The Packers inability to re-sign their 2010 first-round pick and long-time starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga had to be a bitter pill to swallow for the organization, as they’ve placed their hopes on 30-year-old veteran Rick Wagner to replace the current San Diego Charger.
The Wagner acquisition has garnered a fairly positive — if not tepid — reception on the part of Packer supporters despite the fact that eighth-year pro is coming off his worst season with the Detroit Lions.
Wagner hit the proverbial jackpot in the spring of 2017, when he signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract to start for the Lions after spending his four previous seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
His experience in Motown wasn’t exactly what Lions GM Bob Quinn had in mind when he made the Wisconsin native the highest-paid right tackle in the game.
Though Wagner’s tenure was far from a complete failure, it did come with its share of peaks and valleys that saw the 6’6”, 315-pound bookend regress as both a pass and run blocker in 2019, with PFF scores of 60.2 and 53.9 respectively.
Further, Wagner ranked 119th among pass blockers (centers, guards and tackles), per Sports Info Solutions. One of the linemen he lagged behind was Bulaga himself who was 72nd on the list.
The apparent signs of Wagner’s unequivocal decline are reason enough to wonder if the one-time Wisconsin Badger’s less-than-balletic feet will only be further exploited by opposing pass rushers during the upcoming season.
Another yellow flag that comes with the package is Wagner’s inability to play a full 16-game season since 2015. Could last year’s concussion and knee injuries be a prelude to additional setbacks down the road?
While the Big Ten product seems to be young and healthy enough to more closely resemble the player he was in 2018, Wagner at best projects as a serviceable stop-gap option — albeit one who is almost certainly destined to sit out at least a small handful of games based on his recent track record.
Green Bay’s current depth behind both Wagner and David Bakhtiari, moreover, doesn’t inspire much confidence, with Alex Light as the first man off the bench should one of the two starters go down.
The last time Light stepped in to replace a hobbled Bulaga in last year’s Week 12 loss to the 49ers, the youngster was pummeled, filleted and roasted by Joey Bosa, Arik Armstead and company, who had Aaron Rodgers running for cover seemingly on every play.
On the season, Light recorded 11 blown blocks in his 133 snaps, per Sports Info Solutions, while surrendering 4 sacks in the process.
Other options to account for future injuries include sliding over struggling right guard Billy Turner to tackle. A move that would most likely have disastrous consequences considering the interior blocker’s clunky lateral skills that would only be exacerbated in space versus more athletic defenders.
Turner, of course, could very well lose his starting right guard job to sixth-round pick Jon Runyan Jr. When commenting on the rookie, coach Matt LaFluer acknowledged that what suits him best would be to “get him inside,” which should eliminate any notion of seeing Runyan chipping in as a backup tackle.
And then there’s the raw Yosuah Nijman, who physically has the appearance of a Greek god, but lacks any sort of balance and technique to contribute as a regular.
In a year where valuable offseason practice reps have been eradicated, inexperienced players find themselves behind the eight ball. This is especially true for those playing on the offensive line, where mastering one’s footwork, leverage, hand usage and other position-specific skills doesn’t happen overnight.
All of which points to Jared Veldheer eventually returning in a swingman role to preserve the 33-year-old, who last year proved to still possess ample strength and movement to keep Rodgers out of harm’s way.
When called upon, the journeyman didn’t give up a single sack, hit or pressure in two games versus Detroit and Seattle, where he either started or played the lion’s share of snaps.
At a shredded 6’8”, 321 pounds, Veldheer uses his length to his advantage by getting low and rocking his man with the initial jab. In addition, the grizzled vet has the ingrained knowledge to successfully read and react to his adversary.
That know-how is worth its weight in gold and there should be no reason to believe that the front office doesn’t recognize how invaluable Veldheer’s presence will be on a Rodgers-led squad hellbent on winning the NFC North and bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to where it belongs.——————
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.