Notebook: O-Line Looks To Settle In


All the shuffling the Packers have done on the offensive line over the past couple of seasons has been born out of necessity, namely youth and injuries.

But for 2009, Head Coach Mike McCarthy sounds like he'd rather start locking players into certain positions and create a more stable depth chart up front, so that when an injury comes along it's simply 'Next man in' at that spot, not, 'One guy moves over here, another slides into there, and this guy steps in off the bench.'

"It's something we've talked about internally that we need to try to migrate away from, and that's the musical chairs that we've had with our offensive line," McCarthy said amongst his various media interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

"I know injuries have played part of that and you can't avoid that, but we've had a number of, particularly our younger players, that are moving around and playing different positions."

While the flexibility of young linemen like Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Tony Moll has accelerated each's development during his first three years in the league, the overall depth on the offensive line may have enough experience now to change the approach.

With Allen Barbre heading into his third season and Josh Sitton and Breno Giacomini entering their second, the coaching staff may be more inclined to pick which position each player plays best, let him compete for first- or second-string at that spot, establish the depth chart, and go from there.

In a perfect world, the starting five would stay healthy all season and continue to grow and develop as a unit. But when an injury does occur, four of the five spots could then stay the same while only one position changes. Perhaps then the shuffling and more significant disruption is avoided unless two or three injuries befall the unit.

"The continuity that you do establish by setting a five or creating more competition at specific positions is something that we're definitely looking at," McCarthy said.

How each position shapes up is long from decided. McCarthy stated at season's end that Spitz and Scott Wells might both be options at center. Sitton was the starter at right guard in the preseason last year before going down with a knee injury, but he worked his way back into the starting lineup by season's end.

Giacomini and Moll both have potential at right tackle, but their immediate future could be tied to that of 10-year veteran Mark Tauscher, who is rehabbing his knee following post-season ACL surgery and is slated to become a free agent on Friday. McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson said Tauscher's medical situation needs to be resolved before any substantive contract talks would take place.

Meanwhile left tackle Chad Clifton, also a 10-year veteran, has undergone arthroscopic procedures on both of his troublesome knees and is rehabbing daily. He is certainly in the team's plans, but assuming Colledge stays at his left guard spot, a long-term replacement may need to be acquired via the draft.

"We're still counting on him coming back and being good player for us," Thompson said of Clifton. "We always put a premium on the big people. We've always done that. I think we've drafted offensive linemen every year since I've been here, and I think we have a pretty good group of offensive linemen as a whole, but Chad's a big part of that so we'd like him to come back."

Added McCarthy: "He feels (the surgeries are) definitely going to help him, based on the way he felt through last season. I can't give you how many years (he has left). But he feels he'll feel better this year than he did this past year."

Free agency coming

Aside from Tauscher, two other players will become unrestricted free agents at the end of the week in defensive linemen Colin Cole and Michael Montgomery.

Thompson said it appears likely both Cole and Montgomery will test the market, as will safety Atari Bigby, who is the lone starter among the Packers' seven restricted free agents. That by no means precludes any of them returning - particularly Bigby, for whom the Packers will have the right to match any offer from another team - but Thompson simply means none is likely to re-sign before the free agency period begins.

As the team explores the current free agent market, there is a lot to consider for the Packers in terms of re-signing some of its own players in the next year or so. Wide receiver Greg Jennings tops the list of the 2006 draftees entering the final season of their original four-year deals, a group Thompson often refers to as the "graduating class."

As potential unrestricted free agents after four years, they'll be due significantly more lucrative contracts following the 2009 season, and how the Packers plan to go about negotiating with those players in the near future does have an impact on immediate free-agent spending. Colledge, Spitz, Will Blackmon and Johnny Jolly also are among that group, while A.J. Hawk signed a six-year deal as the first-round pick in 2006.

"We are cognizant of the fact that if you make an investment in free agency, that comes with a cost," Thompson said. "There's going to be a player or two players or something within a year from now that you won't have because you made that investment. Now, if it's worth it, it's worth it. But everything comes with a cost."

It's getting more complicated this year as well with the pending negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement, the possibility of the 2010 league year being without a salary cap (which would change the free agency rules for the 2006 draft class should that come to pass), and the current state of the economy.

Until a new CBA is in place, Thompson said teams have to look at the consequences of signing any free agent, a team's own or another team's, under all the different scenarios - with or without an uncapped year in 2010, with or without a new CBA, etc.

"This is going to be unbelievably difficult to manage," Thompson said. "There's no way of predicting, and all those things affect every player, every team.

"With all the different scenarios that could happen, and you add to that economic mess going on around the country, affecting all of our lives, it's dad-gum near a perfect storm. Now, it's our job to make sure we work ourselves through this storm and do the best we can for the Packers, but it's not easy answers."

Still going strong

In addition to stating his desire to keep Clifton, Thompson also noted that he hasn't seen age catching up to veterans Donald Driver and Al Harris, the two oldest players on the roster.

{sportsad300}Driver will be entering his 11th season in 2009 and Harris his 12th (seventh with the Packers), but the pair has combined for four Pro Bowl appearances in the past three seasons.

Despite seeing his Pro Bowl string end at two years, Driver topped 1,000 yards receiving for the fifth straight year in 2008 and sixth year overall, and he extended his streak of consecutive games with a pass reception to 111. All of those are franchise records.

"I don't see any drop-off in Donald's play at all," Thompson said. "He looks to me to be a really top-flight receiver. He has to will himself to be that, but he's never had any problems with injury."

Harris made a remarkably fast recovery from the most serious injury of his career in 2008, missing just four games after lacerating his spleen and returning to full-time duty. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate and was named to the NFC roster as an injury replacement, his second straight trip to Hawaii.

"In terms of Al Harris, this is a guy that I don't see a lot of drop-off," Thompson said. "He's still a good player, and we think he's going to be a good player again this year. We're not having a big youth movement."

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