GREEN BAY – With the Green Bay Packers cutting ties with Chad Clifton Monday after the veteran left tackle failed his physical following offseason back surgery, the team will kick off the season with someone else protecting its quarterback’s blind side for the first time since 2000.
That year, Clifton, a rookie second-round pick, took over as the starter for an ineffective Mike Wahle in the seventh game of the season and never relinquished the job. Sidelined by a career-threatening hip injury after a cheap shot by Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp in 2002, Clifton came back and missed only two starts over the next six seasons. An ankle injury cost him four games in 2009, but he started all 20 games (including playoffs) during the team’s Super Bowl XLV-winning season in 2010 before hamstring and back injuries limited him to just six regular-season starts last year.
As of now, the Packers’ options are 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga, 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod and 2010 fifth-round pick Marshall Newhouse, who would seem to be the early leader for the job.
Newhouse essentially redshirted as a rookie in 2010, not playing a single regular-season snap before landing on injured reserve with a back injury suffered in practice on Dec. 22. With the offseason wiped out by labor unrest, not a lot was expected of Newhouse when training camp opened last summer, but he impressed immediately, and when Bulaga went down in Week 3 in Chicago, Newhouse started the next two games at right tackle.
When Clifton went down in Atlanta Oct. 9 with a hamstring injury, Newhouse shifted to left tackle and Sherrod came in at right tackle. Newhouse then started the next 11 games at left tackle, and while Clifton started the regular-season finale against Detroit on Jan. 1 in an attempt to shake off the rust and started the team’s season-ending Jan. 15 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants, he was benched in favor of Newhouse after ineffective play.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Newhouse played 966 snaps and was charged with nine sacks, eight quarterback hits and a team-high 41 pressures allowed. Still, he protected NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers’ blind side effectively when many thought an injury to Clifton would be the end of the Packers’ hopes.
“Starting the season out, I didn’t look at Marshall the way I look at him now,” Rodgers admitted on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison late in the season. “I look at him now as a guy who really has a strong legitimate chance to be the left tackle of the future. I think he has the personality makeup to do that, the athletic ability to do that, the feet and the smarts to be a very, very solid left tackle for us.”
Bulaga also has said in the past that he’d like an audition at left tackle, but it’s unclear whether the team wants to keep him on the right side or would consider a switch.
Sherrod, who suffered a broken leg that required immediate surgery in Kansas City on Dec. 18, is making progress, coach Mike McCarthy said at the annual NFL Meetings last month.
“He’s there every day. He looks better every time I see him,” McCarthy said. “I obviously haven’t seen him since I’ve been down here (in Florida). They’re projecting probably training camp, so we’ll know more when we get to OTAs. Hopefully, he can get out there in June and do something.”
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