Bears interior offensive line. Because even though Kyle Long is dealing with a shoulder issue, he and Sitton graded out very well this past week.”
Landry then continued to talk about the line play of the Packers versus the Jaguars.
“I thought they did a pretty good job,” Landry said. “The interior of the line did a good job. [David] Bakhtiari played well for them. It was a really good performance. Jacksonville is a good team. I thought that Jacksonville had a good chance to beat them [the Packers] at home. If it wasn’t for Aaron Rodgers, they would have.
“Aaron, I didn’t mean to omit him, because he was one of the highest-graded players. Of spectacular plays, there is no doubt that Aaron Rodgers had the most spectacular plays of any quarterback in last week’s games.
“He kind of bailed them out. Jacksonville was really good and [Blake] Bortles played well enough to win, but that’s the beauty of Aaron Rodgers. What I’ve mentioned to Bob and other Packer fans is that last year they had no protections and had no vertical passing game, everything was horizontal.
“The ability to protect better allows Aaron Rodgers, it puts that paint brush in his hands, and it allows him to make plays. Yeah, they aren’t healthy, Jordy Nelson is not quite back, and there are issues, but he [Rodgers] cures a lot of ills.”
The 1-0 Packers face another big road test this Sunday night when they travel to Minneapolis to take on the 1-0 Minnesota Vikings at their new U.S. Bank Stadium. The defense of the Vikings has one of the better front sevens in the NFL.
That front seven was responsible for two defensive touchdowns last week when the Vikings defeated the Tennessee Titans 25-16 on the road.
Bottom line, the Vikings will be another difficult challenge for Rodgers and the offensive line of the Packers to overcome.
We shall soon find out how that situation unfolds in this big NFC North matchup.