Dating back to the Vince Lombardi-era, the Green Bay Packers have had a long and proud history of elite right tackles.
Forrest Gregg, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who played 15 seasons in Green Bay, was once called “the finest player I ever coached” by Lombardi. Greg Koch (1977-1985), Earl Dotson (1993-2002) and Mark Tauscher (2000-2010) were all decade-long staples at the position and played major roles in high-powered offenses.
Most recently, Bryan Bulaga (2010-2019) become one of the top right tackles in football and was a huge part of Green Bay’s success last decade.
Today, right tackle is one of the most uncertain positons on the roster.
Bulaga signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency, leaving a gaping hole at the position. Green Bay signed veteran Rick Wagner — who was released by Detroit in March — to replace Bulaga, but that plan is far from fool proof.
So, Green Bay enters the season with major questions at a position it’s typically had answers at for more than six decades.
“Yeah, I think there’s always room for improvement no matter how you play,” Wagner said of his 2019 season in Detroit. “I had a couple injuries that I had to battle through last year, and hopefully starting a new team, getting a fresh start here, I can play better.”
He’ll need to if he hopes to win the right tackle position.
Wagner is the only newcomer to an offensive line that played at a high level a year ago and was ranked No. 6 in the league by Pro Football Focus.
The Packers finished fifth in adjusted sack rate (5.3%) last year, according to Football Outsiders. Green Bay also jumped to 15th in rushing offense (112.2) after finishing 22nd in 2018 (104.2).
How Wagner performs will be key to the Packers maintaining a high-level of play up front.
“I think it’s just every year, you have to go back and look at your film,” Wagner said. “Everything has to be improved every year. You either get better or you get worse. You don’t really stay the same.”
Unfortunately for Wagner — and perhaps the Packers — his play has slipped in recent seasons.
Wagner, a fifth-round draft pick by Baltimore in 2013, had three strong seasons during his four years with the Ravens. Wagner then signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal with Detroit in 2017 that made him the highest paid right tackle in football.
Wagner had two solid seasons with the Lions, but Pro Football Focus ranked Wagner just 62nd overall among offensive tackles last year. Wagner was scheduled to earn a base salary of $9 million in 2020, which ranked No. 6 among right tackles, but Detroit chose to release him instead.
Now, the Packers are hoping the 30-year-old Wagner has something left in the tank.
“First of all, what we like about Rick is he’s played a lot of football,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “And he’s a veteran presence. The game’s not too big for him, he’s going to come in and he will compete.”
If Wagner struggles during training camp, the Packers could move right guard Billy Turner to right tackle.
Turner, a free agent acquisition in 2019, started 16 games for the first time in his career last year and had a respectable season. Pro Football Focus ranked Turner No. 36 among all guards in the NFL.
In 1,076 snaps last year, Turner allowed six sacks and had two penalties. And while Turner was Green Bay’s weakest starter up front, he was a huge upgrade from Byron Bell and Justin McCray in 2018.
Turner played both tackle and guard before coming to Green Bay as a free agent in 2019. Turner (6-5, 310) has measurables better suited for tackle and is also two years younger than Wagner.
“It doesn’t matter what position I play, as long as I’m out there and I’m able to play and help this organization win games, it really doesn’t matter the position,” Turner said. “I think I can flourish at any position that they let me play.”
If Turner stays at right guard, he’ll face competition from veteran Lane Taylor.
Taylor started at left guard from 2016-18 and was the opening day starter there in 2019. He suffered a torn biceps just two games into the 2019 campaign, though, and spent the rest of the year on the injured reserve list.
Rookie Elgton Jenkins replaced Taylor, had a sensational first year, and now figures to be the starter at left guard for years to come.
Taylor restructured his contract this offseason, which saved the Packers nearly $3 million in salary cap space and saved him from being released. Now, it appears the left guard battle could be a doozy.
“Lane started off the season last year for us, I thought he did some really nice things,” LaFleur said of Taylor. “He’s an athletic, experienced player, there’s no substitute for that.”
The rest of Green Bay’s line is solidified — and potentially sensational.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari has a pass-blocking grade of 95.9 (out of 100) from Pro Football Focus since 2015, which is far and away the highest in football. Over the past decade, Bakhtiari’s pass-blocking grade ranks No. 2 in the NFL behind only Cleveland’s Joe Thomas, a future Hall of Famer.
Bakhtiari didn’t allow a sack over the final nine games last year — a streak of 383 pass blocking snaps — after struggling early in the season. His run blocking also improved dramatically as the year went on.
Bakhtiari, 28, is entering a contract year. If he performs like he has in recent seasons, he could be the NFL’s highest-paid tackle a year from now.
“I get paid to play, I’m the left tackle and I’m under contract for another season and that’s what I’m focused on,” Bakhtiari said. “Whatever the organization decides they want to do moving forward with me, we can have that conversation when it’s there. But, yeah, as of right now, I’m just focusing on making sure I play good football.”
Jenkins graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rookie guard and a top-10 left guard overall last season. In 571 pass blocking snaps, Jenkins didn’t allow a sack.
Jenkins (6-5, 311) did have eight penalties in his 964 total snaps. But he was solid in the run game, proved a quick study and has the potential to be a future star.
“He stepped in there really early when Lane (Taylor) went down and it was like we didn’t miss a beat,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “He’s got a rare ability as far as his size, his athleticism and his power. He’s going to be a really good player.
“If he really puts his mind to it, he has a chance to be one of the guys like we’ve had here in the past — the Josh Sittons, T.J. Langs, Marco Riveras, Mike Wahles. We’ve had a long history of really good inside players and Elgton has a chance to be one of those.”
Center Corey Linsley isn’t a great athlete or overly powerful. But he’s a picture of steadiness, relatively quick and calls a terrific game up front.
Pro Football Focus ranked Linsley as the No. 7 center in the league last year. Linsley played 950 snaps, had just two penalties and allowed five sacks.
Like Bakhtiari, though, the 29-year-old Linsley will become a free agent after this season and could be playing his final year in Green Bay.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Linsley said of his future with the team. “I can only control what I can control. Just playing out the year, seeing what happens, and going from there.”