Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Needs To Use Their Rookie Offensive Linemen

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Green Bay Packers‘ offensive struggles against the Minnesota Vikings shouldn’t be considered a surprise. It was their first regular-season game after trading away Davante Adams. Both starting tackles, David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins, were out with knee injuries. The rookie receivers are still learning and adapting to the pro game. But the coaching staff can’t be afraid to put their best players on the field because they are rookies. Still, that’s what happened with Green Bay’s offensive line in Minnesota.

Without Bakhtiari and Jenkins, head coach Matt LaFleur, offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich, and offensive line coach Luke Butkus decided to start the game with the offensive line formation that played for most of training camp and preseason: Yosh Nijman, Jon Runyan, Josh Myers, Jake Hanson, and Royce Newman. Leaving Zach Tom out was unjustifiable. The lack of protection for Aaron Rodgers and good run blocks for Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon was a big part of Green Bay’s loss to start the season.

Maybe the Packers would have lost anyway with Tom starting. But the coaching staff’s job is to put their best players on the field and to use their abilities in the best way to succeed. Neither of these things happened in Minnesota. Hanson was responsible for giving up pressures and sacks; the decision to run behind him on the unconverted fourth-and-goal was questionable. In the second half, Tom entered to replace Jon Runyan, who suffered a concussion. He immediately showed that he can be an immediate contributor and starter.

Recent history

This isn’t the first time LaFleur was conservative in using a rookie offensive lineman right away. In 2019, LaFleur’s first year as the head coach, he decided to start the season with Lane Taylor as the left guard while second-round rookie Elgton Jenkins was on the bench. Eventually, Taylor suffered a biceps injury, and Jenkins was promoted to starter. He never looked back.

Something similar happened again last season. In the first game of the season, the Packers chose Lucas Patrick to be the starting left guard, with Jenkins playing left tackle and rookie Jon Runyan on the bench. It didn’t take much time for Runyan to show his value, and he was the starter by Week 2. Patrick eventually came back to the lineup as a center when Josh Myers got injured, but Runyan established himself.

At the start of preseason, there was a justification for Hanson to play over Tom. The rookie is a little bit undersized and had some trouble run-blocking — a big part of LaFleur’s scheme. However, during preseason and training camp, Tom showed he is a capable run blocker, and it became evident he is better than Hanson in pass protection.

Playing Tom at right tackle also allows Royce Newman to move inside, which is his ideal spot in the offensive line.

Short- and long-term potential

The Packers still don’t know — or at least, they haven’t publicly indicated — when Bakhtiari and Jenkins will be back. According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s Ryan Wood, Bakhtiari is probably also out for the Chicago Bears game. While they remain sidelined, the smart approach is to let Tom develop on the field. It’s not realistic to expect perfect performances, but the Packers are not getting anything near perfection from Hanson, either, and at least Tom has much more upside. Even if Runyan isn’t recovered by Sunday, they could use Sean Rhyan.

Even the Packers’ ideal offensive line has right guard open. Currently, Royce Newman is the primary option. But his play at guard last season wasn’t good enough — so much that the Packers benched him in favor of Lucas Patrick when Josh Myers returned from injury at the end of the regular season.

If Tom is able to establish himself as a solid option, or more than that, Green Bay’s ideal unit could have Bakhtiari, Runyan, Myers, Tom, and Jenkins. That would form one of the best lines in the league — something particularly important this year when the offensive weapons are so different.

Green Bay won’t face a defensive front as strong as the Vikings’ unit every week. When healthy, Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith are one of the best edge duos in the NFL. But the scenario with Hanson and Newman on the right side was clearly a mistake even before the game in Minnesota. The weaknesses have been clear since the preseason. Nonetheless, the Chicago Bears defense held the San Francisco 49ers’ offense to 10 points in Week 1.

Since the Packers hired LaFleur in 2019, the Packers have scored 10 or fewer points in three of their four Week 1 games. The lack of starter usage in preseason might be an explanation, but there’s a strong argument to be made that the real explanation for it is wrong lineup options — and the better players start to be utilized as the season progresses.

Zach Tom is questionably one of the five best offensive linemen on the roster. When Bakhtiari and Jenkins are out, there shouldn’t be any question about who they turn to.

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