The Packers lost a pair of Pro Bowl guards from last training camp, but it’s not the first time that’s happened. Josh Sitton and TJ Lang were great, and their losses need to be replaced, but the Packers proved in 2004 that the franchise could survive losing a pair of Pro Bowl caliber guards when they lost Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera.
Wahle was originally a second-round supplemental pick as a tackle out of Navy in 1998. He disappointed as a tackle and it wasn’t until he was moved to guard in his third season that he really hit stride. For four seasons, he started every game at left guard.
Rivera was selected in the 6th round of the 1996 season, spent the whole year inactive and played in the World League before seeing spot duty in 1997 and eventually taking over a starting role in 1998. He held that job for seven seasons, ending his time with the team with three straight Pro Bowl selections.
By the time they left in 2004, they were widely-regarded as the best guard duo in the NFL.
Rivera signed a 5-year $20 million deal with Dallas. Modest by today’s standards, but at the time his $9 million signing bonus was the largest ever for a guard. You can’t pay that to a 32 year-old offensive lineman with a bad back. Rivera’s back flared up again in Cowboys training camp and he gutted out a couple years, but didn’t play at a Pro Bowl level. He had a couple back surgeries and was out of the league before he even made it halfway through the deal.
Wahle signed with the Panthers shortly after news broke of Rivera. His contract was a 5-year $21 million dollar deal which included a $10 million bonus – breaking the record Rivera held for about a day. Wahle made the Pro Bowl in his first year with the Panthers, but it was primarily due to the name recognition that he gained with the Packers (which is how it goes for o-line). His play didn’t live up to his pay and he was cut three years into his five year deal.
Was letting two top guards walk the right move? Well, the Packers weren’t going to dole out contracts for the two highest paid guards in the league at the same time (Mike Sherman apparently valued guards as much as Ted Thompson), but could they have kept one of them? Both players experience a drop in their play after leaving and neither of them played out their over-sized contracts. From a value perspective, the Packers seem to have made the right choice, but how did the team fare?
After losing Wahle and Rivera, the Packers signed veteran guards Adrian Klemm and Matt O’Dwyer as free agents, both of whom were past their primes. They drafted Will Whitticker in the 7th round (who had a surprisingly effective season) and rotated Scott Wells in the guard mix as well. It was a makeshift interior line and played mediocre, but it didn’t really matter – Javon Walker and Ahman Green (along with his top two backups – Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher) had season-ending injuries early in the year, dooming them to a 4-12 record.
The next year, they drafted Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz, who played serviceable to solid roles until Josh Sitton and TJ Lang eventually took their jobs.
Sitton came from UCF as a converted tackle to play at a high level from day one. Lang, a converted tackle from Eastern Michigan, took a couple years to get his head on straight before he started dominating. Like Rivera and Wahle before them, they came to be known as the best guard tandem in the league.
Just before last season, amid rumors of contract grumblings, the Packers unexpectedly cut Josh Sitton. He promptly inked a three-year, $21 million contact with the Bears, including a $10 million signing bonus. That’s a lot for a guard, but the brevity of the deal may allow Sitton to play it out. Honestly, though, his body is held together by duct tape and raw manliness at this point. He gutted out a tough season for the Bears, starting 12 games, but appears to be nearing the end, much like Rivera.
Lang is younger, like Wahle, but no spring chicken – he will turn 30 in September. Also like Wahle, he received a deal that was just too rich to match – three years, $28.5 million (with $19 million guaranteed) is just too much for a guard. Let the Lions do that.
The Packers had Sitton’s replacement waiting in the wings, with Lane Taylor stepping right in and playing so good that no one noticed (not that he deserved any Pro Bowl votes or anything like that). This year, they have to replace Lang. No one is sure who will get that order, but they have options, which is reassuring.
The Packers were right to let Rivera and Wahle go for the deals they got back in the day. It wouldn’t have been wise to give guys that kind of money at that stage in their careers. This year isn’t much different.
I think they cut Sitton a year too soon and lost a comp pick, but they were going to lose him this year anyways (and the way things worked out, it looks like we’ll have plenty of comp picks). With Lane Taylor’s performance, they can feel good that at least one of their guard spots is set. Now they have to fill in the other.
The last time they lost an amazing guard tandem, they had some decent guards for a few years until they got two more amazing guards. Now they have a solid guard and a question mark. I have faith they will fill in the blank and their cap will stay healthy.
It’s can make us a little nervous in the short term, but history shows us it’s the right move for the long term.