Packers grades: New challenges await resilient offensive line
Fifth in a 2020 Packers position-analysis series with grades and biggest needs.
GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers was the NFL’s most valuable player. Davante Adams was first-team All-Pro. Aaron Jones was a Pro Bowler.
What was the best position on a Green Bay Packers offense that led the NFL in scoring during the 2020 season?
Try the offensive line.
True, other positions could hold their own at the top of the depth chart, but none on the Packers' offense matched the line’s depth of talent. David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley gave the line a pair of first-team All-Pros. Elgton Jenkins was selected to the Pro Bowl, remarkable for a second-year lineman at a position where name recognition often equates to awards. Then there were the unsung cogs, Billy Turner’s ability to play almost any position well, Rick Wagner’s surprising depth off the sideline, Lucas Patrick’s plug-and-play capability at guard, even rookie Jon Runyan Jr.’s quality spot snaps.
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No, the offensive line wasn’t perfect in all 18 games. It was almost always serviceable, and often good. For that, it might have been the Packers' best position group.
Rodgers said throughout the season – including days after the NFC championship game – his body never felt better. He said it was the first time in his career he didn’t miss a single practice start to finish, remarkable in his age-37 season. He has the offensive line’s remarkable pass blocking to thank for his health. The Packers allowed only 21 sacks in the regular season, tied with the Indianapolis Colts’ stellar offensive line for second fewest in the NFL. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers (14) allowed fewer sacks. It was the fewest sacks the Packers have allowed in a season, and their first time finishing in the NFL’s top five, since they tied for third fewest with 19 allowed in Brett Favre’s final year as their quarterback in 2007. Rodgers was sacked just 20 times, by far the fewest in his career, even fewer than his 21 sacks in 2017 and 22 in 2013 – both of which were half seasons because of a broken collarbone.
Other than David Bakhtiari’s torn ACL? How about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Counting playoffs, the Packers allowed 26 sacks all season. Ten came in two games against the Bucs. True, the Bucs’ fierce defensive front that tied for fourth in the NFL with 48 sacks ravaged most opponents, and it was especially disruptive in the playoffs. Two weeks after sacking Rodgers five times in the NFC championship game, the Bucs sacked Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes three times and hit him nine times in Super Bowl LV. Still, it was reminiscent of the Packers’ difficulties against the San Francisco 49ers in 2019, when they allowed eight sacks in two games against a similarly fierce defensive front. The Packers have struggled matching up against the NFL’s quickest pass rushes over the past two seasons, something they will need to overcome to reach another Super Bowl.
The Packers are positioned to return four starters, but the lone, potential vacancy is a first-team All-Pro. Center Corey Linsley is not just a stalwart in the middle of the offensive line, starting his first game as a fifth-round rookie in 2014 and accumulating 99 starts over his seven seasons. He’s the brains of the operation, Rodgers’ cerebral counterbalance. While Rodgers surveys the defense before each snap, Linsley makes the calls for his linemates. His ability to reach the second level was crucial to the Packers’ zone running scheme. In spring when many difficult decisions will be made, the Packers’ offensive line depth might entice general manager Brian Gutekunst to let Linsley walk in free agency. Linsley said after the season there had been no substantive contract talks between him and the team. It’s the nature of NFL business with a declining cap in 2021, but reshuffling adequate blockers is no way to replace an All-Pro. If Linsley leaves, the Packers will need to find an answer at center, and hope their offensive line (with Bakhtiari's return date uncertain after knee surgery) is sturdy enough to withstand his departure.
