When general manager Ted Thompson has a moment to step back and consider the organization's plan of attack at the center position this offseason, he and the rest of the personnel department would be well-served to remember the unfortunate lesson learned from ex-Packers safety Jerron McMillian.
On the surface, it may not seem like much can be learned along the offensive line from a defensive back, but there's more parallels between the two than you'd assume at first blush.
Evan Dietrich-Smith is set to become a free agent when the NFL's new league year begins in early March, but simply letting him walk away and replacing him with J.C. Tretter––as some in the media are already suggesting is a possibility––is an extremely risky proposition.
The Packers found themselves in a similar situation a year ago at safety after releasing long-time veteran Charles Woodson, who was scheduled to count nearly $10 million against the team's salary cap.
Instead of signing a safety in free agency or selecting one in the NFL draft, either of which seem very foolish in hindsight, the Packers stood pat.
Even though M.D. Jennings was the starter opposite Morgan Burnett for the majority of this past season, make no bones about it, the Packers banked on McMillian to win that job––and he did start temporarily.
In 2011, McMillian turned in a largely nondescript rookie season, making 27 tackles, one interception and five passes defensed, but there weren't many hints that he'd be in for a major regression in Year 2.
Jennings and McMillian were locked in a battle throughout the offseason, starting as early as OTAs in the month of May and continuing all the way through training camp. Neither pulled away, and both actually ended up starting the first two games of the season when Morgan Burnett was sidelined by a hamstring injury.
McMillian turned in such poor performances particularly against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6, allowing several touchdown passes, that he was released later in the season, less than two years after being a fourth round draft choice.
While he was a willing hitter, McMillian was clearly lost in coverage and didn't have the speed to make up for any mistakes.
Now the Packers enter an offseason deciding which direction to go at another position on the roster where they don't have a clear answer.
Dietrich-Smith enters free agency following a season in which he provided consistently solid play and was an upgrade over Jeff Saturday the previous season, but the Packers have yet to offer him a contract extension.
Without hearing the conversations that have taken place between the Packers and Dietrich-Smith's representatives, it's impossible to tell what's going on behind closed doors.
Perhaps the Packers think they can do better. Or maybe it's that Dietrich-Smith is dead set on finding out exactly how much money he can command on the open market as one of the top centers available.
Whatever the case, the Packers would taking a gamble if they were to allow Dietrich-Smith to walk away without replacing him with either another free agent or a high-round draft choice.
While Tretter might get first crack at the job should Dietrich-Smith leave, he's even more of an unknown quantity than McMillian was after his rookie season.
After breaking his ankle in a spring practice, Tretter spent the first three-quarters of the season on the team's Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list before being elevated to the 53-man roster for roughly the final month of the season but was never active for a game.
Head coach Mike McCarthy might be noncommittal to naming Tretter strictly a center, but it appears that's his most-likely landing spot after becoming a fourth round draft choice this past April.
Tretter originally played tight end and then left tackle for Cornell. Like most of Green Bay's interior offensive linemen, Thompson likes to target athletic college tackles and shift them inside when they reach the pro game.
The risk the Packers would be taking by not re-signing Dietrich-Smith or adding a center, however, is that Tretter has not so much as played a singe Division 1-A (FBS) football game, let alone an NFL one.
No doubt, the Packers wouldn't hand the job to Tretter by any means. He'd likely be in some sort of competition with Greg Van Roten and Garth Gerhart, but that isn't much of a competition. Just like McMillian and Jennings wasn't much of a competition at safety.
The moral of the story is that the Packers either have to pony up for Dietrich-Smith or another free agent or a draft choice probably no later than Day 2. As they learned with McMillian, they can't afford to count upon an unproven quantity.
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 protected].
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