Like most of the Detroit Lions’ season, the Green Bay Packers’ loss in Detroit was ultimately meaningless. What did matter was the highly-anticipated return of two key offensive line starters. David Bakhtiari came back after more than a year away, while rookie center Josh Myers got the chance to end his first season on a high note.
While the two certainly make the offensive line better, the chance to shake some rust off in a glorified exhibition game was a boon. Bakhtiari and Myers both had an opportunity to gel with their O-line brethren and re-acclimate to protecting Aaron Rodgers. While they didn’t play the entire game, we saw much-improved play across the line. Rodgers discussed the importance of having both big men back to get into a rhythm before the playoffs.
After a season of shuffling the offensive linemen, Green Bay is getting (most of) the band back together. Yet the reserve players did well, and there are still the guard spots to consider. As the Packers take the bye week to prepare, they must decide what their best starting offensive line looks like.
Yosh Nijiman played admirably as the third-string left tackle. He probably performed better than the first-string options on some other teams. But there was no doubt the All-Pro Bakhtiari would regain his spot as soon as he was able. No. 69 is one of the best left tackles in the league and a potential Hall of Famer. His absence was apparent in last year’s NFC Championship game, and he’ll be a bulwark against the talented edge rushers Green Bay will face in the playoffs.
Bakhtiari wasn’t guaranteed to return, but the game against the Lions showed that he’s fully ready. He had a respectable 75.2 PFF grade in his first outing back. Bakhtiari initially wasn’t guaranteed to play, but Rodgers told the media in his postgame press conference that he suggested No. 69 play in Week 18. “I’m just so proud of him to get back out there,” Rodgers said.
Expectations were for Runyan to earn a starting role this offseason. It took injuries along the line to get there, but Runyan has developed into an excellent player over the course of the season. Per PFF, he’s continually improved all season, only allowing two sacks on 1,053 snaps with zero penalties. The interior line struggled in run blocking and still needs to improve, but the signs of growth are there.
At this point, Runyan has shown more reliability than Royce Newman. Newman has quietly improved, especially in the past month, and he has the potential to be a reliable starter in the future. But the Packers have Super Bowl aspirations and need to play the best five linemen. Right now, Runyan has the edge over Newman.
Green Bay drafted Myers to be their Day 1 starter at center, and he manned the spot until his injury. Myers is a high draft pick and played well enough to earn the starting job. He looked solid in his return against the Lions. Myers’ return is the beautiful marriage of upgrading a spot on the offensive line while allowing a rookie to develop. As long as Myers can stay healthy and play at a high level, center will always be his spot.
While Myers was injured, Lucas Patrick quietly played well at center. Patrick’s extension has ended up as one of Green Bay’s best investments, as the Packers have asked him to start for prolonged stints over the past two seasons. He’s a cerebral player who has good chemistry with Rodgers, and he’s played all over the interior line and could realistically start at any of the three interior spots. But the Packers want Myers at center, and Runyan has outplayed Newman. Patrick is rewarded for his solid play with the right guard spot, where he started 11 games last season.
Dennis Kelly is one of those underrated veteran free-agent signings that Brian Gutekunst excels at. Kelly started in all 16 games for the Tennessee Titans, a team whose offense was installed by Matt LaFleur when he was their offensive coordinator. A veteran starter who knows the offense on a cheap deal is a beautiful thing. It’s surprising Kelly didn’t see the field until the last quarter of the season.
Kelly has been an excellent addition in his short stint at RT in Green Bay. Most of the linemen are young, emerging players, making Kelly’s experience particularly valuable. While the Packers hope Billy Turner can return, they can breathe easily with Kelly at RT for now.
We saw the benefits of the improved offensive line immediately. Rodgers efficiently extended plays better than he had all season and felt much more comfortable with his protection. Playing with a patchwork offensive line forced him to play in rhythm and get the ball out quickly, which was impactful in his MVP-level performance. Blending that rhythm with his patented extended backyard-style football should make the Green Bay offense even better down the stretch.
After an injury-plagued season, the Packers are finally getting healthy, and some of their best players are coming back at the right time. The return of Bakhtiari and Myers allows the Packers to play their best five offensive linemen instead of just who’s available, putting the team in a great spot as they enter the playoffs.