GREEN BAY – It took all of 30 offensive snaps in Sunday’s regular-season opener for the Packers to tap into Zach Tom’s versatility.
After playing a little bit of everywhere during training camp, the rookie offensive lineman was thrust into action early in the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings after Jon Runyan exited with a concussion.
The 6-foot-4, 304-pound Tom was up to the challenge. He not only sealed off Vikings outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum to open a gap for Aaron Jones on his 29-yard run but also helped push AJ Dillon into the end zone on his 2-yard touchdown run.
There were some teachable moments in pass protection, but it was a promising start for a rookie playing in a pinch.
“I thought he did a really nice job,” Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. “Obviously there was one play where he got beat pretty quickly in pass protection, but I thought all in all, I thought he competed, he knew what to do. And I thought you could really tell it wasn’t too big for him.”
The second-effort play on Dillon’s TD was the moment that stood out to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, too, before adding Tom is a “a high-effort kid, smart kid.”
A three-year starter at Wake Forest, Tom split his college career between left tackle (23 starts) and center (14 center). To this point, center is pretty much the only position Tom has yet to play during his brief time with the Packers.
During camp, the rookie fourth-round pick lined up at both tackle positions, while also occasionally rotating in at left guard with the No. 1 offense. He finished the preseason with 125 offensive snaps.
Tom came out of Sunday’s game feeling there was still plenty to work on, but his presence was important for a young offensive line playing without David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins.
With their starting tackles inactive, the Packers went into the game with only their three rookies – Tom, Sean Rhyan and Rasheed Walker – suited up behind the starting offensive line of Yosh Nijman, Runyan, Josh Myers, Jake Hanson and Royce Newman. Only Nijman is older than 25.
For as young as the O-line is, Tom was grateful for all the reps he banked playing between Nijman and Myers during camp.
“They played me everywhere, so I knew going into the game that I had to be ready to play any position,” Tom said. “It definitely did help because I did play a lot of left guard in camp. It helped a lot.”
The next-man-up role has been a rite of passage for many young Packers offensive linemen. T.J. Lang, Lane Taylor and JC Tretter stood that post before becoming permanent starters. Evan Smith and Lucas Patrick also carved out lengthy NFL careers thanks in part to their interior versatility.
Jenkins was part of that process, too, for a short time. In 2019, the then-rookie spelled Taylor for 1½ weeks before the veteran left guard tore his biceps. Jenkins has started all 36 regular-season games in which he’s played ever since.
While named to the Pro Bowl as a guard in 2020, Jenkins also has made starts at tackle and center for Green Bay. When asked about Tom’s versatility last month, Jenkins saw many parallels in the 23-year-old newcomer.
“I feel like he can do it,” Jenkins said of Tom possibly playing all five positions. “I’ve seen the way he moves, how fluid he is in his movement and his footwork. Just seeing him playing center, left tackle, right tackle and some guard in OTAs, seeing how he moves at different positions, I feel like he’s definitely a guy that can do it.”
Playing in a difficult and noisy road environment at U.S. Bank Stadium, Myers acknowledged it was a tough spot for a rookie like Tom to make his first NFL regular-season appearance.
With Runyan in the concussion protocol, the Packers may need to turn to Tom again Sunday night against the Chicago Bears. If called upon, the rookie says he’ll be ready, understanding the urgency involved with hosting an NFC North adversary.
“It’s really important,” Tom said. “This is the NFL. You can’t let a loss turn into two. We just gotta go out there and be ourselves.”