Spot duty to starter? Could happen for Jon Runyan

2020 sixth-round draft pick will be in the mix for Packers in 2021

G Jon Runyan

GREEN BAY – For all the questions the Packers have regarding their offensive line heading into 2021, one of the answers might be Jon Runyan.

The sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan didn't start a game as a rookie last year, but by getting thrown into the fire on multiple occasions and holding his own – at a new position, no less – Runyan has the decision-makers considering him for a bigger role this season.

"Jon did a really good job in the opportunities he had last year to play," General Manager Brian Gutekunst said last week regarding Runyan's ability to become a starter in Year 2 if called upon. "He certainly gives you a lot of confidence that he could do that."

It's too early to tell how it's all going to shake out. The uncertainty with the Packers' offensive line stems from All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari's rehab from an ACL tear and All-Pro center Corey Linsley's pending free agency.

If Linsley leaves and Bakhtiari isn't ready by Week 1 – which would constitute a miraculous recovery from the late-December injury, though no one is counting a dedicated pro like Bakhtiari out at this stage – the Packers' four most experienced offensive linemen as of now would be Billy Turner, Elgton Jenkins, Lucas Patrick and Runyan.

Adding a veteran in free agency and/or targeting a high-round draft pick who could potentially start right away is certainly on the radar, so the extent of the Packers' options for the starting five remains to be determined.

But it's a good bet Runyan will be very much in the mix after his solid work off the bench last season.

Not including late-game kneel-downs, Runyan took snaps at both right and left guard in five different games. Those outings included the fourth quarter of the opener at Minnesota, which were his first NFL game snaps of any kind following a training camp without a preseason.

His most extensive work came in three games in November, all at left guard. After playing the entire second half at San Francisco, he entered early in back-to-back games against Indianapolis and Chicago when Jenkins moved from left guard to center to replace an injured Linsley.

Runyan played 50 snaps in each of those two games and held up well. There were thoughts he might stay in the starting lineup when Linsley missed the next three games, but the coaches opted to go with more experience, moving Turner from right tackle back to guard and inserting veteran Rick Wagner in Turner's spot.

Be that as it may, the decision did not reflect any dissatisfaction with Runyan, and Wagner has since been released, changing the dynamic for 2021.

"It wasn't too big for him," offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said of Runyan stepping in as a rookie. "There wasn't that wide-open-eyed look. You can't coach that. I think that's something that comes natural to a player."

Perhaps his pedigree as the namesake son of a 14-year NFL pro and Philadelphia Eagles icon had something to do with that. But it's also a credit to Runyan's adaptability and feel for the game, turning himself from a two-time All-Big Ten tackle into an NFL guard rather seamlessly.

The Packers pegged him as a guard during the pre-draft process last year, and Runyan tackled the challenge of the switch like a pro from Day 1. The virtual-only offseason didn't prove to be the hindrance it might've been for other rookies, and his work in spot duty as the year went along drew public praise from both Head Coach Matt LaFleur and MVP QB Aaron Rodgers.

Now, with the redshirt fully burned and the Packers sorting out over the next couple of months what their offensive line will look like, Runyan could be penciled in as a starter for the first 11-on-11 reps this spring or summer, whenever they may be.

It'll constitute yet another proving ground for the young pro, but there's little doubt he'll be ready for it.

"Until these guys have to do it on a day-in and day-out basis, you never really know," Gutekunst said. "Can they hold up? Can they do it that way consistently for a long period of time?

"But at the same time I think the way he's wired, the way he approaches his business, and the way he's gone about it so far gives us a lot of confidence that he can be one of those guys."

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