van lanen photo 5-4

Sixth-round selection Cole Van Lanen played in 45 games with 19 starts at left tackle for UW.

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GREEN BAY — Brian Gutekunst has spoken time and time again about how much of an influence his predecessor as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager, Ted Thompson, had on him. You can not only see it in some of Gutekunst’s core roster-building tenets, but hear it in his vocabulary, too.

More than a few times, Gutekunst has repeated one of Thompson’s favorite lines about the importance of finding quality offensive and defensive linemen. “The good Lord only made so many big guys,” Thompson used to say. In fact, after the 2016 NFL draft, Thompson even expounded on his tried-and-true one-liner.

“Defensive linemen, offensive linemen, they’re hard to find. Linebackers and running backs are hard to find, too, but the combination of being big enough and strong enough and athletic enough to compete in the NFL, those are hard combinations to come up with,” Thompson said then. “You don’t have to be big to play in the NFL, but it helps. And we think that’s a good thing.”

Before last year’s draft, it was reasonable to wonder if Gutekunst perhaps had forgotten how much Thompson valued the big dudes up front. In his first two drafts as GM, Gutekunst had only drafted two offensive linemen: Elgton Jenkins, a 2019 second-round pick from Mississippi State who has turned out to be one of Gutekunst’s two best draft choices, earning his first Pro Bowl selection last season; and Cole Madison, a 2018 fifth-round pick from Washington State who never played a down after missing his rookie season to concentrate on his mental health and suffering a torn ACL in 2019.

By comparison, Thompson, who passed away in January at age 68, chose at least two offensive linemen in eight of the 13 drafts he presided over in Green Bay. And only once, in 2015, did he complete a draft without having taken a single lineman.

Of his first-round picks as GM, Thompson used most of them on defense (9 of 12) but did pick offensive linemen in 2010 (Bryan Bulaga) and 2011 (Derek Sherrod). He also invested two second-rounders and one third-rounder on the line but had most of his success with his fourth- and fifth-round picks.

Consider how many top-flight Day 3 offensive linemen Thompson drafted: Josh Sitton (fourth round, 2008), T.J. Lang (fourth round, 2009), JC Tretter (fourth round, 2013), David Bakhtiari (fourth round, 2013) and Corey Linsley (fifth round, 2014) have started a combined 542 regular-season games over a combined 44 years of NFL experience with nine Pro Bowl selections and eight All-Pro selections. (All but Sitton and Lang are still playing.)

Thompson did have some misses (Sherrod and 2016 second-round pick Jason Spriggs most notably), but even linemen who achieved less renown turned out to be longtime starters in the league. Four of them — Daryn College, Jason Spitz, Allen Barbre, and Marshall Newhouse — combined to start 303 games and play 39 NFL seasons.

Now it’s time to see what kind of big-guy scouting chops Gutekunst has.

His three offensive line picks during last week’s draft — Ohio State center Josh Myers in the second round, Mississippi’s Royce Newman in the fourth round and the University of Wisconsin’s Cole Van Lanen in the sixth round — marked the second straight year Gutekunst has taken three linemen in the same draft.

Last year, Gutekunst took offensive linemen with three consecutive picks in the sixth round, tabbing Michigan’s Jon Runyan Jr., Oregon’s Jake Hanson and Indiana’s Simon Stepaniak back-to-back-to-back. Runyan was active for all 16 games and played 160 offensive snaps, while Hanson spent the year on the practice squad and Stepaniak was on the physically unable to perform list and injured reserve while recovering from an ACL tear suffered in his final college game.

The Packers also added three more linemen as undrafted rookie free agents: UW’s Jon Dietzen, San Diego State’s Jacob Capra, and Coy Cronk, who spent four seasons at Indiana but had his grad transfer year at Iowa end early because of an ankle injury.

Now, with Linsley and longtime starting guard Lane Taylor having departed in free agency — and with Bakhtiari’s start-of-the-season availability in question after he torn his ACL during a Dec. 31 practice — those newbies will have ample opportunity to compete for roles.

“I think as we get into the beginning of the season, depending on where David is, that versatility with those guys is going to matter quite a bit,” Gutekunst said. “We’ll kind of see how it goes.

Runyan, Hanson and Stepaniak are all interior NFL linemen, even though Runyan played left tackle at Michigan and could possibly play there in a pinch. But Myers (6-foot-5, 310 pounds), Newman (6-5, 310) and Van Lanen (6-4, 305) could play either inside or outside in the NFL.

“We really pride ourselves on the versatility, guys being able to swing back and forth,” Gutekunst said. “Elgton and Billy Turner, their ability to play on the edge and inside (is valuable). And I think both (Newman and Van Lanen) are going to have some of that flexibility, too.

“Obviously Billy and Elgton are two bona fide NFL starters, and these guys got a long ways to go. But I think that they have the skill set where they can develop into that.”

Coach Matt LaFleur also praised his existing linemen for allowing offensive line coach Adam Stenavich and assistant Luke Butkus to plug players in across the line when injuries hit last year, and said he hopes the youngsters can mimic that flexibility.

“I think that’s a big reason we had so much success last year,” LaFleur said. “I credit Adam Stenavich and Luke Butkus for their ability to get our guys in the right positions and then the players themselves.

“Certainly, anytime you add talent like we did over the last three days, that versatility is vital to our success as an offense and as a football team.”

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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