GREEN BAY - It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say the Green Bay Packers' offensive line stayed healthy all of last season.
When you lose a rookie draft pick to a broken ankle during the first organized team activity practice of the spring, then lose your starting left tackle for the season on a seemingly innocuous play during a summertime scrimmage, you haven't stayed healthy.
But with all due respect to Bryan Bulaga, the poor, unfortunate soul who's had each of his last two seasons cut short by injury – including last year, which was over before it started when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the Aug. 3 Family Night scrimmage – and JC Tretter, whose rookie season began with crutches and a cast, the Packers did stay comparatively healthy up front last season.
Because Bulaga's injury occurred just a week into camp, the Packers had ample time to move then-rookie fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari to left tackle and get him up to speed. And because Tretter was not expected to win a starting job last year – unlike this year, when he's being counted on to be the starting center – his loss wasn't a devastating one, either.
Remarkably, four of the starters – Bakhtiari at left tackle, Josh Sitton at left guard, Evan Dietrich-Smith and center and T.J. Lang at right guard – started all 17 games (including playoffs) together last season. Dietrich-Smith departed two games with a knee injury but was able to start the next game; Lang missed time with a concussion but didn't miss a start. Only at right tackle, where Don Barclay missed two games with a knee injury and Marshall Newhouse started in his place, did anyone miss a start. And even then, in 15 of 17 games, the Packers had their reconstituted, post-Bulaga injury line intact.
If they are able to replicate that good fortune in 2014, they won't just have a strong season protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers and creating holes for running back Eddie Lacy. They have much higher expectations than that.
"If we can stay healthy as an offensive line, I think this can be the best offensive line we've had in awhile, probably ever since I've been here," said Sitton, who joined the team as a fourth-round pick in 2008 and is the line's longest-tenured player. "We've just got to stay healthy."
Given the Packers' track record with injuries at other positions, the odds might be against them. But if Sitton's wish comes true, this group might be able to put together a season that will remind everyone of the 2003 bunch – left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard Mike Wahle, center Mike Flangan, right guard Marco Rivera and right tackle Mark Tauscher – that allowed quarterback Brett Favre to be sacked just 19 times and paved the way for halfback Ahman Green's franchise-record 1,883 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns.
It'll all start with Tretter, however, who started his college career at Cornell as a tight end before moving to tackle. Unlike challenges Garth Gerhart and rookie Corey Linsley, who are both centers by trade, Tretter is still learning what the coaches truly believe is his best NFL position. While he didn't take a snap last season after starting the year on the physically unable to perform list, he did practice for the last month and a half and continues to look and feel more natural at center. The Packers love his football IQ as much as his physical talent.
His biggest challenge may be getting on the same page with Rodgers.
"It's about getting on the same page with the protection stuff, it's how I like the snaps in the shotgun, and how I like the rhythm of our offense," Rodgers said. "JC's been doing a nice job, he's a really bright guy. He gets it from an intelligence standpoint."
Said Tretter: "You've got to go out there and you have to earn it. There's nothing at this level that's given to you. You've got to go out there every day and earn your position. That's how I went into the offseason and that's how it's going to continue to be until the final decision's been made."
Tretter will benefit from being flanked by the line's two old pros, Sitton and Lang. Sitton, who received second-team All-Pro accolades last season and went to his first Pro Bowl as an injury replacement two years ago may finally get his due as one of the league's top interior linemen. Lang seems to have settled in at right guard after years of bouncing around.
At tackle, the coaches saw it as a no-brainer to keep Bakhtiari at left tackle and return Bulaga to his customary right tackle spot, even though he spent all of last season prepping for the move to left tackle.
"Certainly, Bryan has played a lot of football as a right tackle, and Dave and Josh worked well together," Campen said. "So, that's the way we're going to go."
The coaches are especially happy that, should their hopes of another healthy season on the line be dashed, they have Don Barclay warming up in the bullpen.
Both head coach Mike McCarthy and Campen consider Barclay their "sixth starter" after he started 21 games over the past two seasons. He figures to be plugged in if something happens at left guard, right guard or right tackle, and should Tretter go down, the logical move would be to shift Lang to center and bring Barclay off the bench. The only scenario that's unclear is what Campen would do if Bakhtiari went down.
