Skip to main content

Loaded with returning players, offensive line serves as key piece to Packers' nucleus in 2023 

Green Bay has 13 linemen already on its offseason roster

Offensive line
Offensive line

GREEN BAY – If the old adage "it starts up front" remains true, the Packers like the offensive foundation they're taking into 2023, no matter who's playing quarterback.

General Manager Brian Gutekunst pointed out in his media sessions at the NFL Scouting Combine last week the Packers already have 13 returning offensive linemen on the roster, prior to free agency or the draft.

"For an offensive line, you're usually in the single digits this time of year," Gutekunst said in Indianapolis. "We have some really young, promising players that are going to step into new roles, probably. So I really like the nucleus of this team."

First off, it's notable Gutekunst's number is 13, because that includes Yosh Nijman, a pending restricted free agent. Clearly the Packers have no plans of letting the fourth-year tackle get away after he's developed from an undrafted find into a starter on both the left and right sides the past two years.

As far as youth stepping forward, the versatile Zach Tom tops the list. The 2022 fourth-round draft pick from Wake Forest started back-to-back games at left tackle and then left guard at midseason last year before starting three more at left tackle down the stretch when David Bakhtiari was sidelined due to an emergency appendectomy. He acquitted himself well in difficult, last-minute situations.

Gutekunst thought during last year's pre-draft process that Tom's best spot might be center, which he played as a redshirt sophomore in 2019 before moving to left tackle for his final two seasons for the Demon Deacons. Then his play at guard and tackle as a rookie obviously caught his attention.

The GM sees Tom competing for a starting job in 2023, but – assuming Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins are entrenched at left tackle and guard, respectively – will he battle against Josh Myers at center, Jon Runyan at right guard, or Nijman at right tackle?

"If I've learned anything over my time, it's that you better have seven (starters)," Gutekunst said. "You're going to need all seven before the end of it. Whether you call them starters or not-starters, you're going to need seven by the time it's done and he'll be one of those guys."

Of the 13 returning linemen, eight have started at some point for the Packers – Bakhtiari, Jenkins, Runyan, Nijman, Myers, Tom, Royce Newman and Jake Hanson.

Among the other five, three were draft picks last year in Sean Rhyan (third round, UCLA), Rasheed Walker (seventh, Penn State) and Luke Tenuta (sixth, Virginia Tech, drafted by Buffalo, claimed off waivers from Indianapolis). The massive Caleb Jones (6-9, 370), an undrafted rookie from Indiana who missed a chunk of the last season due to illness and was otherwise a game-day inactive, and Jean Delance, a late-season addition to the practice squad as an undrafted rookie from Florida, round out the group.

That's a lot of potential, though also unproven, depth aside from any rookies added during this year's draft or shortly thereafter. Walker, Tenuta, Jones and Delance are listed as tackles while Rhyan, who served a suspension late in the season for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances, worked at both guard and tackle last year.

Newman (guard/tackle) and Hanson (guard/center) also have manned multiple spots thus far in their young careers, while the Pro Bowler Jenkins is the most versatile of the whole bunch, though he's most notably at stalwart at left guard, where the Packers would like to keep him provided all the previous lineup shuffling isn't necessary.

That's what the Packers would like to avoid this coming year if (or more realistically when) health issues arise, and developing all that depth will be key.

With Bakhtiari's weekly status uncertain early last season following a long recovery from multiple knee surgeries, and Jenkins coming off a 2021 ACL injury of his own and having to fill in at right tackle in the opening weeks, the offensive line couldn't settle in.

Bakhtiari getting into a practice/play routine and Jenkins moving back into his comfort zone at left guard changed that.

"I think those guys started to gel," Gutekunst said. "Really, the second half of the season I thought they played outstanding. Even the games where David was out for his appendectomy, I thought the guys really played well."

All signs as the season wrapped up indicated Bakhtiari was headed into a "normal" offseason for the first time in three years, which bodes well for the unit as a whole.

There's no telling how the overall lineup will shake out come the end of training camp, but if the season starts with the elder statesmen and five-time All-Pro in Bakhtiari set and ready to go at his left tackle post, that'll put the '23 offense ahead of where the '22 offense began.

"Certainly when he's in there, we're a top-notch unit and having him out there was really important for us," Gutekunst said. "Him getting into his rhythm and flow of how to get through the week and really to be able to perform at his highest level on Sundays … I think we're over that hump. When he's playing like that, it just is kind of a trickle-down effect."