Monday, July 27, 2009
Packers Season Preview - OL (New Faces For This Year)
When the Green Bay Packers last made major changes in the offensive line, they nosedived to 4-12 and the head coach was fired.
That was in 2005, after Ted Thompson allowed guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera to depart. Then he had the chutzpah to tell Mike Sherman and line coach Larry Beightol to go ahead and try replacing them with Adrian Klemm, Will Whitticker, Matt O'Dwyer, Junius Coston and Atlas Herrion.
That situation is analogous to 2009, when the fifth-year general manager made up his mind to go forward without right tackle Mark Tauscher and set up a competition among three players with a combined one snap of NFL experience at the position.
Not only that but center Scott Wells, the well-compensated replacement for Mike Flanagan since 2006, is in danger of losing his job. If, in fact, Wells is displaced by Jason Spitz, the berth at right guard previously held by Spitz most likely would go to Josh Sitton, another untested young player.
Left tackle Chad Clifton, the fifth member of the Packers' elite line from 2001-'04, is entering the final year of his contract and could well find himself on the chopping block next spring.
"There's some growing left to be done and some positions to be earned yet," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "I'm sure we will prepare these guys well and, when the dust settles in camp, I'll feel fine about them."
The situation doesn't seem to be as dire as it was four year ago, when the coaches had almost no chance. Thompson signed the competent Duke Preston, a guard-center from Buffalo; drafted a pair of tackle-guards in the mid-rounds; and brought back Tony Moll, a snap-eater everywhere except center.
Besides, the Packers aren't exactly breaking up a powerhouse; the unit yielded 22 sacks last season, its most since 1996. Neither Tauscher nor Clifton played to previously high standards, Spitz was no more than a workmanlike starter at guard and Wells came in either third or fourth from 2006-'08 on the Journal Sentinel's all-NFC North team .
Thus, when targeted tackle Andre Smith of Alabama went three slots before Green Bay's selection in the first round, Thompson essentially put right tackle in the lap of line coaches James Campen and Jerry Fontenot.
Pending further developments, the plan is to let converted guard Allen Barbre, rookie T.J. Lang and unknown Breno Giacomini try to become the next Tauscher.
"The fact we're unproven, I guess it would be a concern," Campen said. "But it's not. Allen has done a very good job, T.J. Lang has shown he can play and Giacomini hasn't practiced yet."
The transition from an injured Earl Dotson to Tauscher in 2000 was remarkably seamless. The switch from an injured Tootie Robbins to Joe Sims early in the Ron Wolf era led to 1½ years of sloppy play before Dotson came of age in 1995.
Prospects such as Barbre, a fourth-round choice from a small college, often never get even one opportunity to start. This will be No. 2 for Barbre, who 12 months ago was aligned ahead of Daryn Colledge at left guard before playing himself back to the bench.
Barbre's challenge is to gain the trust of the staff. Last year, he was a bit like a bull in a china shop, going for the throat on run blocks (good) but missing in protection (bad) and constantly getting in altercations (unprofessional).
There's much to like about his speed, hip thrust and enthusiasm. One reason that Barbre didn't succeed at guard, however, was his inability to make rapid adjustments. The Packers hope the more one-on-one nature of tackle better suits him mentally.
"Sometimes at tackle he's on his own and he can focus on one thing and not worry about the linebacker cheating up or working with this guy or that guy," Philbin said. "He's acting more mature. It is his third year, and I think he feels better about his performance, which he should."
Lang is on the short side as well for tackle and was drafted more as a guard. But with Giacomini out the entire off-season after ankle surgery Feb. 11, Lang spent most of his time at tackle and convinced Campen that he's athletic enough to play there.
"He's really done a nice job where he's come from," Philbin said. "I'm impressed."
Giacomini supposedly practiced a lot better in November and December than he did in July and August, then went down Dec. 26 and hasn't been on the field since. He is tall and does play with attitude, but his one snap in the regular season (kneel-down) doesn't offer much to go by.
Another player behind the eight-ball is Wells, who underwent shoulder surgery in mid-January and sat out all offseason. It's unclear whether the Packers would have put Spitz ahead of Wells, anyway, but if their intention all along has been to make a change, his operation came at a convenient time.
“Spitz is playing center right now,” Campen said. “I like him at center. Scott will be in competition. His weight’s up, too.”
Spitz is neither as quick nor as smart as Wells, but he's adequate in both areas and is the bigger man. A year or two ago Campen said he wouldn't trade Wells for any center in the league to fit the Packers' system, but now that could happen.
Campen broached the possibility of Wells playing guard, which he did the last half of '05 for an injured Klemm. But at his height that would be a move of desperation.
After Tauscher blew out his knee in Week 13, and the Packers made the decision that he wouldn't be re-signed, their safest bet at right tackle probably would have been Colledge. But coach Mike McCarthy turned thumbs down, hoping that by staying put Colledge can become a top guard.
"Just a very fundamentally sound football player," Campen said. "He made another jump in the weight room like he did last year. He was (a solid NFL starter) last year."
In fact, Philbin said the Packers received slightly better performance in 2008 from their inside players than they did the tackles.
Clifton gave up career-highs in sacks (6½) and "pressures" (25). He admitted that injuries dogged him more than in any of his nine seasons. With Moll not starting-caliber and rookie Jamon Meredith more of a project, the Packers are praying for one more acceptable year from Clifton.
"Chad will be the first to say he had a disappointing season for him," Campen said. "But he will come back stronger and his weight's down."
Just as Thompson might be asking too much of Barbre, he almost might be asking too much of Sitton. Despite Sitton's inexperience, McCarthy probably would like him to start because he has always wanted a truly physical right side of the line.
Sitton seems mature beyond his years, has added some definition to his big body and is a tough guy. But if his feet just aren't good enough for pass-blocking, the Packers might end up returning Spitz to right guard and going back to Wells.
With 1,463 snaps spaced over four seasons in Buffalo, Preston knows how to play. He's heavy-legged and lacks quickness, but has held up well against bulk.