Big Training Camp Battles: Offensive Line

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – With left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Elgton Jenkins and center Corey Linsley, the Green Bay Packers have one of the best three-man walls in the NFL. The right side, however, is another story.

Last offseason, general manager Brian Gutekunst made four big free-agent additions. One of them was signing right guard Billy Turner, even though Turner had never won a starting job coming out of his first five training camps. Turner didn’t play like one of the NFL’s most expensive right guards. (His $7 million average ranks 11th for this season.) According to Pro Football Focus, he gave up more pressures than any guard in the league. Sports Info Solutions charged him with 12 blown blocks in the run game, fourth-most among guards. His 36 total blown blocks were third-most among guards.

With Gutekunst retaining former starting left guard Lane Taylor, there presumably will be some sort of competition at right guard. Taylor, who missed most of last season with a torn biceps, had fewer blown blocks in 30 starts in 2017 and 2018 (28) than Turner did last season.

“Lane started off the season last year for us,” coach Matt LaFleur said at the start of camp. “I thought he did some really nice things, and he’s an athletic, experienced player. There’s no substitute for that, specifically with the circumstances that we’re given this year.”

At right tackle, the Packers lost longtime starter Bryan Bulaga in free agency. They signed Wisconsin native Rick Wagner, who started 87 of a possible 96 games with Baltimore and Detroit the past six seasons. Wagner is coming off a poor season, due in part to injuries that limited him to 12 games, but has a strong track record. According to Sports Info Solutions, he had 29 blown blocks last season (18 pass, 11 run) compared to 25 blown blocks in 2017 and 2018 combined (15 pass, 10 run). If Wagner struggles again, the athletic Turner could be thrown into the fray. If Wagner returns to form, he figures to be the slam-dunk starter.

“Every year, it’s a competition at every position,” Wagner said this week. “There’s no guarantees that you’re going to start anywhere. So, just got to go out there and prove that I can win that starting job and I’m happy for that opportunity. It was a little difficult with the offseason being basically on Zoom. You know, didn’t get that on-field time during OTAs, but I think that just puts a lot of importance on what we’re doing here during this first part of camp – the walkthrough time, finally getting together as an offensive group. I think the coaches during those Zoom meetings, during the virtual OTAs really did a good job with their presentations and made it pretty easy to learn the new system.”

Meanwhile, where’s the depth at tackle? The late-season addition of Jared Veldheer saved the Packers’ bacon when he replaced Bulaga at Detroit in Week 17 (concussion) and vs. Seattle in the playoffs (illness). The Packers badly need to find someone from a group that includes Turner, Alex Light and Yosh Nijman who could play in a pinch. Light started last season as that guy but his play at San Francisco is why the Packers acquired Veldheer. Nijman, an excellent athlete with intriguing upside, is on PUP following last year’s elbow injury but shouldn’t be there long.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys,” Gutekunst said at the start of camp. “Obviously, Alex has played for us; he’s gone into games and had to get us out of some spots before. I like the flexibility of our group. I think a lot of guys have the ability to play guard, tackle. Certainly, Billy Turner gives us a lot of confidence that he can go out there and play tackle if need be. I’m pretty confident in those guys. I’m looking forward to seeing Yosh in his second year with our group and seeing where he can go and grow. I’m confident in that group.”

Final roster prediction (9)

In: LT Bakhtiari, LG Jenkins, C Linsley, RG Taylor/Turner, RT Wagner, T Nijman, C/G Lucas Patrick, G Jon Runyan.

Out: C Jake Hanson, G Simon Stepaniak, G Zack Johnson, T/G Light, T Travis Bruffy, T Cody Conway, T John Leglue. Along with Runyan, Hanson and Stepaniak were sixth-round picks. Hanson could be the center of the future with Linsley headed to free agency. Stepaniak, who tore an ACL in December, could start the regular season on PUP.

Big Training Camp Battles

QB: Boyle vs. Love

RB: Are the top four locks?

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