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Ranking the Roster: Nos. 52-54 – Three Big Linemen

Yosh Nijman, Ben Braden and Simon Stepaniak have paper-thin NFL resumes but they'll compete for roster spots and playing time at Packers training camp.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster ahead of July 28, the first practice of training camp. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.

No. 52: OT Yosh Nijman (6-7, 314; 25; second year; Virginia Tech)

Unlike the next two players on this list, Nijman isn’t in the running for a starting job. Once David Bakhtiari is healthy, the Packers will roll again with Bakhtiari at left tackle and Billy Turner at right tackle. However, offensive tackles are worth their weight in gold. And while the Packers have about 168 linemen under contract, Nijman is a rarity as a pure offensive tackle with the physical tools to win on the edge.

Nijman has rare traits and a towering frame that’s straight out of Central Casting. At the 2019 Scouting Combine, he measured 6-foot-6 7/8 and 324 pounds with 34-inch arms. He ran his 40 in 4.88 seconds with a rocket-fast 20-yard shuttle time of 4.50 seconds. That shuttle time is elite, which is why it was a surprise the three-year college starter wasn’t drafted as even a traits-based Hail Mary at a vital position.

After spending his rookie season on the practice squad, he played in all 16 games with 14 garbage-time snaps on offense and 81 more on special teams in 2020.

The question is whether Nijman can take projection into production or if he'll never quite be the sum of his parts.

“He’s still got a ways to go,” offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said last year. “He’s improving every day but, for Yosh, it’s going to be a matter of instinctually understanding the game of football. He’s an extremely talented guy, he has all the physical tools, so it’s just going to be him being able to play fast and use those tools while using good fundamentals and things like that to put himself in the best position. He’s got a lot of upside, so he just needs to keep working and working hard and studying and all that stuff to make sure he can help us.”

Nijman’s first taste of football came as a fifth-grader in a Pop Warner league in New Jersey. “One of the coaches told me to run out and catch a ball. I ended up dropping it. Then he told me to go the left. I didn’t know what he meant. From that day on, I became a lineman.”

No. 53: G Ben Braden (6-6, 329; 27; second year; Michigan)

Finding the right spot for Braden on this list proved to be quite a conundrum.

From one perspective, Braden should rank toward the bottom. He was a three-year starter at Michigan who went undrafted in 2017 and the Packers signed to the practice squad in October. At that point in his career, he had played in three NFL games with zero snaps on offense.

For Green Bay, he was a gameday elevation three times before being added to the 53-man roster for Week 17. In those four games, he played four snaps on offense – all at the end of a blowout win at San Francisco – and 19 on special teams. Thus, in his four seasons in the league, Braden has played four snaps on offense. Throw in the team's tremendous investment on the offensive line, Braden would seem to be a long shot to make the roster.

Enormous for a guard at 6-foot-6, Braden spent a big chunk of the offseason practices playing left tackle. From the outside, that alignment didn’t seem particularly noteworthy. After all, with All-Pro David Bakhtiari rehabbing a torn ACL, somebody had to play left tackle.

However, offensive line coach Adam Stenavich, who isn’t one to toss around verbal bouquets, lobbed a big one in Braden’s direction during OTAs.

“I’m really excited about Ben to see what’s going to happen with him,” Stenavich said as part of the accompanying video. “He gets a whole offseason under his belt, a couple of preseason games, I think he’s going to really compete for a starting job at guard or tackle.”

No. 54: G Simon Stepaniak (6-4, 316; 24; first year; Indiana)

After starting 23 consecutive games at Indiana in 2018 and 2019, Stepaniak suffered a torn ACL during the Hoosiers’ prep for the Gator Bowl. The Packers drafted him in the sixth round in 2020, anyway, knowing his rookie season would be the equivalent of a redshirt. Sure enough, the mountain of muscle spent most of the year on injured reserve, though he did practice for a few weeks late in the season.

“I’d say the biggest thing that we’ve seen, because we spend probably more time with him in the weight room than anywhere, is his work ethic,” right guard Lucas Patrick said in December. “I think a kid to come off such a serious injury and still get drafted is a testament to some of his tape and his athleticism that he showed in college, and we’re seeing a little bit of it during practice. But that kid works hard. I mean, he’s going to give it his all in everything and, really, that’s where you see the true character of a guy. You’ve got my respect if you’re willing to put in the work when no one’s looking, and he does that.”

Stepaniak, Braden, fellow 2020 sixth-round pick Jon Runyan, 2021 fourth-round pick Royce Newman and the next player on this list could wind up challenging Patrick for the starting job at right guard. Patrick had a solid season last year but the Packers are starved for cap space and moving on from the gritty veteran would create $1.975 million of cap space.

“He’s a tough guy,” Indiana offensive line coach Darren Hiller said of Stepaniak last year. “He doesn’t walk around the facility being a jerk and all that stuff. He’s very humble and actually very soft-spoken. He’s almost bashful a little bit off the field. When he gets out on the football field and he gets an opportunity to play the game, that Hulk comes out in him. He likes to play the game. He goes from mild-mannered to full-go. He’s an aggressive guy. He loves to play the game. As a coach, those are the guys that you love. You love guys that, off the field, you don’t have to deal with a whole lot of issues. He’s not high-maintenance. When he gets on the field, all he does is want to work.”

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Ranking the Roster

No. 55: Cole Van Lanen

Nos. 56-58: Isaiah McDuffie, Jonathan Garvin, Tipa Galeai

Nos. 59-61: Kurt Benkert, Juwann Winfree, Malik Taylor

Nos. 62-64: Patrick Taylor, Dexter Williams, Isaac Nauta

Nos. 65-67: Ka'dar Hollman, Kabion Ento, Stanford Samuels

Nos. 68-70: Jake Hanson and two specialist challengers

Nos. 71-74: Christian Uphoff, Henry Black, Innis Gaines, Jake Dolegala

Nos. 75-77: Coy Cronk, Willington Previlon, Jack Heflin

Nos. 78-80: Delontae Scott, Carlo Kemp, Bronson Kaufusi

No. 81: WR Bailey Gaither

Nos. 82-84: WRs Reggie Begelton, Chris Blair, DeAndre Thompkins

Nos. 85-88: LBs Ray Wilborn, Scoota Harris; OL Zach Johnson, Jacob Capra

No. 89: G Jon Dietzen

No. 90: K JJ Molson