When Aaron Rodgers fumbled back-to-back snaps on the second day of training camp practice in Green Bay on Saturday, it showed the quandary the Packers find themselves at the center position.
Rodgers was on the receiving end of snaps from second-year offensive lineman Don Barclay, who only recently has taken up the center position at a time he’s apparently supposed to be competing for the starting gig at right tackle as well.
For the most part, Mike McCarthy gave Barclay a pass on the botched exchanges, acknowledging that he’s been put in a tough situation. The Packers head coach went so far as to accepting responsibility himself.
“In fairness to Barclay, it’s obviously new for Don working there,” said McCarthy following practice. “That particular play, that particular scheme, that’s the hardest footwork he has from an assignment standpoint, so I’m a little more irritated in the play selection with the rotation. I think it’s something I could probably have done a better job of not asking him to do that right now in live action. That particular scheme is something that just takes reps.”
One look at the roster reveals the Packers have plenty of centers on the roster, including incumbent starter Evan Dietrich-Smith.
There’s two more true centers on the roster backing him up, but neither of them have ever played so much as a single NFL snap in their lives. First-year player Garth Gerhart was briefly on the practice squad late last season while Patrick Lewis was added as an undrafted rookie this year.
The Packers, no doubt, can see the writing on the wall, knowing that Gerhart and Lewis are long shots to be among the 53 players when they whittle down the roster in late August. Sure, they might be practice squad candidates that the Packers can bring along slowly and develop over time, but that does little to help the team on Sundays during the regular season.
Credit the Packers, they’re making the best of a bad situation. They’re trying to provide Dietrich-Smith with competition at the position, but at the moment, they’re are no serious challengers.
“We think Don Barclay is a heck of a football player, and he’s earned the opportunity to compete for starting positions on our football team,” said McCarthy. “With Evan there, I feel like he established himself at the end of the year, but we want to make sure we are creating competition, and frankly you have enough centers, so you’re always looking who’s going to be your second and third center.
“As you know, when you get into the season carrying seven offensive linemen into the game, so all those elements are part of these decisions on who you rep players and how you create opportunities for each player. So Don’s starting point for training camp is the work at center and right tackle.”
Players seem to perform their best when they’re allowed to get comfortable at one position, take snap after snap at one spot along the offensive line. But the Packers––or really any NFL team––don’t have that luxury.
While they can carry 53 players on their roster, only 46 are active on game days, and that means they can only have seven linemen active for any particular game, maybe eight if they’re lucky.
The reality of the situation is that the Packers need one of those seven players active on game day to be able to sub in for Dietrich-Smith at a moment’s notice. Knock on wood if you need, but football is a violent game and possibility exists that “EDS” is always an injury away from being knocked out of the lineup.
A monkey wrench may have been tossed into the situation when rookie J.C. Tretter went down with a broken ankle during the team’s offseason program, a player expected to make the transition to the interior of the offensive line at the professional level.
Muddying the picture even further is the job at right tackle being up for grabs, and Barclay being locked in a battle with Marshall Newhouse for the gig.
It’s worth asking if Barclay can adequately be expected to learn the many responsibilities of a center and compete for the right tackle spot all at the same time.
Barclay would appear to have a lot on his plate, in just his second season in professional football. But as McCarthy points out, the Packers don’t have much of a choice.
Having Derek Sherrod available at right tackle might alleviate the need to cross-train Barclay at multiple positions, but as it stands, the former first round draft pick is stuck on the active/Physically Unable to Perform list, still recovering from a broken leg suffered two seasons ago.
To add one more layer to Barclay’s onion, he also might be the best guard on the team beyond starters Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang.
There’s little doubt that Barclay is becoming one of the more versatile players on the team in general and the offensive line in particular, but the coaching staff may have to ask themselves if they’re better off letting Barclay settle in at one spot.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email email@example.com.