"[Even though] he's not in the starting rotation, we think of him as a starting player," Campen said of Barclay. "And that doesn't mean he's not going to be a starter. It's going to be competitive. I mean, he has got a lot of valuable reps at guard now, we know what we have with him as a tackle, have a lot of admiration for that kid. Put me here, put me there, I'm going to go win for you."
QUICK READ: OFFENSIVE LINE
Will JC Tretter be a success as the starting center?
Four years, four different opening-day centers. From Scott Wells to Jeff Saturday to Evan Dietrich-Smith and now, presumably, Tretter. It's hardly been ideal, but perhaps Tretter not only is the answer in the short term, but long-term as well – despite the drafting of Linsley. At least, that's what quarterback Aaron Rodgers is hoping will happen. "It is a big challenge. It's tough," Rodgers said of the revolving door. "You'd like to play with one guy for an extended period of time. I thought that might be Scott, and then we brought in Jeff, which we knew was a short term thing and then Evan, again, a guy who made some strides and played really well. [I] thought that he was going to be the guy of the future but we went in a different direction and we've got to get one of these young guys ready. Hopefully we can get a guy who can stick for five or six years. I think as a quarterback you really appreciate when you can have some continuity there and some consistently as far as the same guy being there for multiple years."
On the rise
Bakhtiari has been self-aware and honest in his assessment of his rookie season, calling it a "great" rookie year but just an "OK" year if that caveat of being a rookie is removed. Nonetheless, he has done nothing but improved from the moment he stepped onto the Ray Nitschke Field practice turf. In fact, during the opening week of training camp last year, he made such a strong impression that he may very well have won the starting right tackle job had he stayed put and competed with Barclay and the now-departed Marshall Newhouse for that job. Instead, he shifted to left tackle and kept the season from being an unmitigated disaster. Now, the stakes are higher and so are the expectations. If Bakhtiari has the chops to be an elite-level left tackle, he'll need to make a significant Year 2 jump.
Player to watch
It seems like just yesterday that Bulaga was becoming the youngest player to ever start a Super Bowl when he lined up at right tackle in Super Bowl XLV. In his second season, he raised his level of play, and by midway through his third season, he was well on his way to being one of the league's best right tackles, according to head coach Mike McCarthy. Since then, though, it's been incessant disappointment. His 2012 season ended with an unusual hip injury, and then last year was over before it began because of the knee injury in the Family Night scrimmage. Now, the former first-round pick enters a contract year looking to not only prove that he can stay healthy but that he can recapture his top form. He went through the offseason program wearing a bulky brace on his left knee. How much it hampers him will play into how effective he ends up being.
Final roster spots.
The guess here is that it would take a failure of epic proportions to keep Tretter from being the team's opening-day center. Linsley ran with the third team for most of the offseason program, and if he's going to challenge for the job, he'll have only 17 open practices and four preseason games to do it. That's a lot of ground to make up in not a lot of time. Instead, with their top six linemen essentially set, the battle to make the roster as a reserve will be interesting. Finally healthy, will Sherrod prove his worth? Which young, little-known player will earn a spot the way Barclay, Greg Van Roten and Taylor did the past two years?
Since taking over in 2005, general manager Ted Thompson has selected 18 offensive linemen in his 10 drafts, but there was just one this year: Linsley. The other 17 have met with mixed results: Junius Coston (fifth round) and Will Whitticker (seventh) in 2005; Daryn Colledge (second), Jason Spitz (third) and Tony Moll (fifth) in 2006; Allen Barbre (fourth) in 2007; Sitton (fourth) and Breno Giacomini (fifth) in 2008; Lang (fourth) and Jamon Meredith (fifth) in 2009; Bulaga (first) and Marshall Newhouse (fifth) in 2010; Sherrod (first) and Caleb Schlauderaff (sixth) in 2011; Andrew Datko (seventh) in 2012; and Bakhtiari (fourth) and Tretter (fourth) a year ago. Of all those picks, the one we may never truly know about is Sherrod, who did not have his fifth-year option picked up and could be merely a historical draft footnote after the course of his career was forever changed by breaking his leg in Kansas City in December 2011.
"C'mon, it's the National Football League. Somebody's going to put the ‘G' on their helmet and go play football, and they'll be expected to win and do their job. Whoever that person is will be the best person." – Offensive line coach James Campen, on competition for the starting center job and spots on the roster.
Next: Defensive line.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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