The Green Bay Packers go how their quarterback goes. And although Aaron Rodgers may be the best in the business, the Packers' offensive line is perhaps their biggest question mark headed into the upcoming season.
Despite leading the NFL in passer rating in 2012, Rodgers was sacked 51 times—more than any other quarterback in the league.
Injuries certainly played a part in the team's struggles up front. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga ended up on the season-ending injured reserve after suffering a hip injury in Week 9, which led to guard T.J. Lang temporarily moving to tackle before undrafted rookie Don Barclay took over for the team's final five games.
Right tackle was somewhat of a revolving door for the Packers last season, and they had their fair share of problems at center as well.
After losing Scott Wells, their starting center for the previous seven years, to the St. Louis Rams last offseason, the Packers signed veteran Jeff Saturday to a two-year deal to be their immediate replacement. Saturday flopped during his brief 14-game stint in Green Bay before being benched in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith in Week 16.
In March, the Packers opted to give Dietrich-Smith the lowest possible restricted-free-agent tender, meaning another team could have signed Dietrich-Smith without compensation if the Packers decided not to match the terms.
Ultimately, Dietrich-Smith generated no interest from other teams, and he's expected to return as the Packers' starting center in 2013.
Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and Marshall Newhouse started all 16 games for the Packers in 2012. Newhouse, protecting Rodgers' blind side at left tackle, was average at best for the second year in a row.
Among offensive tackles who played at least 50 percent of their teams' snaps last season, Newhouse came in at No. 54 among 80 players at the position, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In hopes of strengthening the left side of the line to protect their franchise quarterback, the Packers recently made some drastic changes to the offensive line, moving Josh Sitton and tackle Bryan Bulaga from the right side to the left.
Lang, the team's starting left guard the past two seasons, will take Sitton's old spot at right guard, while Newhouse, Barclay and 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod will compete for the starting right tackle spot.
Having Bulaga and Sitton, likely the team's two most consistent linemen, now protecting his blind side, Rodgers should breathe a little easier when looking downfield this season.
“It’s really a combination of (many) things,” head coach Mike McCarthy said, per the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
No. 1, it starts with (the fact) we have a right-handed quarterback. His back side is obviously the left side. Both Josh and Bryan are our two most accomplished offensive linemen. So that’s really the starting point. But there’s things that we’re going to do as we move into the season, particularly football scheme-wise, that we feel this is the best decision for us.
But then again, playing musical chairs along the offensive line is nothing new in Green Bay. And the newly reshuffled unit may suffer some growing pains in the early goings of the transition.
Working in the Packers' favor is the fact that they'll be adding or welcoming back, potentially, four key players to the offensive line. Bulaga and Sherrod are set to return from injury, and 2013 fourth-round picks David Bakhtiari and J.C. Tretter will bring some new life to an almost dormant line.
Bakhtiari, a three-year starter for the Colorado Buffaloes, declared for the draft after his redshirt junior season. With a strong training camp, Bakhtiari could join the conversation at right tackle.
Tretter began his college career as a tight end before transitioning to left tackle for his final two seasons at Cornell. At the NFL level, Tretter best projects to playing on the inside.
Whether the Packers get a significant impact from Bakhtiari and/or Tretter in their first NFL season or not, the team should have an improved unit up front compared to the line that started for the Packers against the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
That line, consisting of Newhouse, Lang, Dietrich-Smith, Sitton and Barclay, will benefit from Bulaga's return at perhaps the line's most important position.
And if Sherrod, who missed the entire 2012 season, can live up to his first-round billing and win the right tackle job, the Packers could very well have their best offensive line since Rodgers took over as the starter in 2009.
As is generally the case in the NFL, it will all come down to health for the Packers' line. In any case, they'll have more able bodies than they had last season. With all due respect to Don Barclay—perhaps the unsung hero of Green Bay's 2012 season—it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Packers turn to an undrafted rookie free agent to start a game on the offensive line this season as things currently stand.
If Rodgers is sacked 51 times again in 2013, as he was in 2012, the Packers will likely fall short of reaching their second Super Bowl in four years.
But despite being predictably quiet in free agency, general manager Ted Thompson has added some talent to his team's offensive line. And considering the Packers won 12 games last season with a makeshift line, Packers fans should be optimistic for what is to come.