The Green Bay Packers’ decision to overhaul their offensive line was rather simple, even though it meant moving four of their 2012 opening-day starters to new positions, coach Mike McCarthy says.
After doing post-season evaluations of schemes and players and ranking each player on the roster from top to bottom, McCarthy and his staff determined that Bryan Bulaga and Josh Sitton were the team’s clear-cut best offensive linemen, and McCarthy said their ranking led the coaches to follow the tried-and-true philosophy of having the best blockers on the left side, protecting the blind side of a right-handed quarterback like former NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers signed a five-year, $110 million extension last month that made him the NFL's highest-paid player.
Speaking for the first time to the full media corps about the line reshuffling, McCarthy said Sunday after the conclusion of the rookie orientation camp that he and his staff put a lot of thought into the move but that the idea behind it isn’t very complex.
“How you utilize your personnel is a constant conversation, and it’s no different this year,” McCarthy said. “Frankly, we felt Bryan Bulaga and Josh Sitton were our two most accomplished offensive linemen, and just going back to the old-school theory of how you structure your offensive line, we wanted to put those guys on the left side.”
Thus, when organized team activity practices kick off May 21, Bulaga will line up at left tackle, Sitton at left guard and former left guard T.J. Lang at right guard. At right tackle will be ex-left tackle Marshall Newhouse, who’ll compete with Don Barclay, who started the final six games at right tackle last season, and 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod, who hasn’t played a snap since breaking his leg at Kansas City on Dec. 18, 2011.
The Packers also selected a pair offensive linemen last month in the NFL Draft, adding Colorado’s David Bakhtiari and Cornell’s J.C. Tretter in the fourth round. In the one rookie camp practice open to reporters, Bakhtiari lined up at left tackle and Tretter at right tackle, although McCarthy said they moved around during subsequent practices.
McCarthy said Sunday that he likes the competition the shift creates at right tackle, as Newhouse, Barclay, Sherrod and one or both of the rookies could win the starting spot.
“Everybody involved on the right side has some history there. Marshall’s played the right side, T.J.’s played the right side, Barclay’s played the right side, so we’re just trying to make as much competition as possible,” McCarthy said. “We feel with Bryan and Josh, we’ve solved the left side and those guys have some history together, so there’s a number of different things that went into it.”
The reshuffling of the line comes after Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times last season and the Packers’ running game ranked 20th in the league in rushing per game (106.4) and 22nd in yards per attempt (3.9).
According to analysis done by ProFootballFocus.com, Newhouse was charged with nine sacks, eight quarterback hits and 37 quarterback pressures in 1,256 snaps in 18 games last season. Lang, who played through elbow and forearm injuries and missed one game, allowed nine sacks, five hits and 12 pressures in 1,149 snaps.
Bulaga, the team’s 2010 first-round pick who took over at right tackle during his rookie season and became the youngest player ever to start a Super Bowl, played 587 snaps last year before suffering a hip injury that ended his season on Nov. 4. Before going down, he allowed four sacks, three quarterback hits and 20 pressures, but of those, two sacks, one hit and eight pressures came in the Packers’ Week 3 loss at Seattle, when Bulaga had what he called the worst game of his career.
Sitton went to his first Pro Bowl as an injury replacement last year and was charged with three sacks, two hits and 16 pressures by ProFootballFocus.com last season. McCarthy said he watched Sitton closely as he played left guard during the Pro Bowl.
Barclay was a pleasant surprise as an undrafted rookie free agent when called upon to fill in for Bulaga after Lang struggled at right tackle. Barclay was inconsistent and was better as a run-blocker than pass-blocking, playing 459 snaps and being charged with five sacks, four hits and 19 pressures.
The Packers have not yet made veteran players available for interviews, but Bulaga told PackerReport.com last week that he was happy about the move, having entered the league wanting to play left tackle, his position in college at Iowa.
“I was excited about it,” Bulaga said. “I’m happy that I got moved over to the left side. I’m thankful for it and it’s a good opportunity. I know all the talk that goes around — like you said about playing left tackle and it being a premier position and all of that — but I don’t look at it that way. I just look at it as playing a new position and doing the best I can.”
At the NFL Meetings in Arizona in March, McCarthy had said that he wanted to see improvement from the left side of the line, but the coach said Sunday that he hadn’t made up his mind about shuffling the line at that point.
“I hadn’t made a final decision yet. But one thing was clear: We needed to be more productive as an offense,” McCarthy said. “When you don’t win the Super Bowl, you hear about all the negative things that you are on offense. The reality is, we were fifth in the league in scoring (and) No. 1 the year before. So, why? You look at the run game, you look at the players you have.
“We’ve always built game plans and taken the things we’ve learned from scheme evals and do things with the scheme with guys we know are going to be here. So, how can we best utilize the individuals we know are going to be here? It’s great that these rookies are here, but I can promise you there’s not one play that we put in because we thought we were going to draft two tackles in the draft. That’s just not the way it works.
“We’ve built a system of offense that has the ability to take advantage of any players’ talents. And more importantly focus on the ones we know are going to be here. And we felt Bryan and Josh were our two best answers for the left side.”
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.