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Packers counting on emerging prospects to drive O-line transition

Green Bay lost three of its long-tenured veterans this offseason

OL Zach Tom, G Sean Rhyan
OL Zach Tom, G Sean Rhyan

GREEN BAY – As things currently stand, the Packers' offensive line figures to be the youngest it's been in more than a decade with just one veteran older than 26.

Still, the unit's ceiling has never been higher.

One of the prevailing themes to come out of last week's NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando was Green Bay's enduring confidence in the O-line despite the loss of three mainstays this offseason: David Bakhtiari, Jon Runyan and Yosh Nijman, a trio that's combined for 215 starts over 284 games (including playoffs).

Yet, the Packers remain bullish on their prospects up front thanks in part to how the O-line responded to the loss of Bakhtiari after last year's opener in Chicago and multiple position rotations throughout the season.

Left tackle Rasheed Walker and right guard Sean Rhyan both emerged from those flames, going from playing one game apiece as rookies in 2022 to combining for more than 1,000 offensive snaps.

Rhyan made a series of changes, both physical and mental, to work himself into a platoon with Runyan during the second half of last year. A former third-round pick out of UCLA, Rhyan showed road-grading potential while knocking defensive linemen backwards in the run game.

With Runyan signing with the New York Giants last month, Rhyan now has an opportunity to make a run at a full-time starting job with Phase 1 of the offseason program starting in less than two weeks.

"I'm really proud of not only his work ethic and the shape he got himself in, but then when his opportunities were presented, his ability to capitalize on that," said General Manager Brian Gutekunst in Orlando.

"He got that opportunity the second half of the season to split some reps, and when he proved to the coaches … they kept him out there. We anticipated free agency, and whether or not we were gonna be able to bring Jon back or not. So, having (Rhyan) get that experience I think will serve us well as we go forward."

While several posts on the O-line likely will remain the same, the landscape at left tackle will look distinctly different in 2024 after the organization made the difficult decision to part ways with Bakhtiari in March.

The 11-year veteran played in just 13 games the past three seasons after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during practice on Dec. 31, 2020. Asked in Orlando how Bakhtiari's injury changed the future of the Packers' O-line, Gutekunst touched more on his disappointment for the person while commending Bakhtiari for everything he did in Green Bay.

"He played (at) such a high level for us for so long … and even the times when he did come back and play for us in the last three years, he played at a very, very high level," Gutekunst said.

"I don't spend a whole lot of time on the what-ifs, but that was one of those kinds of punches you don't see coming. As we went through it, he did everything he could possibly do to get back out there and is still doing it."

The only silver lining to Bakhtiari's absence was it created an opportunity for Walker, a former seventh-round pick out of Penn State who won the starting left tackle job after a brief rotation with Nijman.

The 6-foot-6, 324-pound tackle wound up playing 974 offensive snaps over 17 starts (including playoffs), fending off several of the league's top pass rushers along the way.

"Sheed-o, I thought he had a really good year," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "There's a lot of room for improvement from a consistency standpoint, playing 70 plays at a high level. We've seen some great flashes from him. He's certainly athletic enough to (start at left tackle). It's going to be a big offseason for him, but he's a great player that we're certainly confident in."

The Packers have yet to make any corresponding moves on the O-line following the loss of Bakhtiari, Runyan and Nijman, though Gutekunst's track record suggests an addition could come at any time.

Byron Bell was signed on May 30, 2018, while Dennis Kelly joined the roster the day before training camp in 2021. It's also a near-certainty the Packers will draft at least one offensive lineman after not selecting one last year, which marked only the second time since the turn of the century Green Bay didn't add to its O-line through the draft.

The Packers also are expecting in-house competition this summer, as well. Joining versatile veteran Royce Newman in a battle for playing time are towering tackles Caleb Jones (6-9, 370), Luke Tenuta (6-8, 314) and Kadeem Telfort (6-7, 322).

Jones has been on the active roster for most of the past two seasons but has seen action in only one game. Green Bay carried Tenuta on the initial 53-man roster after he injured his ankle but never designated him to return from injured reserve.

Like their entire offense, the Packers are optimistic about the future of their young O-line. With Bakhtiari's release, two-time Pro Bowl left guard Elgton Jenkins is the oldest (28) player on the offensive side of the ball and Green Bay's most experienced offensive lineman (five seasons).

"We had a lot of young guys that were unproven," said Jenkins at the end of last season. "Just being able to see those guys – us an offense, specifically – just grow with the young guys on the team, I feel like it's very special with us moving forward."

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