Despite giving up close to triple the number of pressures as his predecessor, the Packers offensive line held up just fine in 2016 with young Lane Taylor replacing perennial All-Pro Josh Sitton at left guard. But expecting such smooth sailing this season without T.J. Lang at right guard might be asking too much.
Give general manager Ted Thompson a lot of credit for signing veteran Jahri Evans to plug the gaping hole left after Lang, who played in his first Pro Bowl in January, took the free agent money and ran back home to Michigan. While no longer an elite player, the longtime Saint is still an above average starter. And Taylor, with a year’s worth of starting experience now under his belt, should reach that same level this season.
So, assuming Taylor improves and Evans doesn’t regress, the Packers should have two above average guards protecting Aaron Rodgers come the second week of September. And while that’s not the worst thing in the world, it’s a far cry from two years ago when Sitton and Lang gave up fewer than 20 combined pressures. And it figures to be a far cry from last season when Lang – even with a bad foot – put up an impenetrable wall around QB1 (by my unofficial count, he didn’t give up a sack and surrendered just two hits).
Simply put, Rodgers is likely going to face more pressure up the middle this season than he’s seen in years. And as any veteran quarterback will tell you, that’s the most difficult kind of pressure to deal with. Fortunately, the two-time MVP and future Hall of Famer is blessed with one of the quickest releases in the league and the athleticism – even at the age of 33 – to deal with increased traffic in his face. So while things figure to be a bit more challenging for Rodgers this season and his uniform might get a bit dirtier, don’t expect the drop-off at guard to be a really big deal… unless injuries hit at the other positions on the line.
Pressure up the middle can be dealt as long as the edges are taken care of – something tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga did brilliantly in 2016 (7 sacks allowed in over 1,300 pass attempts). Replacing one of them with unproven Jason Spriggs would almost certainly be a significant downgrade. And what happens if center Corey Linsley gets hurt – something that’s happened in each of the past two seasons? Don Barclay between Lang and Sitton is one thing; Barclay between Taylor and Evans is a whole different deal.
And while the run game will be less impacted because of how often the Packers throw the ball, don’t think Ty Montgomery and company won’t be affected. Sitton and Lang have been among the best run blockers in the league for years. Neither Taylor nor Evans was very good last season. The former simply lacks the mobility to get to the second level and the latter is more of a pusher than a pounder at this stage of his career.
Despite all of this, things should be just fine. Remember, thanks to the brilliance of Rodgers and the scheme employed by coach/play-caller Mike McCarthy, the offense had record-breaking success with Marshall “The Human Turnstile” Newhouse at left tackle in 2011. But that line still had quality players at the other four positions. This season’s line is already down to three quality players, so it can’t afford to lose another one. As is the case with any wall, there’s only so many holes that can be patched before it breaks.