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Packers’ offensive line is built to last

By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — At some point this season or next, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson will reward MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers with one of the richest contracts in NFL history.

To help insure the investment pays off, Thompson has been building a foundation that could keep Rodgers standing at least as long as the guy who preceded him.

In just 21/2 years, Thompson has constructed a wall of defense in front of Rodgers that not only is built to protect his prized possession but also is built to last. Four of the five starters are under contract for at least two more years, and three of those four are locked up for three or more years.

“I think they’ve done a great job to solidify the offensive line and make it a unit they can depend on and trust in,” said center Jeff Saturday, a 37-year-old free agent signed in the off-season as a stopgap measure in the middle. “Longevity on the offensive line is huge. It just builds consistency through an offense.”

Thompson added probably his final touch before extending Rodgers’ contract with a four-year, $20.8 million contract extension with left guard T.J. Lang. That follows a five-year, $33.75 million extension he gave right guard Josh Sitton.

Having drafted right tackle Bryan Bulaga in the first round and left tackle Marshall Newhouse in the fifth round of the 2010 draft and backup left tackle Derek Sherrod in the first round of the 2011 draft, Thompson is deep in young, developing talent.

The next starters whose contracts are up are Newhouse and Saturday after the 2013 season.

“Locking up T.J. was great,” said Bulaga, who has three years left on his deal. “We have a chance to really get things going having these same guys around for the next couple years.

“We have to make things happen. I think we jell well as a unit; it’s just a matter of going out and playing. That’s what it comes down to. You look at it and we have guys who have played a lot of football and are still young, so you can’t be upset about that.”

Of the starters other than Saturday, Sitton is the oldest at 26, Lang and Newhouse are 24 and Bulaga and Sherrod are 23. Sitton has started 54 games, Lang 20, Newhouse 13 and Sherrod none.

Saturday saw the value in keeping an offensive line together in Indianapolis, where he was quarterback Peyton Manning’s center for 10 seasons. During the 13 years Manning started, his offensive line was generally a constant.

He had two right tackles (Adam Meadows and Ryan Diem) over a 12-year period, two left tackles (Tarik Glenn and Tony Ugoh) over an 11-year period and two left guards (Steve McKinney and Ryan Lilja) for nine of his seasons.

“You know what you have, you know what to expect,” Saturday said. “There’s not always pieces and parts you have to move around. I think that gives the offense confidence they can go in other areas and make things happen in other places.

“You have the reigning MVP behind you that’s the guy who carries your team. You have to protect him, and you have to make him comfortable.”

Lang said that a big reason he decided to take the contract offer from the Packers rather than wait until the off-season and test free agency was a chance to continue playing with the guys he knows.

Sitton came in during the ‘08 season and Lang came in the following year, and the two have come to represent more of what the Packers are looking for in guards. They both weigh about 315 pounds and play the game with power, a vast change from the type of guards West Coast offenses sought two decades ago.

Coach Mike McCarthy has talked a lot about building from the middle out with his team, and signing Sitton and Lang to long-term deals follows that plan. It used to be that the West Coast philosophy was that you spent all the money on tackles and skimped on the guards, but with the development of big, agile defensive tackles, fortifying the middle has become critical.

In Lang’s case, getting a chance to see how this offensive line develops was well worth giving up a chance at free agency.

“We’ve got such a close-knit group of guys that everybody loves each other,” Lang said. “We’re all just a big group of brothers in here. With Josh being one of my closer friends and Evan (Dietrich-Smith) being one of my close friends, Bryan, we’re all going to be here for a little while longer.

“The first thing I told my agent when we started talking was, I don’t care what happens, I just want to stay here. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I’d rather be happy here than test the market, see what’s out there and be miserable somewhere else. “

If there is a risky side to pouring so much money into the starting offensive line is that it has left the backup positions vulnerable. Dietrich-Smith will probably back up all three interior positions, but Sherrod, who was slated to back up both tackle positions, has been slow to recover from the gruesome broken leg he suffered in December.

Sherrod could start the season on the physically unable to perform list. Thompson is counting on inexperienced Herb Taylor rookies such as Andrew Datko, Tommie Draheim and Don Barclay to fill potentially vital spots.

In salary cap football, that is the risk a general manager chooses to take. If Thompson is going to spend big on his starters, then chances are he’s going to have to pay less for his backups. In Thompson’s view, it’s worth it to make a long-term investment in his starters to protect his prize.

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