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Competitive O-line approach has put Packers in good shape up front

Development of Rasheed Walker, Sean Rhyan in ’23 pivotal to outlook in ’24

Offensive line huddle
Offensive line huddle

INDIANAPOLIS – Plenty has been said about how the healthy competition amongst the Packers' young receivers in 2023 paid dividends in the form of accelerated growth and valuable production down the stretch.

But don't overlook how a similar dynamic positively impacted Green Bay's offensive line as well, and General Manager Brian Gutekunst might keep things going in that vein up front in 2024.

To review, as last season unfolded, the Packers got to a point midyear where two of the five starting spots on the offensive line turned into job-sharing arrangements. Rasheed Walker and Yosh Nijman were rotating during games at left tackle, while Jon Runyan and Sean Rhyan were doing the same at right guard.

It was a highly unusual approach for Head Coach Matt LaFleur and his staff, but the rationale was two-fold. One, it provided an opportunity for two of the Packers' younger O-line prospects, Walker and Rhyan, to play but without the burden of handling 60-plus snaps per game.

"I'm a big player development guy," Gutekunst said earlier this week at the NFL Scouting Combine. "Guys need to play to develop. Ideally, coaches would like to have a five and that five the whole way through. But I think it was the right call."

Two, it signaled an open competition for those jobs, providing equal opportunity in both the practices and games to see who would rise to the occasion. There's nothing like the intensity and stakes of the game-day environment to find out what players bring to the table.

"Guys want to play," Gutekunst said. "When you have someone over your shoulder, that if you're not doing the job, he could come in and take it, I think it certainly propels you to be your best."

Eventually, Walker locked down the job at left tackle over Nijman and earned full-time status. At right guard, the Runyan-Rhyan rotation continued at close to a 50-50 split all the way through the playoffs.

What transpired has put the Packers in an interesting spot for the upcoming season.

While contract decisions loom on All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari as well as Nijman and Runyan, who are headed for unrestricted free agency, the development of Walker and Rhyan leaves the Packers under no obligation to bring any of the veterans back.

They could move on from all three, with Walker and Rhyan the front-runners to man their spots in 2024. Gutekunst reiterated in Indy that Walker possesses "a ton of upside" and Rhyan is "very powerful" with "a great anchor in pass pro."

That said, with five picks in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft, Gutekunst very well could select one or more top prospects on the offensive line to keep the competitive structure in place that worked so well last season.

With Walker a seventh-round pick (No. 249 overall) from 2022 and Rhyan a third-rounder (No. 92) that same year, it's conceivable both could end up battling for their jobs against higher draft selections.

As for the rest of the offensive line, center Josh Myers is headed into the final year of his rookie contract, so a competitor and/or eventual replacement could be on Gutekunst's radar there, too.

He also suggested the group's most versatile pieces, Elgton Jenkins and Zach Tom, likely will be staying put at left guard and right tackle, respectively. The option to move them around would always exist, "but when a guy has a lot of success at one spot, it's tougher to pull him out of there," Gutekunst said.

In the end, LaFleur's mantra of getting "the best five" out there will take priority. But while it looks as though the Packers have a returning lineup in (left to right) Walker-Jenkins-Myers-Rhyan-Tom to hold down the fort at the moment, a youthful push from behind is most likely on its way.

"I want competition at all five spots," Gutekunst said. "I think you get the best out of guys when it's a really healthy competitive room, and that was certainly one last year."

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