Should Packers spend on Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, or David Bakhtiari?
It’s very helpful for an offensive lineman to get to play next to the same players over and over, providing a sense of familiarity with their teammates over time. If a team is constantly switching who is in the starting lineup or what positions their O-linemen are playing, it can end up hurting the team. The Packers are in a unique position because this is the third straight year that their opening-day lineup should be David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Corey Linsley, T.J. Lang, and Bryan Bulaga (2015 season grades shown below).
Over the last two seasons, the five have played 1,375 snaps together, more than any other offensive-line grouping over that span. Only the Panthers and Cowboys have projected starting offensive lines with more than 500 snaps experience as a unit.
While this leaves Green Bay in a great situation for the 2016 season, it will also lead to some difficult decisions for the 2017 offseason: Bakhtiari, Sitton, and Lang are all set to hit free agency at that time. Whichever one (or more) of them ends up hitting the market, he will be the highest-graded player at their position in 2015 to be a free agent in 2017 and under the age of 34. This will make all three players costly to re-sign, and Green Bay will need to decide who is worth bringing back, and who they can let walk for bigger money elsewhere.
Breaking down the Packers’ current situation
In 2013, Bakhtiari was a Week 1 starter at left tackle, despite being a fourth-round rookie. He had growing pains in his first NFL season, which is to be expected, but has since turned into one of the better pass-blocking left tackles in the NFL. In 2015, he earned a pass-blocking grade of 85.5, which was good for 10th-best among NFL LTs. He was especially consistent the last half of 2015, where his 96.6 pass-blocking efficiency from Week 8 and on was tied for third-best among LTs. His main weakness, however, is his run-blocking ability, something that hasn’t improved since his rookie season. While there are certainly left tackles worse at run-blocking than Bakhtiari, his 40.6 run-blocking grade in 2015 was nothing to brag about.
At left guard, Sitton has turned into a consistent Pro-Bowler, and he’s earned it. For the third straight year, he led all guards in pass-blocking efficiency, while his run-blocking grades have been noticeably above-average in all eight years of his career.
Despite his consistency, Sitton is at the age where you can expect to see a decline in play, and that decline may have already started in 2015. He allowed 23 pressures last season, the most he has surrendered since 2009. He allowed just one pressure over the first five games of the season, and then at least one pressure in every game after that. He was penalized 10 times, which was a career-high, and his run-blocking wasn’t as good as he’s produced in the past. Even though Sitton was better in past seasons than in 2015, he remained a top-six guard—but his play might be a sign of things to come.
Lang has been noticeably improving each of the last few years of his career. In pass-blocking—after allowing 27 combined sacks and hits from 2012 to 2014—he surrendered just two last season. There was only one game in which Lang allowed more than two pressures, and Rams DT Aaron Donald was involved. His run-blocking grade has improved each of the last four seasons, and Lang was among the top-10 for starting guards in that facet of play last year. The combination of his pass- and run-blocking landed him fifth on our list of starting guards last season.
What Green Bay should do next
It would be shocking if Green Bay let all three linemen walk in free agency; the Packers are known for re-signing their own good players. As of now, the only other projected Green Bay starters set to become free agents at the end of this season are Eddie Lacy and Julius Peppers—who will be 37 by then—so the offensive line will be the top priority.
If they can only re-sign one of the three O-linemen, Lang makes the most sense. The current right guard is a better option than Sitton, having outplayed him last season. Lang is only a year and a half younger, but has 2,341 fewer snaps of wear and tear on him. Because Sitton has the Pro Bowl and three All-Pro second-team honors, there is a decent chance he will end up making more money. The combination of age, cost, career trajectory, and 2015 production makes Lang the more sensible option of the two guards for Green Bay, if it becomes an either-or situation.
Lang also makes more sense than Bakhtiari. Lang is the better player, and because he is a guard and not tackle, will likely cost less. If the Packers lose both guards, then either Bakhtiari, Bulaga, or rookie Jason Spriggs (Indiana) would likely need to move to guard. The Packers selected Spriggs in the second round of the draft; he earned the third-highest pass-blocking efficiency mark among Power-5 left tackles last season. Both Bulaga and Bakhtiari are better suited for tackle, due to how much better they both are at pass-blocking than run-blocking. This all leads to Lang being the most logical player at this point. Green Bay is a team known not just for re-signing their star players, but getting deals done early. With that in mind, the Packers shouldn’t be afraid to get Lang’s contract done as early as this offseason.
It’s certainly possible that the Green Bay front office re-signs two of the three players. Between Sitton and Bakhtiari, knowing what we know now, Sitton is the better choice. Even though he might not be at his best anymore—and may only play a few more seasons—having a top guard and a very good guard is something the Packers might have difficulties replacing, whereas by next season, Spriggs could already be better than Bakhtiari at tackle. Obviously a lot can change from now until the 2017 offseason, and if Bakhtiari improves his run-blocking or Sitton sees a significant decline, then Bakhtiari could become the second-best option.
It’s unlikely that the Packers will be able to bring back all three players due to the cap space they would be dedicating to the O-line. Green Bay has had one of the better offensive lines the last few seasons, and that should remain true in the future. Regardless of who they re-sign, they have Spriggs, Linsley, and Bulaga locked up until at least the end of the 2017 season. As long as the Packers can bring one (if not two) of their free agents O-linemen back during the upcoming offseason, they should continue to have one of the better offensive lines for years to come.