The offensive line was one of the lingering questions after the first Green Bay Packers preseason game. But a significant part of the answer came out on Sunday when the Packers activated Elgton Jenkins from the physically unable to perform list and was able to start practicing again.
“I feel good,” Jenkins said after his first practice back. “Just like I said, people putting weight on me and things like that, I didn’t feel no pain, didn’t feel anything, so it felt good out there.”
During the exhibition loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Friday, the most meaningful aspect was the possibility of evaluating players. Left guard Jon Runyan and center Josh Myers were the bright spots on the offensive line. But the right side was highly impacted by the injuries, and it became clear that the depth is questionable.
Royce Newman has been the RT with the ones for most of training camp, and he started the game as the right tackle. Newman wasn’t bad, but he lacks movement skills that would allow him to feel more comfortable playing as a tackle. His footwork was much more natural when he moved to guard.
Jake Hanson was the starting right guard, and the Packers obviously chose him to start because of his run-blocking capabilities. He was reasonably effective, showing good mobility. He was a real concern in pass protection, though.
However, the offensive coaching staff decided to make changes before the end of the first half. They moved Hanson to center, his original spot. Newman became the RG, where he was a starter last season. And they tested fourth-round rookie Zach Tom at the right tackle.
Tom improved the pass protection with a high level of technique. But the lack of physicality was apparent in run plays. It was probably why the staff had chosen to go with Hanson and Newman over Tom in the first place.
Rookie third-rounder Sean Rhyan was effective and explosive as the right guard with the second team. Tom was the right tackle.
The Packers will have two joint practices this week and a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. Therefore, it might be a good time to test new formations. An alternative could be Rhyan at RG and Newman at RT, even though Rhyan hasn’t played with the ones yet.
All these considerations are a little bit less important now, though. Elgton Jenkins‘ return gives the Packers much more stability up front, wherever he plays. It’s just a first step, and head coach Matt LaFleur didn’t assure Jenkins will be ready for Week 1. But coming off the PUP list a month before the start of the regular season has to be a good sign.
“I’m not going to hold my breath on that,” said coach LaFleur when asked if Jenkins would be back for Week 1. “He’ll be ready when he’s ready. We’re not going to rush him back. I can tell you that right now.”
Jenkins has been cleared yet to participate in team drills and practiced at RT with the ones on Monday. He had done some individual work on Sunday, and his stance had already indicated that the plan was for him to play at right tackle. If that’s the case for the regular season, the Packers could start the year with Yosh Nijman – Jon Runyan – Josh Myers – Royce Newman – Elgton Jenkins along the offensive line. That’s a much more reliable group.
Moreover, Jenkins practicing to be the right tackle feels like a good indication for David Bakhtiari.
“Tomorrow, I might be playing left tackle, might be playing guard, center,” Jenkins said. “Just choose one position a day and knock the rust off at each one.”
If the Packers thought Bakhtiari wouldn’t be back relatively soon, it would make sense for them to put Jenkins as a full-time left tackle. If it’s a shorter-term issue, Jenkins can focus on being the right tackle, which should be his primary position moving forward, and Nijman fills in at left tackle until Bakhtiari is back. When he does, it will be only one change in the lineup, which helps with continuity and chemistry.
The offensive line is the primary focus of general manager Brian Gutekunst’s team-building approach. Any offensive evolution has to go through the big men this year, especially while the young receivers develop and get used to the NFL. Elgton Jenkins coming back is a big step in that direction. If/when Bakhtiari returns, Green Bay’s healthy offensive line has the potential to be one the best in the league. If so, Aaron Rodgers has everything else in his hands to make the offense work again.