David Bakhtiari: Selected first-team All-Pro for second time in three years. Voted to third career Pro Bowl. Allowed only one sack in 421 pass snaps (beaten on a bull rush in the snow against Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Wyatt Ray). Significantly improved outside zone run blocking in second season with Matt LaFleur’s scheme. Missed four games in regular season, three with broken ribs. Tore ACL on Thursday of Week 17, three days before Packers traveled to Chicago Bears. Absence eventually felt in NFC championship game against Bucs. Signed four-year, $92 million extension worth up to $105.5 million with incentives in November, a deal that included $30 million signing bonus and $61.5 million guaranteed, the most lucrative contract for an offensive lineman in NFL history. Grade: A-minus
Corey Linsley: A longtime steady presence in middle of the line, finally rewarded this season with first-team All-Pro selection. Snubbed in Pro Bowl voting. Missed three games and most of a fourth with sprained knee. Command center of Packers' offensive line, responsible for pre-snap communication with calls and checks. Allowed one sack in 462 pass snaps (missed an inside stunt against Jacksonville Jaguars tackle DaVon Hamilton, a rare miscue). Routinely got to second level on blocks, opening up Jones’ 75-yard TD run against Detroit in Week 2 and 60-yard run to start second half of NFC divisional playoff win against Los Angeles Rams. Fumbled snap exchange with Rodgers in Indianapolis led to turnover on opening drive. Otherwise consistently on same page with his quarterback. Grade: A-minus
Elgton Jenkins: Former second-round pick had a breakout 2020 season, including first Pro Bowl selection. Played all five positions on the offensive line. Candidate for starting center next season if Packers lose Linsley in free agency. Led team with 1,183 snaps in 18 games, missing only two all season. Allowed only one sack in 610 pass snaps.(missed a stunt against Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White in Week 6). Superb athleticism in run game, fluid in reaching second level. Eleventh offensive lineman drafted in 2019 but first to reach the Pro Bowl. Grade: A-minus
Billy Turner: Entered season as preferred right tackle after starting every game at right guard in 2019. Missed first two games of season with knee injury suffered late in training camp but did not miss a snap because of injury in final 16 games, counting playoffs. Revelation as Swiss-army knife in Packers' line, moving over to left tackle in Bakhtiari’s absence. Allowed four sacks in 536 pass snaps, two as left tackle in NFC championship game. Beat on a bull rush as right guard against Carolina tackle Derrick Brown, leading to a sack. In same game, had key block against tackle Bravvion Roy that sprung Jones’ 46-yard run. One of the most important unsung contributors on the team. Grade: B
Lucas Patrick: After four seasons as backup, former undrafted lineman got first shot as full-time starter following Lane Taylor’s season-ending torn ACL in Week 1. Started 16 of 18 games counting playoffs. Second on line with 1,085 snaps (91.4 percent). Weak link at times in pass protection, allowing team-high five sacks in 550 pass snaps. Benched after allowing three sacks against Carolina, two to 2020 seventh overall pick Derrick Brown. Regained starting job when Wagner was injured a week later against Tennessee and never relinquished it. Grinder in the run game, overcoming athletic deficiencies with toughness and finish. Drew praise multiple times from Rodgers during season. Grade: C
Rick Wagner: Signed as veteran depth in free agency after Bryan Bulaga’s departure. Lost position battle in training camp but ended season making 11 starts and playing in all 18 games. Each of three sacks allowed this season came against Bucs, including two against Shaq Barrett in NFC championship game. Better in pass protection than run blocking, but capable in Matt LaFleur’s outside zone. Grade: C
Jon Runyan: After sluggish training camp, sixth-round pick showed to be a gamer in spot snaps during rookie season. Did not start a game but appeared in all 18, playing 160 snaps. Saw extended action at Minnesota in Week 1 (19.2% snaps), as well as at San Francisco (47%), at Indianapolis (83.3%), and against Chicago (70.4%). Did not allow a sack. Could have a starting guard job in 2021 if Linsley leaves in free agency. Grade: D-plus
Yosh Nijman: Former undrafted lineman made 53-man roster out of camp after spending much of 2019 rookie season on Packers practice squad. Consistent special teams contributor, appearing in all 18 games with 90 snaps. Played 14 snaps on offense in kneel-down situations spread out over four games. Grade: D-minus
Lane Taylor: Won starting right guard job out of camp, completing impressive recovery from missing most of 2019 with torn biceps. Tore ACL in Week 1 at Minnesota. Enters free agency this spring having played three games the past two seasons. Grade: Incomplete
Ben Braden: Signed to Packers' practice squad in October. Later added to the active roster, appearing in four games. Only offensive snaps came in kneel-down at San Francisco. Played 19 snaps on special teams. Grade: Incomplete