Packers appear to be solid up front
GREEN BAY—Coach Mike McCarthy has had some solid offensive lines but never one that could be called great under James Campen, the unit’s longtime position coach.
Will this be that year for the Green Bay Packers?
“I think we have a chance to be an outstanding line,” said offensive coordinator Tom Clements, a McCarthy assistant since the beginning of his nine-year tenure. “Just go across the board.”
Josh Sitton is nearing elite status at left guard, T.J. Lang has been a competitive starter at the other guard for three years, left tackle David Bakhtiari showed promise as a rookie and Bryan Bulaga, with three years of starting service under his belt, is approaching the 12-month mark since his reconstructive knee surgery.
The Packers felt so good about JC Tretter’s chances to be a capable center that they let Evan Dietrich-Smith walk to Tampa Bay for moderate money (four years, $7.25 million guaranteed) in mid-March even though salary-cap space was barely a consideration—Green Bay currently ranks eighth in cap room at $13.515 million.
“If the center position comes along we can have a very good line,” Clements said. “He (Tretter) is working with the first group and doing a good job.”
There is no best way to judge an offensive line. The top groups effectively mesh players and coaches with teammates and scheme.
Over the years, the Journal Sentinel has attempted to incorporate the key components of line play in its season-ending player grades.
In order to compare the Packers’ lines, a review was made of the individual grades given for the starters in each of the last 15 seasons. A 4.0-point scale was used, and then a collective grade was computed for the five starters each year.
It should be no surprise that the No. 1 group since 1999 was the 2003 fivesome of Chad Clifton (B-), Mike Wahle (A), Mike Flanagan (B+), Marco Rivera (A-) and Mark Tauscher (B-).
Just five of the Packers’ 20 sacks in 18 games that year were charged to the line, and the ground attack (159.9 yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry) was the best since the mid-1960s.
The grade-point average for that unit, which was coached by Larry Beightol for a fifth season, was 3.268, or a B+.
Next was 2004 with a 3.2 GPA, followed by 2001 at 2.868.
Under Campen, the line’s GPAs were 2.334 in 2007, 2.264 in ‘08, 2.134 in ‘09, 2.734 in ‘10, 2.736 in ‘11, 2.336 in ‘12 and 2.468 in ‘13. The group’s average in 2011 was its fourth-best in the 15-year span.
The final grades a year ago were C+ for Bakhtiari, A- for Sitton, C- for Dietrich-Smith, B- for Lang and C for Don Barclay.
Campen, the Packers’ No. 1 center for 31/2 seasons in the early 1990s, was hired from the California prep coaching ranks in 2004 by Mike Sherman to assist the line and work quality control. He apprenticed for two seasons under Beightol and for another under Joe Philbin before being promoted in ‘07.
Entering his eighth season, Campen is the longest-tenured offensive line coach in Packers history. He surpasses Tom Lovat and Beightol, seven years as the head man, and Bill Austin and Ernie McMillan, six.
In fact, Campen’s consecutive years of service atop the position will rank third in the league this year behind Cincinnati’s Paul Alexander (20) and the New York Giants’ Pat Flaherty (11).
Twenty of the 32 offensive line coaches this season will be in just their first or second years with their current team in their current position.
Not only has McCarthy spoken highly of Campen over the years, he and general manager Ted Thompson have denied permission for him to interview with other teams more than once.
“In all the aspects you’d evaluate an offensive-line coach, he’s outstanding,” Clements said. “I mean, he’s very detailed. These guys obviously respect him because of his knowledge and they know that they’ll be prepared.
“He’s a good technician…an outstanding technician. He works on the things they need to work on. Having played the position, he can look at a defense and pick up some tips to help them out and understand what’s coming.”
Statistically, the unit should have momentum. After having ranked 18th, 29th, 20th, 22nd and 28th in sack percentage, the Packers were 10th a year ago, their second-best finish under Campen.
Meanwhile, Green Bay was fourth in yards per rush after having ranked 12th, 18th, 13th, 25th, 26th and 22nd in Campen’s first six years.
In addition to Dietrich-Smith, the Packers said goodbye to finesse tackle Marshall Newhouse and center Greg Van Roten. Buoyed by the return to health of snake-bitten tackle Derek Sherrod, McCarthy said in February that the depth at the position was his finest ever.
Disdaining making a veteran acquisition such as Jeff Saturday in 2012, Thompson will ride the rapids at center with Tretter and rookie Corey Linsley, a small but strong fifth-round draft choice.
“In general, it’s the easiest need in the NFL to fix or replace or find,” an executive in personnel for another club said. “There’s more college free agents starting at center than any other position. That’s not a position to worry about.”
Despite having played left tackle and tight end in the Ivy League, Tretter engenders optimism. Still, he didn’t play a snap during an injury-marred first season.
“He has good size,” Clements said. “He moves very well. He doesn’t make mistakes.”
Said McCarthy: “He’s made of the right stuff.”
Cushioning Tretter’s baptismal will be the comforting presence of Sitton and Lang, a pair of salty campaigners with big personalities.
“Josh Sitton is one of the better offensive linemen in the league,” Clements said. “T.J. has done very well and had a good year. He’s a smart player. He gets after you.”
Sitton has made the all-NFC North Division team five straight years.
“They’re both strong and they’re deceptive athletes,” an NFC North personnel man said. “They’re instinctive, tough. That’s the strength of their offensive line.”
Bakhtiari showed poise beyond his 21 years last season, playing all but three snaps after Bulaga’s shift to the left side ended with a torn ACL in the intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 3.
Although Clements said Bakhtiari “did a great job as a rookie and is only going to get better,” he finished well back in the all-division voting at left tackle behind Chicago’s Jermon Bushrod, Minnesota’s Matt Kalil and Detroit’s Riley Reiff.
“Good pick,” one NFC North scout said. “Game wasn’t too big for him. Athletic. Just needs to get stronger. For a fourth-round rookie he didn’t kill them.”
McCarthy’s decision to move Bulaga back to right tackle indirectly meant he wanted Bakhtiari in the lineup rather than Barclay.
“Bulaga’s back at right tackle,” Clements said. “He’s coming off the injury, but we can knock the rust off of him.”
Barclay figures to get substantial work with the No. 1 offense as the coaches slowly work Bulaga back into playing form.
“Barclay just lacks strength,” an NFC North personnel director said. “He’s not a bad athlete. Plays hard. Just lacks power in the run game and gets knocked back some in pass pro.”
Sherrod enters the final year of his contract after a healthy, uneventful off-season. Now it remains to be seen if he can develop the necessary quick hands and feet that he didn’t show as a rookie three years ago.
“He’s worked this whole off-season and is moving very well,” Clements said. “To fight through all the things he’s had to fight through is a lot of credit to him.”