The Green Bay Packers could have more competition than originally expected for the starting jobs on their 2021 offensive line.
Packers offensive line/run game coordinator Adam Stenavich set some lofty expectations for Ben Braden on Thursday when he told reporters he expects the 27-year-old journeyman will contend for a starting job — maybe even a few — in the upcoming season.
“I’m actually really excited about Ben to see what’s going to happen with him because I think he gets a whole offseason under his belt, a couple of preseason games, I think he’s gonna really compete for a starting job at guard or tackle,” Stenavich said Thursday.
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Has Moment Come for Braden’s NFL Takeoff?
Braden has been with the Packers since they signed him to their practice squad on Oct. 21, but he took just five snaps with the offensive line across six games in 2020 and was mostly limited to light work on special teams. He also hadn’t shown much promise in any of his previous NFL stops, including two seasons with the New York Jets and a previous practice-squad stint with the Packers from September to November in 2019.
The Packers, however, elected to roll with Braden as their first-team left tackle on Wednesday during OTA practice while both David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins were away, tipping off just how much confidence Stenavich has in his potential to be a significant contributor in 2021.
“You look at him, he’s a really big guy,” Stenavich said of the 6-foot-6, 329-pound lineman. “He has strength, he has good athleticism, he’s very versatile. Last year, his role, he came in and he was kind of a swing guy for us at guard and tackle. Now it’s just a matter of him being around this offseason, learning the system from installation on forward. ”
Braden was an undrafted talent coming out of Michigan in 2017, but he demonstrated incredible upper body strength for the Wolverines that frequently stifled Big Ten pass rushers despite having mechanical issues in his game. He could also plug it at just about any spot on the offensive line with 19 starts at tackle and 17 at guard over his career, offering the type of versatility the Packers have coveted in frontline blockers.
If Stenavich is right about Braden, it could begin to shine through during the Packers’ mandatory three-time minicamp next week. Bakhtiari won’t be available as he continues to rehab from ACL surgery in January, but Green Bay should be fully stocked up front otherwise and have a good environment for competition. The biggest question now is where — and who — exactly the Packers think he will challenge.
Where Could Braden Challenge for Starting Reps?
Before looking at where Braden could push for playing time, there are a few things we can assume about his role for the Packers in 2021. First, he won’t be challenging established guys like Bakhtiari, Jenkins or right tackle/guard Bily Turner for their starting jobs. Whatever latent abilities the Packers are seeing in Braden behind the scenes, they are not enough to threaten the status of their three best and highest-paid lineman.
Braden will also be competing for a place in a fluid alignment, meaning a starting job one week wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a full-time role. The Packers don’t know whether Bakhtiari, their All-Pro left tackle, will be recovered in time for the start of the season and may need to account for his absence in one or multiple games.
Braden’s best chances to break through are probably at one of the two guard spots. While Green Bay returns right guard Lucas Patrick and Jenkins, the latter could be forced to play left tackle if Bakhtiari is not fully healed for Week 1. The Packers could also turn to either of them at center if second-round rookie Josh Myer is not ready to step into the starting lineup right away.
Either scenario leaves an opening for Braden and other Packers youngsters, such as 2020 sixth-round Jon Runyan Jr. or 2021 fourth-rounder Royce Newman.
At the same time, Patrick didn’t have the best season in 2020 despite starting 17 games, getting relatively low grades from Pro Football Focus as a run blocker (64.2) and pass protector (61.5) and allowing three sacks. Given the Packers could save about $1.96 million by moving on from him, they might be curious to see if two or three of their depth players will outshine him in camp and give them a cap-saving opportunity.