PACKERS FOOTBALL FRIDAY: The Final Piece

The Packers offensive line has certainly been a point of discussion this offseason.  The line took a big step forward last season and is now under contract through the 2016 season.  It’s now being compared to the Chad Clifton-Mike Wahle-Mike Flanagan-Marco Rivera-Mark Tauscher offensive line that Ahman Green ran behind.  It has the chance to be the best offensive line in the Favre-Rodgers era.

The first thing I want to show you are the run blocking and pass blocking grades from Pro Football Focus for the Packers starters on the offensive line.  These numbers are derived from a group of analysts that watch each individual player on every single down.  A score of 0.0 is considered to be average:

David Bakhtiari: Pass: +7.5 Run: -13.2
Josh Sitton: Pass: +19.2 Run: +1.9
Corey Linsley: Pass: +2.5 Run: +5.4
TJ Lang: Pass: +9.9 Run: +10.7
Bryan Bulaga: Pass: +10.8 Run: +0.3

So what sticks out there? Easy. David Bakhtiari’s struggles with run blocking.  Everyone on the Packers offensive line is above average at the two main aspects of offensive line play except for Bakhtiari.  Do I hate David Bakhtiari? No.  Do I even think he’s not a good left tackle? Hell no.  David Bakhtiari stepped in at left tackle defending the blind side of the league’s most valuable asset as a rookie 4th round pick.  That is almost unprecedented.  One of the reasons that he’s so highly thought of is because he can pass block and keep Aaron Rodgers clean.

In a practical sense, you would think that improvements in run blocking should be easier than improvements in pass blocking for a young player.  While pass blocking (especially at left tackle) has to do with athleticism, footwork and agility that you are “born with” or not, run blocking can be improved by becoming stronger.  Run blocking, though having plenty to do with technique, is about imposing your will on the man in front of you and moving him out of the way for the runner.  You would think that it’s easier to add strength and size during the early years of an NFL career than it is to add athleticism.

I do remember being very excited before last season hearing that Bakhtiari “hand’t missed any meals”.  His new size and (hopefully) added strength created enthusiasm throughout the fan base that he was going to be an improved run blocker and the Packers could run right or left whenever they wanted with no drop off.  At least according to PFF, he got worse.  So maybe my theory about run blocking is bupkus.  Common sense sometimes doesn’t apply to football.

I’m not going to try and compare to other 4th round picks who started right away at left tackle, because those guys don’t really exist (again, David Bakhtiari is still awesome).  What I will do is look at other young tackles in the league who played right away and see if their run blocking improved or not in their first 3 seasons in the NFL.

Jared Veldheer is a 3rd round pick who plays left tackle and has a career arc that Packers fans should be very pleased with if Bakhtiari achieves.  He started out as a better run blocker than Bakhtiari, improved in his second season and then stayed at a well above average level in year 3:

Rookie: +3.3
2nd year: +12.5
3rd year: +6.2

Tyron Smith is maybe an unfair comparison.  While both Bakhtiari and Smith have elite line mates Smith was taken with a top 10 pick.  He was never not supposed to be elite (yes I used a double negative on purpose).  Smith started out as a right tackle, using his raw abilities to mash against the run from day 1, and while his run blocking stayed the same (very good), it has been his pass blocking that has steadily improved:

Rookie: +11.1
2nd year: +11.9
3rd  year: +9.1

Duane Brown is the best sign of hope for Packers fans. Though Brown, too was a 1st round pick he didn’t go until the very end of the round. He’s another guy who, at 6’4″, is considered a little on the short side to play left tackle. He started out as a pretty bad run blocker, just like Bakhtiari, made a jump in year two and a further jump in year 3. He is now one of the best left tackles in football and is very underrated:

Rookie: -1.3
2nd year: +10.3
3rd year: +10.0 in only 12 starts

The fact that my research didn’t really yield any solid data has a lot to do with the fact that so few guys play left tackle as rookies and even fewer do that weren’t top 15 picks.  If Bakhtiari could even get to league average as a run blocker it would be so huge for the Packers offense.  The way that the Packers continue to improve as a team and continue to be among the league’s elite despite almost never acquiring major talent from other teams is the rookie year to 2nd year improvement and 2nd to 3rd year improvement.  The Packers have the best pass blocking offensive line in football, if Bakhtiari can become a better run blocker the “pass blocking” qualifier might not be necessary.

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Ross Uglem is a writer at PackersTalk.com. You can follow Ross on twitter at RossUglem

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