Over the past decade-plus, the Green Bay Packers have done a remarkable job of finding value through the draft on the offensive line. Now that they need to replace two All-Pro linemen from a season ago, general manager Brian Gutekunst is going to have to do it again in the upcoming draft.
When the Packers last won the Super Bowl in 2011, the offensive line was manned by five homegrown draft picks: Chad Clifton, Daryn Colledge, Scott Wells, Josh Sitton, and Bryan Bulaga. Ted Thompson had invested significant draft capital in the likes of Bulaga (first-round pick in 2010), Clifton (second round, 2000), and Colledge (second round, 2006), but having key contributors like Sitton (fourth round, 2008) and Wells (seventh round, 2004), in addition to having T.J. Lang (fourth round, 2009), helped solidify the protection around Aaron Rodgers en route to a Lombardi Trophy.
As that era of linemen has moved on, Thompson and now Gutekunst have done their best to follow that same philosophy of building the line. Spend the high draft pick when it makes sense (Elgton Jenkins in the second round in 2019 has been a home run), while also connecting on those mid- and late-round picks.
Now, it’s difficult to expect Gutekunst to find All-Pros just waiting for him with pick 161, like where Corey Linsley was selected back in 2014, but the Packers are going to need the type of contribution that Linsley had in his rookie season (18 starts, including two playoff games). Finding the future highest-paid (albeit briefly) offensive tackle in the game in the fourth round, like where Green Bay plucked David Bakhtiari back in 2013, would be like winning the lottery twice, but like Linsley, Bakhtiari was a contributor for the Packers from Day 1.
Linsley signed with the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason, and no guarantees that Bakhtiari will be healthy come Week 1 following a late-season ACL tear, the Packers need contribution. And they need it for cheap, as the team doesn’t quite have the salary cap to find an outside contributor. There are some internal options to support the versatile Jenkins and Billy Turner on the offensive line, and would you believe that Green Bay initially found those guys for cheap too?
Gutekunst selected three offensive linemen in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, and that value is going to need to manifest quickly. Jon Runyan and Simon Stepaniak might find themselves in starting roles when the regular season rolls around. Lucas Patrick (an undrafted free agent from 2016!) has proven himself to be an essential piece of the current iteration of the Green Bay o-line, just as UDFA-signee Lane Taylor was as recent as just last season.
Even the players who the Packers have signed recently — Ricky Wagner, a former fifth-round pick, and Billy Turner, former third rounder — didn’t have elite pedigrees. Being an effective general manager is about finding cost-effective players who can contribute. In Gutekunst’s case, they’re going to have to cheap and they most definitely need to be good.
In the best-case scenario, Bakhtiari is healthy and Jenkins can shift inside where he’s shown the ability to be brilliant. The Packers re-structured Turner’s contract, in large part to his effectiveness at both tackle and guard. Linsley leaves a gaping hole at center, but Jenkins was drafted at that position and Lucas Patrick can play there as well.
If Gutekunst decides to go offensive lineman in the first round, it had better be the value the likes of a Bryan Bulaga, who can anchor right tackle for the foreseeable future. If it’s a mid-round, third- or fourth-round pick, the Packers at very least need a Lang type, a guy who can flirt with Pro Bowl-ability later in his career but can fill in as a starter when needed right off the bat.