Following Tuesday’s news that rookie offensive lineman J.C. Tretter had broken his ankle during a recent Packers OTA practice, a scary thought entered my mind: What if it was Evan Dietrich-Smith that suffered a freak injury?
A lot of offseason attention has focused upon the restructured offensive line with Bryan Bulaga and Josh Sitton moving over to the left side, but an injury to “EDS” could weak real havoc in the trenches if such a situation were to occur.
There had been speculation that Tretter might be converted from college left tackle to NFL center. Even Tretter himself acknowledged that most pro football personnel types see him as an interior offensive lineman.
But now that Tretter is injured, those plans will be on hold for several months, if they come to fruition at all.
The Packers may regret not taking Alabama center Barrett Jones or USC’s Khaled Holmes in the fourth round when they had the opportunity, but that’s hindsight. All they can do now is move forward and make contingency plans.
The backup center situation is as shaky as it’s been in years for years in Green Bay, and that’s not exactly a good thing at a position that delivers the football and protects the highest-paid player in the NFL every single snap of the game.
For the past two seasons, Evan Dietrich-Smith has backed up Jeff Saturday in 2012 and Scott Wells before that. Jason Spitz was Wells’ understudy basically dating back to when Rodgers took over the starting quarterback job in Green Bay.
As for now, the plan at backup center isn’t so cut and dried. But the Packers need to figure it out, stat. There’s a roster spot at stake.
Not only will the Packers carry a backup center on their 53-man roster, that player also has to be active on game days as part of the 46-man active roster just in case anything were to happen to Dietrich-Smith.
The Packers began to train Greg Van Roten as a center last season, in a situation that bears a striking similarity to that of Tretter. Van Roten was an Ivy League left tackle at Penn and never played center until getting to the NFL.
After coming to Green Bay as an undrafted free agent last season, Van Roten was originally signed to the team’s practice squad after the final cutdown at the end of training camp. When injuries struck, however, he was called up to the 53-man roster at midseason.
Van Roten saw playing time primarily on special teams and occasionally as an extra tight end in the team’s jumbo packages in 2012, but they never needed him at center with both Dietrich-Smith and Saturday in the fold.
The reality is, Van Roten still hasn’t taken a single snap at center in so much as a preseason game. In the unfortunate and hypothetical situation that “EDS” were to get hurt, it would be a major risk for the Packers to rely upon Van Roten over the course of a 16-game season.
In addition to Van Roten, the Packers currently have two true centers on their offseason roster, but each of them are inexperienced and considered longshots to make the team.
Garth Gerhart was signed to the team’s practice squad late last season and later offered a futures contract after the season was over.
Then following the NFL Draft in April, the Packers added another undrafted free agent, Patrick Lewis of Texas A&M, who is an intriguing candidate after serving as the center first for Ryan Tannehill and then Johnny Manziel each of the past two college seasons.
But again, whether either of those players is ready for primetime is uncertain. The Packers might be happy to stash them on the practice squad or even as an eighth or ninth offensive lineman on the 53-man roster, but they’re probably not yet ready for the rigors of the week-in, week-out 16-game season.
T.J. Lang has practiced from time to time as an emergency center, but his experience at the position consists of nothing more than a few practice snaps. Entering his fifth season in the NFL, it might be a little late to get Lang comfortable at the position.
All this uncertainty actually sets up well for Dietrich-Smith and his long-term future with the Packers. He entered the 2013 season as an undrafted free agent and signed his one-year tender offer worth approximately $1.3 million.
Following the 2013 season, Dietrich-Smith is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, but unless some other center steps up in a big, big way, it would be dangerous for the Packers to allow “EDS” to test the open market.
For the time being, the Packers might want to avoid doing any fumble recovery drills with Dietrich-Smith.