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A Good NFL Center is a Thinking Man's Lineman, Says Birk

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A Good NFL Center is a Thinking Man's Lineman, Says Birk

Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk. Photo by Brian Carriveau of Cheesehead TV.

NEW ORLEANS––Seeing as it appears Jeff Saturday will call it career and retire in the near future, the Green Bay Packers have to go about finding the long-term solution at the center position this offseason.

On Friday, Saturday told a radio station in Indianapolis, where he spent the first 13 years of his career, that he would be retiring after the Pro Bowl.

“We’ll finish it with sunsets in Hawaii and call it a much better career than I would have anticipated,” Saturday is quoted as saying.

In a stunt that's gotten a fair amount of publicity, Saturday joined the AFC huddle in Sunday's Pro Bowl for one final snap with his old teammate Peyton Manning, even though the veteran center was technically representing the Packers and the NFC.

Apparently, that's the end of the line for Saturday, and the Packers must move on. Maybe Evan Dietrich-Smith is the center of the future. Maybe it's draft choice come April.

However they decide to address the position, the Packers must decide what type of player and what kind of center they want.

Someone who knows a thing or two about playing center in the NFL is Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens who will be gunning for his first Super Bowl ring this upcoming Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

Birk is a Harvard graduate, a 15-year veteran, a six-time Pro Bowler and was a thorn in the side of Packers defensive linemen for his first 11 seasons when he played for the division rival Minnesota Vikings.

When asked what qualities a good center must possess, Birk rattled off a litany of mental characteristics before even getting into the physical side of the game.

"I think to be a center, I think the most important thing is you have to like to study," said Birk. "You have to enjoy the game and the strategies and the nuances, because it's my responsibility as the center as far as the gameplan goes from week to week, and making calls and getting everybody lined up and going in the right direction. You have to be willing to study the playbook all the time."

As if it were an afterthought, Birk then added, "After that, it's probably just like any other lineman, you've got to have quickness and strength and all those things."

With Saturday, the Packers definitely had a center who had the cerebral side of the game under control. He was able to operate Green Bay's no-huddle offense with aplomb and quickly earned the respect of his teammates.

What Saturday didn't have, however, was the physicality he once possessed earlier in his career. On the small side to begin with, Saturday couldn't move a pile in the run game and had a tough time making those reach blocks that Scott Wells was so good at before him.

It can be debated until the cows come home whether the Packers made a mistake in allowing Wells to walk away in free agency following the 2011 season. But that's in the past. The only thing the Packers can do now is look ahead.

With two games left in the regular season, the Packers benched Saturday in favor of Dietrich-Smith, a younger and more mobile alternative. And while "EDS" appeared to acquit himself well, he probably didn't prove beyond a doubt that he's undeniable starter at the position next season either.

One player in his corner is quarterback Aaron Rodgers who has publicly expressed confidence in Dietrich-Smith in interviews over the past season.

But Aaron Rodgers is not Ted Thompson.

Ultimately, it could be the Packers general manager who decides who the next center of the Packers will be. One option is Alabama's Barrett Jones, a potential first-round draft choice come April.

Whether it's Dietrich-Smith, Jones or another rookie, the Packers will have to decide how much stock to put into Birk's version of the ideal NFL center.

Do they go after the studious type or the mauler? Perhaps it's a little bit of both. In a perfect world, they get the entire package.

But things aren't always perfect.

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