GREEN BAY — Cole Van Lanen sensed the change roughly halfway through his rookie season last year.
He still hadn’t played a single down of regular-season NFL football — and would wind up playing just one single, solitary snap all year — but that’s when something clicked for the Green Bay Packers offensive lineman and local boy trying to make good for the team he grew up cheering for.
Suddenly, the former University of Wisconsin and Bay Port standout no longer felt like the unsure, what-have-I-gotten-myself-into sixth-round pick he’d been during training camp and the 92 preseason snaps he played across three exhibition games during the summer.
He knew where to go. He knew who to block. He understood the playbook.
Most importantly, he believed in himself — like he had while starting 19 games at left tackle during his final two seasons at UW (earning first-team all-Big Ten Conference honors as a senior), and like he had while twice being named first-team All-State at Bay Port, whose football stadium sits 8½ miles from Lambeau Field.
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And so, as Van Lanen lined up with the No. 1 offense at right tackle during the Packers’ first open-to-the-media organized team activity practice of the offseason earlier this week, he did so feeling a sense of belonging that hadn’t always been there last year.
“Confidence, and then also technique,” Van Lanen replied when asked what he’d taken most from his rookie season. “I think for me, (it’s about) being confident. The NFL’s the best in the world, and you’ve got to play like you’re the best in the world to compete. And I think if you can play with confidence and you can play with good technique, you can do really good things.”
He’ll need both this year. Van Lanen is one of nine offensive linemen Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has selected over the past three drafts, including three rookies in this year’s class. (Of the nine, only one is no longer with the organization.)
“Competition’s great. I think it makes us all better as players, and that’s what this game is,” Van Lanen said. “At the end of the day, all you can do is your best and everything else is out of your control. So that’s all I’m doing.”
At the same time, a strong offseason would put Van Lanen in position to compete in training camp for the starting right tackle job, which is vacant after veteran starter Billy Turner was released in a cost-cutting move and veteran backup Dennis Kelly wasn’t re-signed as a free agent.
On Tuesday, the No. 1 group that lined up in front of backup quarterback Jordan Love (with Aaron Rodgers not attending the first week of OTAs) had Yosh Nijman at left tackle, Jon Runyan at left guard, Josh Myers at center, Royce Newman at right guard and Van Lanen at right tackle.
“I think it just shows that I’ve improved in my game a little bit. I just have to keep improving,” Van Lanen said of getting the first-team nod. “I think that’s the biggest thing for me. Yeah, being in there with the 1s, I get to play with the guys that are out there and get that groove going. But it’s just one step at a time. I just try to get better every day.”
The competition will get even tougher when five-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who missed nearly all of last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee during a practice Dec. 31, 2020, and Pro Bowl left guard/fill-in left tackle Elgton Jenkins, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee last Nov. 21 at Minnesota, return to action.
Jenkins, who could start the year on the physically unable to perform list, can play all five positions across the line and would be a logical option at right tackle when healthy because of that versatility and Runyan’s solid play at left guard.
Nijman, who started eight games at left tackle when Bakhtiari and Jenkins were both sidelined, appears to be the leading candidate to be the swing tackle when everyone is healthy.
While Nijman got all that playing time, Van Lanen spent all season on the practice squad. He was called up to the active roster three times in December as a practice-squad elevation — for the team’s Dec. 19 game at Baltimore, and home games Dec. 25 against Cleveland and Jan. 2 against Minnesota — but did not play in the first two of those games despite being in uniform.
His lone snap came at Lambeau Field against the Vikings, when he was on the field in the victory formation for the final kneel-down of a 37-10 victory.
Of course, it’s now all about what Van Lanen does moving forward, and it won’t be until the pads come on in camp and the Packers play their three preseason games that the linemen will get their truest evaluations.
But both offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich, who was promoted from offensive line coach during the offseason, and line coach Luke Butkus, who took over that room from Stenavich, said they are able to gauge their young players’ development even during the helmets-and-shorts workouts of the spring.
“You can kind of tell if they can handle the assignments, (whether) they’re on top of who they need to block and what their pass protection assignments are and just the overall scheme,” Stenavich said. “But then, once you get the pads on, that’s when you can really see if they’re physically ready to play. So, you’ve got to assess the mental side, and then you can assess the physical side once you get rolling into real football.”
Added Butkus: “You get a feel for their personality, you get a feel for what they’re used to doing as far as position, how they were taught a little bit, and just how they work and what they pick up mentally. Obviously, no pads, so you don’t see the hitting anymore. But this game’s about movement nowadays. They’ve got to be able to move.”
But for the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Van Lanen, as important as movement and strength and technique may be — he spent the offseason at home in Green Bay working out at Synergy Sports to improve his flexibility, power and agility — he still believes confidence in himself will be just as vital.
“Now that I can play confident and play my game, I think I’m a completely different player,” Van Lanen said. “Going against (Pro Bowl defensive tackle) Kenny Clark every day really helps someone out, and I really think I found my groove (during the second half of last season). So I’m really excited for this year.”