The Green Bay Packers lost a handful of important veterans in free agency, but no single positional group was more shaken up than center, as the loss of Evan Dietrich-Smith means Aaron Rodgers will take snaps from his fourth starting center in four years.
Who exactly that will be will come down to a three-way training camp competition between J.C. Tretter, fifth-round 2014 draft pick Corey Linsley and practice-squad holdover Garth Gerhart.
Below we'll examine the strengths each player brings to the position and the reasons why the team might award him the starting job, before concluding with a projection for who will be anchoring the line in 2014. The ideal Packers center needs to be physical enough to block for Eddie Lacy and smart enough to handle Rodgers' frequent audibles and the Packers' up-tempo offense.
|J.C. Tretter||Corey Linsley||Garth Gerhart|
|College||Cornell||Ohio State||Arizona State|
|Draft Position||Round 4 (122)||Round 5 (161)||UDFA|
|Arm Length||33 3/8"||32"||33 3/8"|
|Hands||10 1/8"||9 7/8"||9 5/8"|
|Bench Press||29 reps||36 reps||25 reps|
The Case for J.C. Tretter
A fourth-round draft pick in 2013, Tretter has the most experience in the Packers' system and has logged the most time with Rodgers. Those two factors could help give him an edge over the stronger Linsley.
Despite being on the PUP list for most of the 2013 season after breaking his ankle in training camp, Tretter has still had one more year than Linsley to learn the system.
Offensive line coach James Campen said that the practice time Tretter got last season after coming off the PUP list, and his time in the offseason program so far with Rodgers, has been "invaluable," per Packers.com's Mike Spofford.
"You look at the short time that Aaron and JC have been together now and they're flowing very well," Campen said, according to Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
"Tretter is a very headstrong kid, knows all the assignments and he's ready to go and compete."
But Tretter's strengths are about more than familiarity in the system. The largest center on the roster, Tretter also has a longer wingspan than Linsley (and the same as Gerhart) and the largest hands of the three.
Tretter is also lighter on his feet than either Linsley or Gerhart, and he shows a better ability to bend and move laterally.
Such physical traits will prove important to Tretter's blocking ability. Dietrich-Smith was graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the fourth-best pass-blocking center in the league in 2013 and the 14th-best in run-blocking. As Lacy continues to play an increasingly prominent role in Green Bay's offense, whichever center starts will need to be physical enough to block for him.
Tretter could be the most effective pass-blocker on Green Bay's roster. He has demonstrated an ability to recognize blitzes and execute multiple blocks to contain them.
His education certainly helps, as well. The frequency with which Green Bay runs the no-huddle and with which Rodgers audibles requires that a center not only know the playbook in and out, but has the ability to read the defense and make adjustments on the fly.
The Case for Corey Linsley
Linsley brings a toughness and physicality to the position that his competitors do not—especially important now that Green Bay's offense will heavily feature the run. He benched 36 reps at the combine and has reportedly benched 500 pounds.
And though he didn't graduate from Cornell like Tretter, Linsley is an intelligent player, having made all the line calls for the Buckeyes in 2013. Campen said, per Vandermause, "He's a visual and verbal guy that makes sure that everyone is in place and where they're supposed to go."
Linsley is also a true center, his primary position at Ohio State, while Tretter played tackle at Cornell. While that's not necessarily important considering Mike McCarthy admits the Packers "historically move our guys around" on the offensive line, per Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McCarthy has indicated that the Packers plan to play Linsley at center.
His short arms and heavy footwork could hurt Linsley, but he could be as strong as Tretter in pass-blocking. "His pass blocking is very good,” Campen said, via Vandermause. “He uses his strength, his leverage to his advantage. Once he has you locked up, he’s a very difficult person to get off of.”
Campen also noted that Linsley is a great shotgun long snapper, as the Buckeyes run the shotgun formation often with him (as do the Packers).
Though he has a leadership mentality now, Linsley struggled early in his career with the Buckeyes, when his priorities weren't straight and when he was suspended for two games for violating team rules. Urban Meyer invested in Linsley by moving him to center, and the vote of confidence caused Linsley to rededicate himself to the game.
It's a situation not unlike Dietrich-Smith's, who was cut by the Packers before the 2010 season for prioritizing partying over football and given a second chance in 2012 when he started in place of Jeff Saturday.
Linsley's comments about his rededication to the game echo Dietrich-Smith's. After his second chance, Dietrich-Smith said, per Sarah Barshop of ESPN Wisconsin, "I understand where I came from, but I also understand the fact that going forward is what I need to be thinking about."
He continued, “You've got to be thinking about your future because you can't change the past. The past is the past and you've got to grow from your experiences. That's what I felt like I've done."
Linsley recounts that Meyer asked him if he was ready to commit himself to the Buckeyes before his junior season. "I said, ‘Yeah, I take responsibility for what I did,'" Linsley said, per Vandermause. "'From now, I’m doing whatever you want. I’m all-in.’ That’s really what sparked a change. I gave my heart to the team, which I plan to do for the Packers, too. It all turned out all right.”
The Packers have to have seen the similarities in Linsley and Dietrich-Smith's drives. If they're looking to replace the motor and heart Dietrich-Smith brought to the field, Linsley certainly has it.
The Underdog: Garth Gerhart
The most undersized of the three and with the least upside, it's not likely that Gerhart will beat out either Tretter or Linsley in training camp. However, his name is certainly being included in this three-way battle Campen has spoken of, and he will push each of Tretter and Linsley to play better.
Gerhart has the motor and drive, but his athletic ability is far more average than his competitors', something he may not be able to overcome. Having already been released once from the practice squad doesn't speak incredibly highly of the team's confidence in him.
Still, his experience in Green Bay's system since being signed to the practice squad in January 2013 and then re-signed in October after being briefly released gives him somewhat of an edge, and he'll get his chance to prove he can outplay Tretter and Linsley.
Projection: Tretter Will Start
Linsley's combination of physical power, blocking ability and experience in line calls will give him a real chance to win the starting job, but it's Tretter's to lose.
Their confidence in Tretter allowed the Packers to both let Dietrich-Smith walk in free agency and then not pursue a veteran center to replace him, and Campen and McCarthy have seemed to indicate throughout the process that Tretter has been groomed to start since he was drafted.
His lightness on his feet, pass-blocking ability, high football IQ, ability to recognize and react to blitzes and familiarly with Rodgers and the system make Tretter the ideal candidate to anchor Green Bay's line.