The right side of the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line has been a strength for the past 25 years. From Earl Dotson and Marco Rivera through Mark Tauscher and Josh Sitton through Bryan Bulaga and T.J. Lang, superstar quarterbacks Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers seldom had to worry about facing frontside pressure. But that probably won’t be the case next season. For the first time since Bill and Hillary were in the White House, the right side figures to be the wrong side.
As of today, Billy Turner and Rick Wagner are expected to start at right guard and right tackle, respectively, and the only people who should feel good about that are the defensive linemen and linebackers who will be facing the Packers. Turner, whom general manager Brian Gutekunst inexplicably signed to a $30 million contract in free agency a year ago, played pretty much as expected in 2019. He was the same mediocre player at just over $7 million a season that he was at just over $700K a season.
Turner certainly looks the part, but there’s always been something missing. While he’s an above-average athlete, he’s a below-average pass protector. He struggles to shut down strong inside moves due to an inconsistent lateral slide, and a lack of awareness often leaves him incapable of thwarting delayed blitzes. Despite playing between a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber players in right tackle Bulaga and center Corey Linsley, he still gave up far more sacks (9), hurries (38), and pressures (55) than any other offensive lineman on the team.
In the video below, Turner (#77) should have no trouble blocking the man in front of him. Seattle’s Jarran Reed (#91) is a good player, but he’s far from an explosive athlete. Turner simply has to stay in front of Reed and give Rodgers enough time to find an open receiver. Instead, the pocket collapses in large part because Turner allows Reed to slip inside. This shouldn’t happen, and yet it happened over and over last season.
Here’s another play that gave Turner trouble on a weekly basis, and unlike the last one, this is more of a mental breakdown. Turner begins by giving help to backup right tackle Jared Veldheer. That’s fine, but he doesn’t come off the double-team in time to slow down twisting outside linebacker Shaquem Griffin (#49). Look, this isn’t an easy play for a right guard, but it’s one Sitton and Lang would make in their sleep. And while nobody expected Turner to be a Pro Bowler, he was certainly expected to be better than Lane Taylor.
Wagner, who signed a two-year deal worth $11 million on the first day of free agency, was released by the Lions after a disappointing season. Once one of the top handful of right tackles in the league, the former Wisconsin star can now best be described as a journeyman. He’ll be paid about half of what Bulaga will make with the Chargers in 2020, and that seems about right since he was about half the player a year ago.
Wagner was never a top athlete, but that didn’t keep him from becoming the highest-paid right tackle in the league in 2017. As a member of the Ravens from 2013 to 2016, he was just quick enough off the snap to effectively handle speed off the edge. But age has taken its toll, and now the 30-year-old gets stressed by quicker rushers.
I picked the following two plays because they are a perfect representation of Wagner’s 2019 season. While he surrendered only 3 sacks, he gave up 35 pressures in 12 games. For the sake of comparison, Bulaga gave up 25 pressures in 15 games. In the first video, Wagner (#71) allows 62-year-old Arizona linebacker Terrell Suggs (#56) to easily beat him to the inside. In the second video, Wagner lets Minnesota defensive end Danielle Hunter (#99) get around the corner and hit the quarterback’s arm just as the ball is released.
Wagner labored in pass protection all season, but to his credit, he usually at least slowed down the rusher. This allowed the quarterback to at least get rid of the ball. It should also be pointed out that Wagner was often given help in obvious passing situations – something Bulaga was almost never afforded last season.
To sum it all up, starting either Turner or Wagner wouldn’t be a problem. The offensive line held up just fine last season with Turner at right guard, and the offensive line wasn’t a liability in 2012 with Marshall Newhouse at left tackle or in 2013 with Don Barclay at right tackle. But Turner had Bulaga next to him, Newhouse had Lang next to him, and Barclay also had Lang next to him. Playing Turner and Wagner side by side could pose major problems. Let’s face it, a quarterback whose mobility ain’t what it used to be, receivers that struggle to get separation and a mediocre right side of the offensive line is not a good combination.
There are a couple of possible alternatives. One would be to use a high draft pick on an offensive tackle and hope that player could beat out Wagner at some point during the season. The other would be to move left guard Elgton Jenkins to right guard. This way, the talent on the line would be better distributed. The Packers would then have Turner – or Taylor – between longtime starting center Linsley and All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, and Wagner would have rising star Jenkins next to him. I’m not sure how likely either scenario is. Without an offseason, would any young player be able to hold up at right tackle while facing some of the best pass rushers in the league? And would the coaches want to move Jenkins after such a strong rookie season? These are legit questions. But here’s an even bigger question – would the offense be able to function at a high level with such a pedestrian pair manning the right side of the offensive line?