The Green Bay Packers shuffled their offensive line recently, but things are far from settled at one position.
It was already clear as the 2012 season was winding down: the battle for left tackle was going to be one the biggest position battles to watch as the offseason began. With the reorganization of the line, the battle now moves to the right side. With the Packers investing $110 million in Aaron Rodgers via a contract extension, it was decided that Bryan Bulaga would be a better fit than Marshall Newhouse (or someone else) to protect Rodgers’ blindside.
Though Bulaga has spent his entire NFL career at right tackle, he actually was a natural left tackle. Injuries forced Bulaga to the right side as a rookie in 2010 and he played at or near Pro Bowl level, so coach Mike McCarthy decided to not fix something that wasn’t broken.
That is, until 2012 arrived and Rodgers was sacked a career-high 51 times.
In order to protect Rodgers better, McCarthy decided to flip-flop his line. Bulaga is now at his natural position of left tackle with Josh Sitton becoming the left guard. T.J. Lang moves to right guard and Evan Dietrich-Smith remains the starting center. With Sitton on the left side, the Packers’ most experienced offensive lineman is now helping protect Rodgers’ blind side.
So who will be Green Bay’s right tackle in 2013? It’s unclear at this point, but Marshall Newhouse is getting first crack at defending his starting job in organized team activities (OTAs). He is by no means safe as he is expected to face intense challenges from Don Barclay and Derek Sherrod.
Sherrod still is recovering from the injury that ruined his rookie season, so it appears to be a two-man race for the time being. Don’t count him out forever as McCarthy has said he expects Sherrod to be a ‘major factor’ at some point. The problem is someone could eliminate him from the competition before he even gets a chance to prove himself.
Newhouse may appear to be the early favorite judging by OTAs (which means little in the grand scheme of things), but judging from how they both performed in 2012, it’s actually Barclay that seems to be the best candidate for the job.
He had some good moments, but Newhouse struggled at left tackle overall. He won’t face as much pressure at right tackle since he won’t be protecting Rodgers’ blind side, but his abilities as a run blocker are also in question. With Green Bay drafting two running backs, the emphasis on a better running game is clear. Newhouse is better suited to be a backup and that’s where he should find himself as the 2013 season gets underway.
Barclay, meanwhile, started four regular-season games at right tackle last year plus two games in the playoffs. This means he’s already ahead of the learning curve that Newhouse is facing. Barclay earned a spot on the roster thanks to a strong training camp and preseason and another solid effort this preseason very well could land him the starting job.
Though he’s not the best pass protector either, Barclay perhaps has the bigger upside given Newhouse has been starting since the 2011 season and was drafted in 2010. Barclay was an undrafted rookie last season but was able to make the roster. There’s still plenty of room for growth.
If the Packers are serious about improving their rushing attack, then Barclay needs to the starter at the right side. He’s a better run blocker than Newhouse and is a little more agile given he weighs 14 pounds less than Newhouse (Barclay is 305, Newhouse is 319). He could afford to bulk up a bit as training camp approaches, however.
Barclay also seems to possess more toughness and attitude than Newhouse and with Green Bay clearly stung by criticism that it is a “soft” team, this should stand out as well. If the draft is any indication, the Packers are intent on becoming a much more physically dominant team and Barclay would fit that mold. Newhouse doesn’t have the same ability (or perhaps will) as Barclay to purely run over guys, and if Barclay can maintain that attitude it will serve him well.
While Barclay may be the winner of this battle, it would be remiss if a couple dark horses weren’t mentioned: rookie David Bakhtiari and Andrew Datko.
Bakhtiari seems a little small for an NFL tackle at 299 pounds, but he plays with good leverage. He’s a solid run blocker as well. If he can’t pull off the upset and win the starting job, he very well could be a second string player to begin his rookie season. Expecting to become an immediate starter may be too much for the fourth round draft pick from Colorado.
Datko is a more intriguing option. He was a seventh-round draft pick last year and spent the entire season on the practice squad. He’s primarily worked at guard in his time with the Packers, but Datko played right tackle in college and should see at least a few snaps at the position in training camp. Anything is possible in the NFL.
When all the dust settles, it should be Barclay who’s left standing. He did enough last year in the preseason to raise eyebrows as an undrafted rookie, and with one season under his belt Barclay should be even better in 2013. Once he lands the job, the key for him will be consistency. The Packers have not had a true, set in stone offensive line since McCarthy became coach in 2006.
The game of musical chairs along the line must come to an end, and if Barclay plays as well as many think he can, that last starting seat along the line may finally be claimed.