GREEN BAY — He did not lie.
No, when Aaron Rodgers stood there last week, surrounded by a swirl of lights, cameras and questions, and expressed his confidence in his would-be next starting right guard — Don Barclay, Kyle Murphy, or Lucas Patrick, whoever it ends up being — the Green Bay Packers’ two-time NFL MVP quarterback wasn’t saying something that was fundamentally untrue.
He was being a good teammate. He was saying what he needed to say. He was publicly backing that threesome —and insisting Packers general manager Ted Thompson need not spend a high draft pick on a guard — because that was the right thing to do as the team’s longest-tenured player and unquestioned leader.
“I don’t know that we need a guy in the draft. I really don’t,” Rodgers said as the offseason program kicked off last Tuesday. “I like the guys that we have, and I think there’s going to be a great competition between those guys.
“Obviously Donnie’s played a lot of football for us, and I was really happy to see him come back. Not only is he a great friend and a great locker room guy, but he can play. And then the two young guys with Lucas and Kyle, I think they offer depth for us. And the biggest jump that I tell you guys every year and you guys see, (are between) Years 1 and 2 and 2 and 3. A lot of things happen.
“Having an offseason to refresh and rebuild your body back is huge for (Murphy and Patrick). I look for them to make jumps and to push Donnie. We always add it seems like every year a receiver to the mix and a lineman to the mix who can help us, and I’m sure it will be no different this year. But I like the guys we got.”
But don’t be thrown off by what Rodgers said. What he didn’t say — because it’d do him no good now — was that he was downright irate when the Packers didn’t pony up to keep Pro Bowl right guard T.J. Lang, who departed for a three-year, $28.5 million deal ($19 million guaranteed) with his hometown Detroit Lions after the Packers’ final offer, in the words of one of Lang’s ex-teammates, was “beyond disrespectful.”
And so, while he may believe that one of those returnees can man the position, and that Thompson doesn’t need to use the 29th overall pick on Lang’s replacement, the truth of the matter is Rodgers would much rather have Lang among his personal protectors instead of seeing him protect Matthew Stafford on the other side of Lake Michigan.
Before Lang’s departure, Rodgers had advocated for him to be re-signed, saying in an ESPN Wisconsin interview a week earlier that he and Lang were “real close” and that players like Lang and departed fullback John Kuhn “should be lifers. They should be lifetime Green Bay guys, because they stand for everything a Green Bay Packer stands for — toughness, grit, intelligence, a dedication to the team and community. (They should) have a chance to go out on their own terms from Green Bay.”
Now, Rodgers will line up in 2017 without the two Pro Bowl guards who’d fortified the middle of the offensive line for over half of his time as the Packers’ starting quarterback: Josh Sitton, unceremoniously dumped at the end of training camp last year and now entering his second season with the rival Chicago Bears, and Lang, who would’ve stayed in Green Bay had the team made the same offer last fall as it made as its final offer last month.
Thompson hasn’t always hit home runs with his offensive line draft picks — even without his major leg injury as a rookie, 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod may never have panned out, for example — but he certainly gets a lot of swings at the plate. Of his 12 drafts in Green Bay, he’s taken at least two offensive linemen in eight of them.
In 2007, he took only Allen Barbre in the fourth round; in 2012, he took only Andrew Datko in the seventh; in 2014, he took only center Corey Linsley in the fifth. Remarkably, 2015 is the only year in which Thompson didn’t select a single offensive lineman.
As Linsley proved in 2014 and David Bakhtiari has proven since becoming the starting left tackle as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2013, rookie linemen can play — and play well — in their first seasons.
Whether the Packers will need one to do so in 2017 will hinge in part on whether Rodgers is right about Barclay, Murphy or Patrick. At the annual NFL meetings last month, coach Mike McCarthy — someone who also was angered by the team’s failure to keep Lang — expressed confidence that line coach James Campen and the holdover starters would get Lang’s replacement, whoever it might be, ready to play.
“James Campen, they don’t come any better than him, in my opinion. He does a tremendous job — and it’s really not as much with the veteran players, it’s with the rookies,” McCarthy said. “Everything we do in our offseason program is tailored to the rookies, and we really put a lot into the offseason programs, especially at that (offensive line) position. Because that position, probably like quarterback, takes a little longer than other positions.
“So we have the landscape for young guys to develop.”