Are the Packers Setting the Stage for Corey Linsley’s Departure?

Rookie Jake Hanson Profiles as Green Bay’s Starter-In-Waiting

Can one of Green Bay’s premiere starters be headed for an imminent divorce from the only pro organization he’s played for since being drafted as a 2014 fifth-round pick?

Seventh-year pro Corey Linsley has been nothing if not reliable in recent years, as he’s played three consecutive 16-game seasons. But beyond his durability, Green Bay’s starting center not only features tremendous physical strength as a run blocker, but markedly improved as a pass protector in 2019. 

While the interior blocker was known as your classic short-area mauler coming out of Ohio State, No. 63 led all his center peers with a 98 percent pass-block win rate, an ESPN statistic measuring how frequently an offensive lineman can sustain his block for 2.5 seconds or greater. 

Moreover, while not generally regarded as one of the league’s elite centers, Linsley, 28,  graded out as PFF’s seventh-best player at his position ahead of Alex Mack, Rodney Hudson and Ryan Kelly. 

Firmly entrenched as a starter since his rookie campaign, the Youngstown, Ohio native also excels in handling the subtleties of his role that aren’t graded or measured, such as getting off timely snaps to catch opposing linemen jumping offsides. 

The Packers front office affirmed its appreciation for Linsley’s services on Dec. 30, 2017 by presenting their former fifth-round pick with a three-year, $25.5 million extension. 

From an outsider’s persepctive, renewing that agreement at the end of 2020 league year should be viewed as a mere formality considering the quality of the player in question. 

As an accomplished athlete at the peak of his powers, Linsley has earned the right to demand a long-term deal, with an average annual salary between $9-12 million — the current going rate for top NFL centers. 

However, there’s nothing typical or routine about the forthcoming offseason, with GM Brian Gutekunst saddled with the prospect of reupping multiple starters, including David Bakhtiari, Aaron Jones, Kenny Clark and Kevin King, along with Linsley. 

Of that group, Bakh, Clark and Jones seem to be the consensus priority signings and though King’s first three years at the next level have been marred by injuries and inconsistency, the cornerback is a former second-round selection with considerable upside at one of the NFL’s preeminent positions. 

In the hierarchy of an NFL starting lineup, center doesn’t carry the same pull as a blindside protector, a multi-faceted 1,000-yard running back or a young — albeit underachieving —  6’3” corner with the physical tools to shut down the opposition’s best receiver. 

No Packer diehard, as a result, should be appalled at the vision of Linsley firing off snaps in a different uniform in 2021 given the organization’s limited resources governed by the league’s hard salary cap. 

Gutekunst and company braced themselves for that harrowing reality in the sixth round of this year’s draft, when they invested the 208th pick in Oregon’s Jake Hanson.    

The four-year starter’s resume includes being leader of one of the nation’s four finalists for the Joe Moore Award, recognizing the top offensive lines in college football. 

While he wasn’t the best or most celebrated member of that line, which included fifth round pick Shane Lemieux and Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, Hanson was the brains of the unit who communicated all the calls and checks before snapping the ball to Justin Herbert. 

Though his rather pedestrian measurables caused him to fall to the bottom of the draft, the California-born technician consistently outperformed his combine numbers by often sniffing out stunts and blitzes that allowed his quarterback to operate from a clean pocket. 

Hanson’s ability to anticipate an opposing lineman’s movements propelled him to help out his guards by chipping their man and affording the quarterback or ball carrier that extra half second needed to execute the pass or run play. 

His large 6’4”, 303-pound frame belied his lateral agility to support his linemates. But Hanson was more than a help blocker, as evidenced by how he used his heavy hands to latch on to and steer his adversary away from the direction of the ball. 

Those attributes immediately caught the attention of Mario Cristobal upon being hired as Oregon’s head coach in 2017. 

“It’s such a blessing when you come into a program and there’s a center of his caliber there because that guy at the line of scrimmage has to have the best presence along with the quarterback of anybody,” said Cristobal during an informal Q&A session. 

“The guy leads by example. The guy is all about doing it right. There’s no give-in with him … it’s hard to find chinks and flaws in his armor, in his makeup, in his regimen. The guy is a real-deal student athlete and a competitor. I mean, that’s what he brings to the table and it’s infectious and contagious.” 

Hanson was at his best during Oregon’s 2019 Pac-12 Championship game versus Utah that saw him play a major role in cancelling Arizona Cardinals fourth-round pick Leki Fotu, who was limited to 3 assists. 

No. 55 moved the 320-pound defensive tackle off his spot on several occasions, as well as chipping him and using his technique to hold Fotu at bay long enough for CJ Verdell to find his crease and gash the Utes in the running game. 

Verdell totaled 208 yards and 3 touchdowns on only 18 carries, including a 70-yard score late in the game facilitated by Hanson’s second level block on an oncoming linebacker. 

The guy leads by example. The guy is all about doing it right. There’s no give-in with him. — Oregon Ducks Head Coach Mario Cristobal

Hanson described his role and what lies ahead during an introductory conference call with Packers reporters by offering: “I feel very comfortable making protections. I feel very comfortable playing center because I do get to make those protection calls and ID my points and reidentify protection. So, I’m excited for the challenge and it’s going to be a challenge because in the NFL, they’re going to be asking their centers to do a lot more than I was doing in college. I know I’ll have to learn a lot of things.” 

The former Duck went on to mention how he recently packed on 11 pounds of lean muscle prior to the combine and a few more afterward in anticipation of grappling with bigger, stronger and more athletic linemen at the next level. 

While Hanson is squarely focused on making the team in his rookie year, he is fully aware of what could be lying in wait for him if the Packers decide to move on from Linsley. 

But that role won’t be handed to him unless he proves he can survive and ultimately win most of his battles in the trenches. 

His performance may, in fact, be a determining factor in whether Linsley ends up wearing the green and gold in 2021.

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When ~Reverend~ Ralph Mancini is not tackling hard news in New York City, he enjoys analyzing his favorite sports team, the Green Bay Packers. You can follow him on twitter at ReverendRalph.

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