The Green Bay Packers have a number of questions to answer this offseason but in terms of the offensive side of the ball, none of the those decisions may be more important than the decision at center.
Last season, the position was held by Evan Dietrich-Smith, a former undrafted free agent from Idaho State, who despite not having ideal size for an NFL center, was tough, scrappy, assignment sure and did a solid job as a 16-game starter.
Yet, the question remains did the Packers see enough from Dietrich-Smith to sign him to a long-term deal that entrenches him as the starting center for the foreseeable future?
That question and more will be examined as today continues the Packers Guru position by position breakdown of the Packers needs heading towards free agency and the 2014 NFL Draft with a particular focus on the offensive line.
Under Contract – Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, T.J Lang, Don Barclay, J.C. Tretter, Derrick Sherrod, Lane Taylor
Free Agents – Evan Dietrich-Smith, Marshall Newhouse
For the first time in quite a while, the Packers have a chance to have some real stability along the offensive line. Regardless of what happens in free agency, Green Bay will be brining back both of its starting guards, both starting tackles and top backups for each position.
Bulaga is coming off a serious knee injury that robbed him of the entire 2013 season but he should be healthy once training camp roles around and with the emergence of Bakhtiari at left tackle, Green Bay should have a very good group of tackles with Sherrod and Barclay as the top backups.
At guard, Sitton finished his fifth as a starter and was once again the Packers best offensive lineman. Lang, also had a solid season and finished his third season as a starter. Both players are in their primes at age 27 and 26, respectively and both have contracts that last through the 2016 season.
Therefore, with both the tackle and guard positions well stocked entering 2014, the big unknown facing the Packers offensive line at center.
Currently, there appears to be two very realistic options for the Packers at center – re-sign Dietrich-Smith or move on to Tretter.
Tretter, a fourth-round pick in 2013 out of Cornell, is a converted tackle that the Packers believe has all the makings of a starting caliber center. Size wise, he definitely looks the part at 6-4, 307-pounds, which gives him an edge of Dietrich-Smith, who stands 6-2 and weighs in around 300 pounds.
Not only is Tretter big, strong and athletic, he scored a 29 on the Wonderlic Intelligence Test administered to NFL draft prospects, indicating he has the mental capacity to handle playing center.
Unfortunately, the questions surrounding Tretter are mostly health related. For all intents and purposes, he missed the entire 2013 season thanks for a broken fibula. He was able to return to the active roster late in the season but never did anything more than practice.
“That practice time was huge for him,” McCarthy said to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Not only for himself, but everybody said, ‘This kid has a chance.’
“It’s always interesting when a young lineman comes into the practice environment. Then you can hear the linebackers go, ‘Man, that guy’s got strong hands.’ JC was felt at the end of the year.”
However, despite McCarthy’s strong praise of Tretter, he refused to commit to him as the team’s starting center saying, “I’m going to have to see more,” McCarthy said. “I like the young man. He’s made of the right stuff. We’ll see what happens.”
Even though McCarthy stopped short of naming Tretter the starter, it sounds like he could get a chance to compete for the position, regardless of what happens with Dietrich-Smith.
Competition breeds success and there is nothing wrong with letting two guys battle it out for the job, the Packers just need to decide if it will be Dietrich-Smith that Tretter is trying to unseat compared to another free agent or NFL draftee?
There are options available on the free agent market, namely Alex Mack, the Cleveland Browns center, who is viewed by many of one of the best in the game. However, his price tag is sure to be more than the Packers are wiling to spend.
That leaves them with the option of re-signing Dietrich-Smith or exploring the draft.
There is a pair of solid center prospects available in the 2014 draft headlined by Ohio State’s Corey Linsley and Tennessee’s James Stone. Each has solid potential and should available in the middle rounds of the draft. Linsley probably will come off the board on day two, while Stone is more likely be selected on day three.
However, with so many other needs that should be addressed come draft day, from this perspective it makes more sense for the Packers to re-sign Dietrich-Smith and let him compete with Tretter.
Ultimately, I’d be surprised if Dietrich-Smith didn’t win out, so if the team is able to re-sign him without breaking the bank, it should be done in a heartbeat.
The former Idaho State product may not be an elite NFL center but he is more than capable of being a reliable starter and finally establishing some sense of continuity along the offensive line from one season to the next would be a good thing for Aaron Rodgers and the offense as a whole.
At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to money as it always does. But here’s hoping that as long as the money is reasonable, Dietrich-Smith will be back in Green Bay, giving the Packers the depth and continuity their offensive line has often lacked during the McCarthy years.