Front and center: Dietrich-Smith's future with Packers uncertain

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Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, January 19, 2014

GREEN BAY—Of all the looming free agents, Evan Dietrich-Smith sounded the most uncertain. For good reason, too.

Dietrich-Smith sees what the Green Bay Packers did with the players to his right and left. In years past, general manager Ted Thompson paid up for guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang months in advance.

So now, the 27-year-old Dietrich-Smith enters free agency unsure whether he’ll be back next season.

“Obviously I have a lot of fun playing with these guys,” Dietrich-Smith said. “I’m very fond of them, but the game is the game, and the business side also happens, too. So, we’ll see what happens.”

Through Thompson’s litany of decisions this off-season, this one ranks near the top. Is Dietrich-Smith the Packers’ center of the future? Or, quite possibly, is that player JC Tretter? Green Bay must weigh the known vs. the unknown. Whichever path Thompson chooses—Dietrich-Smith, Tretter, maybe someone else—there is calculated risk involved.

First, the known quantity. Dietrich-Smith was an obvious upgrade over Jeff Saturday, accelerating Green Bay’s no-huddle attack and providing a fresher set of legs in the run game. The Packers averaged 133.5 yards per game on the ground, a leap from 2012 (106.4) and 2011 (97.4) and 2010 (100.4). The man in the middle has something to do with it.

Dietrich-Smith is a sturdy 6 feet 2 inches and 308 pounds, a player whose career was pushed to the brink of anonymity. At one point, the undrafted free agent from Idaho State was working out at a YMCA, just hoping a team would call. And for 17 starts this season, Dietrich-Smith provided stability.

Then you replay moments like the fourth-and-2 conversion to Randall Cobb in the fourth quarter against San Francisco. The play seemed magical, like some “Houdini” escape by Aaron Rodgers. Not really. Dietrich-Smith was shoved into the quarterback by Ray McDonald and as McDonald tried sacking Rodgers, Dietrich-Smith (illegally) ripped him off.

It was the kind of play that made you wonder whether the Packers could do better with Tretter, with someone else.

Tretter’s rookie season was robbed by a fumble-recovery drill the first day of organized team activities in May. The fourth-round draft pick slid and suffered a fracture in his fibula and torn ligaments in his ankle. Tretter was activated off the physically unable to perform list by December and was the center for the scout team for five weeks. A former high school point guard and quarterback, Tretter could offer more athleticism at the position.

He’s smart, too, a necessity for the job.

A Cornell graduate, Tretter scored 33 on the Wonderlic. Packers coaches did get a sense of Tretter’s intelligence during his lost rookie season. He took the weekly tests with the linemen. On the field, offensive line coach James Campen said Tretter looked like “a guy who hadn’t played football in a long time.”

“But the same kind of guy we got when he was drafted here—confident, smart guy that knows his stuff,” Campen said. “The kid has been in every meeting. Takes every test, every quiz and answers every question just like all of them do. He was prepared when he came back and that’s why he was on the active roster.”

Asked if Tretter is a realistic option at center for Green Bay, Campen said “Everyone on that board is a realistic option….There always will be a starting point, but from the first guy to the third guy that’s on that chart, they all have an opportunity. It’s what they do with it.”

As for Dietrich-Smith, Campen still sees a player with command at the line “that has room to grow.”

Tretter is going to prepare this off-season as a starter.

“Coming into this off-season, it’s a new year,” Tretter said. “Everybody should be preparing like a starter, no matter who’s coming back, who’s not. You’re fighting for a job. Everybody is. So you prepare like you’re going to be the guy and you just go from there.

“This is your job, your livelihood, you have to work hard this off-season. There’s no taking a break and getting out of shape. You have to be ready to go.”

Tretter assures he’ll play anywhere coaches want him on the line. But he’s also “confident” he could be the starter at center if asked.

So the Packers must decide if a player who hasn’t played one down in the NFL is ready. A major risk at an important position, for sure. But it’s not unprecedented. David Bakhtiari—taken 13 slots ahead of Tretter—was plugged in as the starter at left tackle the day after Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL. Coaches aren’t afraid to roll with inexperience.

This off-season, Tretter first plans to strengthen his ankle and leg. From there, he’ll continue to work on specific offensive line and center drills. He planned to head back to western New York briefly before returning to Green Bay.

Practicing 1 months allowed him to shake off a degree of rookie rust. As Tretter repeated, he needed to take those plays “off the iPad” and apply it to the field.

Running the opponents’ offense on the scout team, Tretter was able to execute some basic run and pass concepts that he would in Green Bay’s offense. He has gotten action at center and guard.

Understanding the entire Packers offense will come, he added. That’s the edge Dietrich-Smith has. He has played next to Sitton and Lang. He can adjust on the fly with those two. Continuity counts.

Right tackle Don Barclay acknowledged this is a tough position to play in Green Bay’s offense.

“Evan, I think he was a great player,” Barclay said. “As far as making calls, being committed. I think he’ll be around. It’s tough to say right now….This was his first full year of starting and I think he did a great job of embracing it and really taking the lead of the bus, taking everyone with him.”

So now, the Packers must decide if Dietrich-Smith should lead that bus for several years—and at what price. Two years ago, Scott Wells signed at four years, $24 million with St. Louis; Chris Myers re-signed with Houston at four years, $25 million; and Samson Satele inked a three-year, $10.8 million deal with Indianapolis.

The center is ready to see what he’s worth.

Either way, when OTAs restart in May, maybe that whole fumble-recovery drill should be canned.

“Or they might have a huge show and circle around and want me to prove I can do it,” said Tretter, laughing. “We’ll see. That’s the least of my worries. The least of my worries is the first day of OTAs. That will come and go and be uneventful.”

By then, the Packers’ plan at center will be clear.

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