Welcome back for Part 3: Offensive line!
This article might be one of the longer ones as there are so many unknowns right now going forward with the offensive line. I know it sounds weird with how well they are playing. The questions though come in free agency and the cap crunch that is coming next season.
First off, two starters are free agents this coming offseason of 2021. Both center Corey Linsley and Lane Taylor will be free agents. Lane has spent most of the last two seasons on IR, but was a starter to begin the season. So the question with him is will the front office be willing to bring him back. He will be 32 next season and will be coming off another long term injury. In my opinion, Gutekunst will cut bait and move on. His age and injury history will probably be the main factors.
As for Linsley, money will be the issue. He as graded out as the best or at least one of the best centers this season. So that will push his value up. He will probably get somewhere over 10 million a season. The Packers just can not afford to pay him that much. They also already have two offensive linemen on the roster who can play Center as well. So most likely Linsley will be gone next season.
The rest of the starters are under contract for at least one more season. Bakhtiari just got his big extension. The Packers have the best left tackle in the NFL locked in long term. They have also have the super versatile Elgton Jenkins who has shown he can play any of the five spots and play well. I do not think we have seen a offensive linemen this versatile in a very long time. Once Linsley went on IR, they inserted him at Center and he has started every game since. Even though they also have Lucas Patrick on the roster who can play center as well. I feel this speaks volumes about the Packers future plans at the Center position. They will make the open spot at center a competition for the ’21 season but I do not see anyone beating him out for it. So that then leaves a hole at left guard.
Filling the open spot at left guard will mostly likely be Jon Runyan Jr. He has shown when he has gotten on the field that the offense has not missed a beat. Runyan can play both guard spots and could probably play right tackle in a pinch since he was a tackle at Michigan. He probably needs to get a little stronger and just work on his awareness a guard since things come at you faster there versus tackle. He should be a long term starter at one of the guard spots; probably left guard.
At right guard will be Lucas Patrick; he can play both guard spots and center. From his film I feel he is a better center but indications are the packers like him better at guard. He has played well this season, maybe one or two bad games but other wise he has played well in all others. Lucas is under contract for one more season but I would not be surprised to see this extend him during the ’21 season. He is a solid starter and has really improved himself from a rookie camp try out guy to now a starting level NFL offensive lineman.
Now on to the interesting position: Right Tackle. There are a number of ways they could go at this position. Right now the starter is Billy Turner. Surprisingly he has actually played pretty well at right tackle. Turner is not as good as Bryan Bulaga was when healthy, but he has been one of the better pass blocking tackles in the league this season. He can also play any position outside of center. Last season he played right guard and he was not that good overall. Many people coming into the season had already pegged him as a player the packers would probably release after the 2020 season. He silenced those people this season. Turner has played so well I think he will be locked in as the starting right tackle for the next season or two. He also has two years left on his contract.
The big question though at right tackle will be what to do with Ricky Wagner. He was kind of a square peg in a round hole in regards to the type of offensive linemen the Packers usually draft or sign. He is a one position player. Right tackle only. He did play some left tackle in one game and was not good at all. He signed a two year deal with an out for the team after the first, essentially a one year deal with a team option. I feel he was brought in as insurance. With how well Turner has played at right tackle I feel Gutey will end up letting Ricky go in the offseason.
As far as the rest of the offensive linemen none of them have really played. Nijman has played special teams and a few snaps at the end of games in the V formation but he has played any real downs this season. Also with no pre season there is no film on his from this season to see how much if at all he has improved. He is very athletic with a lot of upside but also was very raw coming out of Virginia Tech.
Stepaniak just got activated off the PUP a couple weeks ago but has not been active on game day. He was coming off an injury from last December so he has not seen the field in 12 months. So who knows how well he has recovered and if he will be the same. Its too early to tell. But since he was a draft pick he will get a shot next season and hopefully he can be back to his old self. I do not see him ever becoming a long term starter with the Packers unless they change their offensive scheme. LaFleur runs a system similar to Shanahan which is a zone blocking scheme. This scheme requires mobile offensive linemen. Stepaniak fits better in a power or man scheme. I think he could definitely be a decent back up though.
The Packers also have a couple offensive linemen on the practice squad not much is known about them since there was no pre season. 6th round pick Jake Hanson is on the practice squad injured list. He oddly enough did not fit the Packers preference for offensive linemen at all. He tested out at the combine really bad. The Packers prefer their offensive linemen to be test well in 3 cone and short shuttle drills. Maybe he makes the roster as a back up center next year?
Going into next season not counting potential draft picks or free agent signings I feel the offensive line will look like this: LT: Bakhtiari, LG: Runyan, C: Jenkins, RG: Patrick, RT: Turner. And they will be backed by Nijman at OT, Stepaniak at OG. The rest are a question marks.
In regards to the draft they lack depth at tackle. Next season Nijman will probably be the only tackle on the roster besides the starters. They will probably also need a long term solution at right tackle. They could draft one and let him sit behind Turner for a year. Then release Turner and let the draft pick take over his second year which seems to be a thing that the packers like to do. Or they could wait one more season and draft the future right tackle in 2022 and have him back up his first year and then let Turner walk and the player takes over his second year in 2023. Which ever path gutey chooses he will probably draft at least one tackle and possibly two depending on how he wants to build the depth there.
There is a pretty decent tackle class in the upcoming draft.Some guys to keep an early eye on that could play right tackle are Dillon Radunz from North Dakota State, Teven Jenkins from Oklahoma State, and Brady Christensen from BYU.