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Flexible offensive line gives Packers options

Elgton Jenkins and Billy Turner played anywhere and everywhere last season

Offensive linemen Billy Turner and Elgton Jenkins
Offensive linemen Billy Turner and Elgton Jenkins

GREEN BAY – No position on the Packers' roster was more adaptable to adversity than the offensive line in 2020.

The unit overcame a barrage of injuries with multiple line combinations to not only keep MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers clean (a career-low 20 sacks), but also pave the way to Aaron Jones' second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season.

That versatility again will be tested in 2021 after two of the team's longest-tenured veterans, All-Pro center Corey Linsley and longtime starting guard Lane Taylor, left in free agency.

While all signs point towards franchise left tackle David Bakhtiari making a full recovery from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he sustained in December, the Packers will have to be ready for every potential scenario with their starting O-line.

The hope remains Bakhtiari will be back sooner than later, but both Elgton Jenkins and Billy Turner have proven more than capable of holding their own if Green Bay errs on the side of caution with its five-time All-Pro left tackle.

Jenkins enjoyed a historic 2020 campaign, becoming the first Packers offensive lineman to be voted to the Pro Bowl during his first two NFL seasons in nearly 70 years and also the first to start a game at center, guard and tackle in the same year since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

Turner's second year in the Packers' offense was equally as impressive and flexible as Jenkins'. After starting every game at right guard in 2019, Turner thrived at right tackle for six starts before making four spot starts at both right guard and left tackle.

General Manager Brian Gutekunst made a key, albeit unsung, move at the end of the 2019 season when he extended former undrafted free agent Lucas Patrick, who then graduated into a starting role this past season.

Patrick made 15 starts (11 at right guard and four at left guard), with his 939 snaps played trailing only Jenkins (1,037) and Rodgers (1,017) on the offensive ledger.

The flexibility of Jenkins, Turner and Patrick is a luxury for the Packers entering next week's NFL Draft, particularly as it relates to the center position. Historically, Green Bay has either signed or drafted a replacement for outgoing veterans such as Evan Smith and Scott Wells.

In this case, both Jenkins and Patrick have ample experience at center with Jenkins making three late-season starts last season while Linsley missed time with a knee injury.

While the Packers could be looking to fill holes with next week's NFL Draft, they're also looking for growth from their trio of sixth-round picks from last April: Jon Runyan, Simon Stepaniak and Jake Hanson.

Runyan came in and immediately looked the part. The son and namesake of the former Philadelphia Pro Bowl right tackle, the younger Runyan served as the next man up on the offensive line for most of his rookie season, playing 160 offensive snaps.

Runyan (6-4, 306) has been viewed by most scouts as a guard but was a two-year starting left tackle at Michigan, earning All-Big Ten honors during his senior year.

Stepaniak missed his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL ligament in practice at Indiana prior to the Gator Bowl. It was an unfortunate ending for the 6-foot-4, 316-pound guard, who started 31 of the 41 games he played for the Hoosiers.

Despite being just six weeks out from surgery, Stepaniak still did 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, the most of any Packers draft pick in Indianapolis since at least 2000.

Stepaniak spent his first summer in Green Bay rehabbing but was activated off the non-football injury list on Dec. 9. He practiced with the team for a month before being placed on injured reserve after Jared Veldheer was signed on Jan. 12.

Hanson, a four-year starting center at Oregon, also finished his rookie year on the injured list after sustaining an injury in early October as a member of the Packers' practice squad.

Beyond the 2020 rookie class, which also included practice-squad holdover Zack Johnson, veteran reserves Yosh Nijman and Ben Braden also return after spending time on the Packers' active roster last year.

Nijman, a coveted college free agent in 2019, is a massive tackle prospect at 6-foot-7, 315 pounds. He was a three-year starter at Virginia Tech and wowed scouts with a blazing 4.50-second time in the short shuttle at the combine.

Braden, a college teammate of Runyan at Michigan, has had two stints with both Green Bay and the New York Jets since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He played in four games with the Packers last season.

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