Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 5/2/12
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- One of the most important roles on the Green Bay Packers' roster is to protect the blind side of the NFL's Most Valuable Player, right-handed quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But, for the first time in more than a decade, the Packers will enter training camp without Chad Clifton as their starting left tackle. After Clifton was released on April 23 following a failed physical, coach Mike McCarthy no longer had his go-to veteran, the steady presence on the offensive line whose all-important job was to keep Rodgers and Brett Favre before him -- healthy and on his feet in the pocket. But, with general manager Ted Thompson selecting an offensive tackle in the first round of both the 2010 and 2011 drafts, Green Bay had been preparing for this day to come. However, even his best-laid plans haven't worked out as expected. Bryan Bulaga, the 23rd overall pick in 2010, has settled in at right tackle, starting 12 games at that spot in each of his first two NFL seasons. At only 23 years old, Bulaga would have plenty of time to adjust to a move to left tackle now that Clifton is gone, but that won't be happening. "I don't see any reason to go down that road," McCarthy said on draft weekend. "I think Bryan is on the verge of being a Pro Bowler at right tackle. I look for him to have that type of season. He looks great. He was here throughout the winter; I don't think he's even left Green Bay for a long period of time. He looks great." When Bulaga was drafted by the Packers, there was a lot of talk that his arms were too short to play left tackle in the NFL. But investing such a high draft pick on a right tackle is not common. McCarthy and Thompson believed that, short arms or not, Bulaga could eventually be the starter at left tackle once Clifton could no longer hold up. Well, Clifton is gone, but Bulaga seems destined to be Green Bay's right tackle for years to come. Perhaps with the belief Bulaga would be better served at right tackle after a year of observation, the Packers again drafted an offensive tackle in the first round in 2011, selecting Derek Sherrod with the 32nd overall pick. As a rookie, Sherrod was given an opportunity to win the starting job at left guard, but his struggles in training camp led to T.J. Lang overtaking him. Soon, Sherrod was competing for a spot as Clifton's backup at left tackle, but he lost out to Marshall Newhouse, a fifth-round pick in 2010. As injuries began to take their toll on Clifton during the 2011 season, it was Newhouse who stepped in while Sherrod watched from the sideline. When Sherrod did get an opportunity to play in Week 15, only his fifth game appearance of the season, he suffered a broken leg. Though Sherrod is still recovering from that injury, McCarthy expects him to be back and ready to go when training camp opens in late July. However, after starting 13 games last season, Newhouse seems to have an edge over Sherrod and likely will enter camp No. 1 on the depth chart at left tackle. "We're excited about Marshall contributing," McCarthy said. "He contributed last year. Derek (Sherrod) is fighting through his medical situation. He's improving. So you'll have competition there. I really like what I see in Marshall." There is a new addition to the team at offensive tackle as well, with Thompson selecting Florida State's Andrew Datko in the seventh round of this year's draft. A four-year starter at left tackle in college, Datko had the talent to be a significantly higher draft pick, but multiple shoulder injuries damaged his stock and led to a long fall down the board. "He's a heck of a football player," McCarthy said of Datko. "Clearly, with his injury situation, he would have had a lot higher grade if it wasn't for his shoulder. Smart. Tough. I know everybody's excited about him. You get into the draft process on when you're going to take your chance medically because that is part of your decision-making. I think he'll be an excellent fit in our offensive line." Datko, whose most recent surgery was in November, said he is 100 percent with both of his shoulders and has been bench pressing and lifting heavy weights since January. "I think I'm back to my original strength," Datko said. "And I'm still getting stronger every day in the weight room. I know Green Bay has the best quarterback in the league, so I'm just getting ready to help protect him. That's my only job, to protect him. I do have the experience from college playing at left tackle, I know how demanding it is." Though it's highly unlikely Datko can show up to training camp as a rookie and beat out Newhouse and Sherrod for the starting spot at left tackle, he could eventually become part of the competition. After all, McCarthy didn't hesitate to use Newhouse despite his supposed pre-draft shortcomings that dropped him to the fifth round. But whomever steps into Clifton's spot at left tackle will have his work cut out for him. With two divisional matchups every year against 2011 NFL sacks leader Jared Allen in Minnesota, plus having to stop Chicago's Julius Peppers and a bevy of other elite pass rushers every week, Rodgers is going to need someone to get ready and get ready fast because the Packers can go only as far as the MVP can take them. Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.
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