Picking Lane Taylor Over Josh Sitton Was The Right Call

Guard Lane Taylor signed a three-year, $16.5 million extension over Labor Day weekend, solidifying his place on the Packers’ offensive line.

It’s the likely conclusion to a storyline that began one year ago, when the Packers surprisingly released mainstay guard Josh Sitton on cutdown day. At the time, the reaction was mixed.

  • Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus wrote, “Sitton is at the age where you can expect to see a decline in play, and that decline may have already started in 2015.”
  • Bob McGinn wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Sitton’s release was “a gross miscalculation, one of the worst the Packers have been guilty of in many, many years.”
  • My colleague Jon Meerdink wrote that “guard play will not be the salvation or damnation of the Packers in 2016.

Let’s recap everything that’s happened so far. Did the Packers make the right decision?

Taylor stumbled in his first game action, but recovers

After the conclusion of the 2013 NFL Draft, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel posted a round-up of the players Green Bay signed as undrafted free agents. At the bottom of the list was Lane Taylor’s name.

“Lane Taylor, G, Oklahoma State: 6-3, 324, 5.35. Strong, with 31 reps on the bench.”

Three months later, starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending ACL tear during the Packers’ Family Night scrimmage. The offensive line’s depth is tested, as Green Bay is also without their rookie fourth-round pick JC Tretter.

Taylor made the initial 53-man roster as the lone guard backup to starters Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, beating out Patrick Lewis.

A year later, Taylor saw his first extensive game action. Five plays into a primetime game on the road against the New Orleans Saints, right guard T.J. Lang injured his ankle and missed the rest of the game.

Taylor stepped in, and it didn’t go very well. Bob McGinn was especially critical of Taylor’s performance:

Maybe Lane Taylor deserves the benefit of the doubt. Tossed in at RG after T.J. Lang (ankle) was lost five plays in, Taylor probably hasn't had more than a handful of reps with the first team all fall in practice. Still, it's a performance business, and based on Taylor's 63 snaps it looked like he can't play. Of the seven "bad" runs for the offense, he was involved in four. He'd step, fail to get his second foot down and give up bad penetration. Backup DT Tyrunn Walker blew up Taylor on the failed fourth and 1. He made the team in 2013 because of size and competitiveness, not athleticism. His pass protection (two pressures) was more acceptable, but even there he seemed to be grabby with his hands.

After the game, a personnel man agreed with McGinn’s assessment of Taylor, “He can't play. He was stepping and not getting his second foot down. In pass pro he was always grabbing with his hands."

It all clicked for Taylor in the 2015 offseason

Then, everything changed. By August 2015, McGinn writes that Taylor “looks like a different player” after spending the offseason in the weight room.

His teammate Sitton had high praise for Taylor, too.

“I feel comfortable saying [Taylor] could go start for most teams in this league,” Sitton said. “If something were to happen to T.J. or me, I think he could step right in and do great for us.”

Taylor made his first career start in Week 13 against the Detroit Lions when Lang couldn’t play, and covered Sitton’s spot at left guard in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings when Sitton slid to left tackle to replace David Bakhtiari.

The next offseason, Taylor signed a two-year, $4.15 million extension that makes him the only guard with significant game experience signed past the 2016-2017 season. The Packers head into the 2016’s training camp with both Sitton and Lang on the last year of their contracts.

Bob McGinn reported just before 2016’s camp gets underway that Sitton, the seventh highest paid guard in the NFL at $6.85 million, could “shoot well up the charts with [a] tremendous season.”

However, general manager Ted Thompson wasn’t interested in negotiating a contract extension for either of his starting guards. T.J. Lang would report after Sitton’s release that the Packers wanted to rework younger players’ contracts during the season, and that both his and Sitton’s contract negotiations would be put “on hold.”

Sitton’s released, and Taylor held his own at left guard

The Packers released Sitton before the start of the 2016 season. The 31-year-old guard quickly signed a three-year deal worth $21.75 million with the Chicago Bears.

Amidst the confusion surrounding Sitton’s release, McCarthy said he was sure Taylor would be fine in Sitton’s place. “I have all the confidence in the world in Lane,” McCarthy said. “He’s earned this opportunity.”

Sitton meanwhile struggled to stay healthy in his first season with the Bears. An ankle injury kept him out of three games, and a nagging back injury limited his effectiveness.

With suddenly high expectations going into the season, Taylor succeeded on nearly every front. “Though he’s not the overwhelming presence Sitton was,” Meerdink wrote after the season concluded, “Taylor capably held his own throughout all 19 of his starts, counting playoffs.”

But the storm hadn’t quite cleared for Taylor. Mock drafts suggested the Packers would select one of the two top guard prospects in the first round – Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp or Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk.

Instead, Green Bay waited until the sixth round before selecting South Florida’s Kofi Amichia. Amichia was cut after the preseason and signed to the team’s practice squad.

Was it the right call?

The three-year contract will pay Taylor up to $16.5 million through 2020. Compared to the deals Sitton and Lang signed with their new clubs, the 27-year-old (he turns 28 in November) has the most team-friendly contract:

  • Taylor (31 at the end of the contract): 3 years, $16.5 million
  • T.J. Lang (32 at the end of the contract): 3 years, $28.5 million, $19 million guaranteed
  • Josh Sitton (33 at the end of the contract): 3 years, $21.0 million, $10 million guaranteed

In basketball or baseball, an individual’s performance can be isolated from the rest of their team and evaluated in a vacuum. It’s not the case with football, and specifically on the offensive line.

Just how do you judge the quality of an offensive lineman? Unless you’ve played the position in high school, college or at a professional level, it’s hard to understand the nuances and indicators that a lineman is good or bad.

Browns guard Joel Bitonio was asked in 2014 at the Senior Bowl what makes a good offensive lineman. His response? “To me, being an offensive lineman is being an offensive lineman,” he said. “There are different technical aspects and sizes, but just being a good offensive lineman is the biggest thing.”

When Taylor took over Sitton’s spot last season, the Packers offense didn’t miss a beat. Ultimately, the best compliment an offensive lineman can get from the average fan is that they didn’t give up any bad plays or penalties. That’s exactly what Taylor did in his first season as a starter.