The following is the fourth installment in a series of stories that’ll examine the Packers’ roster position by position. The series continues with the offensive line.
GREEN BAY—The combination was born out of necessity, but its staying power speaks to the success it showed in its infancy.
Last season, Bryan Bulaga was just getting accustomed to his switch from right to left tackle when he was lost for the season to a knee injury during the Family Night scrimmage. That forced fourth-round draft pick David Bakhtiari into action, and the rookie took over as the all-important blind-side protector. He lined up all season alongside left guard Josh Sitton, who was making his own switch from the right side of the line.
Seventeen games later, in the wake of the ground game’s newfound potency and the strongest debut of any rookie offensive tackle in the league in 2013, the Packers decided in the offseason not to mess with that pairing on the left side. Sitton and Bakhtiari are staying together.
The veteran left guard is considered one of the best in the league at his position after just one season. Sitton was named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and first-team All-NFC by the Pro Football Writers of America. He took the young Bakhtiari under his wing last year and the two quickly found a chemistry the coaches noticed.
Ideally, the same type of harmony will develop on the right side as Bulaga returns to his old stomping grounds, where he’s now paired with right guard T.J. Lang.
While Lang has proved durable, missing just one game the past three seasons despite playing through elbow and ankle injuries in 2012, Bulaga will be trying to put together his first full season since his rookie year of 2010. He missed four games due to two different knee injuries in 2011, suffered a season-ending hip injury in the ninth game of 2012 and then missed all of last year.
Should the Packers have any more injury troubles at tackle, they shouldn’t have to turn to a rookie this year. Third-year pro Don Barclay has started 21 games (including playoffs) at right tackle over the past two seasons, and he will make sure Bulaga isn’t just handed the job. Barclay worked a lot this spring as Sitton’s top backup at left guard as well.
At left tackle, former first-round pick Derek Sherrod is finally healthy enough to get into the mix again after missing nearly two full seasons to a broken leg from late 2011. Sherrod was back on the active roster at mid-season last year for the first time since the injury, playing mostly on special teams, plus a handful of snaps at right tackle late in the blowout loss at Detroit.
The biggest question heading into 2014 was supposed to be who would start at center in place of the departed Evan Dietrich-Smith, but the offseason may have answered it.
JC Tretter, a fourth-round pick from Cornell in 2013, took all the snaps with the No. 1 offensive line in the OTAs and minicamp practices open to reporters. After a broken ankle in the first OTA workout of his rookie year cost him nearly the entire season, Tretter made the most of every moment he could spend at the team facility in the offseason and has taken clear front-runner status ahead of rookie fifth-round pick Corey Linsley from Ohio State and practice-squad holdover Garth Gerhart.
The Packers have a history of developing their share of undrafted linemen and seeing them take on major roles up front. Barclay and Dietrich-Smith are two recent examples, while guard Lane Taylor made the team as a backup at both guard spots last year and played on special teams, plus some offensive snaps in two games.
Of the candidates in addition to Gerhart and Taylor looking to take that next step, tackle Aaron Adams and guard Andrew Tiller spent time last season on the Packers’ practice squad. Guard Jordan McCray (who’s from Sitton’s alma mater, Central Florida) and tackles John Fullington (Washington State) and Jeremy Vujnovich (Louisiana College) are undrafted rookies who will look to match the first impression made last year by Taylor. Previously in Countdown to Camp: