This is the fifth in a series of stories previewing the Packers' draft.
GREEN BAY — Among the most-used draft-time Ted Thompson-isms was this gem: “The good Lord only made so many big guys.”
Perhaps that’s why the longtime Green Bay Packers general manager used to use so many of his draft choices over the years on offensive and defensive linemen — and why his successor, Brian Gutekunst, might have to use two (or more) of his 10 draft picks next week on the offensive line.
In his 13 drafts, Thompson added at least two offensive linemen eight times. And only once, in 2015, did he complete a draft without having taken a single lineman.
But over the past four drafts, the Packers have added just four total offensive linemen: One last year (Washington State guard Cole Madison in the fifth round), one in 2017 (South Florida center Kofi Amichia in the sixth round), two in 2016 (Indiana tackle Jason Spriggs in the second round and Stanford tackle Kyle Murphy in the sixth round), and no one in 2015.
Madison missed all of last season after not reporting to training camp because of a personal matter but reported to the offseason program last week; the Packers moved on last year from Amichia and Murphy (after three combined starts, all by Murphy); and Spriggs has been largely a disappointment during his first three seasons and is set to be a free agent next March.
Add to that recent trend the fact that veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga is entering the final year of his contract, and the offensive line is clearly a need — even after the free-agent signing of Billy Turner last month. Gutekunst acknowledged that his philosophy on free-agent signings is that it’s a useful tool to fill roster holes, and that he felt pursuing Turner — and giving him a four-year, $28 million deal ($9 million guaranteed) — was necessary.
While Turner might be the Packers’ opening-day starter at right guard, Gutekunst insisted he’s not guaranteed that spot. He also has shown enough versatility in his career that he could be the sixth man on the line and fill in wherever needed.
“We’re a long way from before we designate starters and stuff. (But) we’re really high on him,” Gutekunst said of Turner. “Obviously we brought him here for a reason. We think he’s going to compete. He’s so versatile. I think he can play all four spots — center is about the only one that he hasn’t played in his time. But he played right guard and right tackle last year, and he’s capable of playing either.”
With Bulaga in the final year of his second contract, this could be his last year in Green Bay. If it is, the Packers could conceivably draft a lineman early, play him at right guard as a rookie and then move him to right tackle in 2020.
The top offensive linemen in the draft are Alabama’s Jonah Williams, Washington State’s Andre Dillard, Florida’s Jawaan Taylor and Oklahoma’s Cody Ford and Boston College’s Chris Lindstrom. But even they come with at least some questions given the way the college game has been trending on offense.
“A lot of guys in college football today are rarely in a 3 point stance because of the way different offenses are run,” explained Cleveland Browns GM John Dorsey, a former Packers executive. “So they’re going to have to get used to having that hand into the ground. And the caliber of player they’re going to play against every Sunday is a little bit different than the caliber of player they play on Saturday. So it’s (a challenge of) becoming familiar with the terminologies of the scheme they’re trying to block in, and from a physical component it’s just working on those little technical things that separate the good ones from the great ones.”
Although the Packers do have three of their starting linemen signed through at least the 2020 season — left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Lane Taylor and center Corey Linsley — there’s also the matter of LaFleur’s outside zone run scheme, which logically puts a greater premium on an offensive lineman’s athleticism.
But, LaFleur downplayed the notion that his arrival might mean the Packers will be looking for a different kind of lineman than they sought in the latter years of the Mike McCarthy era.
“The easy answer is you want really athletic guys that can move. But I do think there’s a point where you’ll sacrifice some of those movement skills for some size because at the end of the day, more teams are going to pass the ball,” LaFleur said. “You’re probably going to have more passes than runs in a year, so to me there’s that challenge of finding what’s suitable still in the run game but also gives you great pass protection.
“I know first and second down we’re going to try to be as balanced as possible. That’s philosophically what I believe is best to keep a defense off balance, and it makes the quarterback’s job a heck of a lot easier, it takes hits off the quarterbacks. I think all these guys kind of have a shelf life and there’s only X amount of hits in a guy’s body. So how can we extend our quarterback’s career as long as possible? And I think the way you do that is make a commitment to the running game and kind of build your offense through your running game.”