Stability at the center position is something quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn't been afforded in recent years. While the offensive line hasn't been the strong suit of a Packers roster during his tenure as a starter, the center position particularly stands out.
With a rotation of Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday and Evan Dietrich-Smith snapping the ball in 2011 and 2012, the Green Bay Packers thought they had found their center of the future in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
With pick No. 122, the squad took J.C. Tretter, a quarterback turned tight end turned left tackle from Cornell. David Bakhtiari—another fourth-round lineman—was also talked about as a potential center candidate n the scouting community, but he started at left tackle as a rookie.
With Evan Dietrich-Smith in a contract year in 2013, it gave the team a buffer season for the Ivy League lineman to adjust to center. They could either attempt to sign Dietrich-Smith for a friendly price during the coming season, or they could ease Tretter into the starting role after a season of NFL training.
During OTAs in his rookie season, Tretter broke his ankle chasing after a fumble. Because of his ankle, Tretter was inactive until mid-December. The plan to ease Tretter into the starting role wasn't going exactly how management had planned.
In the offseason, Dietrich-Smith signed a four-year $14.25 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving Tretter as the only roster-worthy center on the squad for 2014. Center depth became a point of emphasis for those projecting who the Packers would take in the mid-to-late rounds in the 2014 draft. In the fifth round, general manager Ted Thompson pulled the trigger on a late-riser.
Corey Linsley, a two-year starter at Ohio State, was taken by Green Bay with the 161st pick of the 2014 draft.
Linsley was a slightly light offensive lineman in college, but played in an Urban Meyer spread offense which asked for agility over power from their big uglies. While he didn't participate in most of the drills at the combine, his bench press showed the elite arm strength he has for his age.
The first-team All-Big Ten center also tested well in interviews, which played a large role in why he went from a fringe draftable player to a mid-round selection.
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NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki had this to say about Linsley, who was given a seventh-round grade:
Strong-bodied, heavy-handed, short-area mauler who anchored one of the nation's most physical, productive rushing attacks. Has athletic limitations, but compensates with strength, smarts and competitiveness. Has the makeup to overachieve, and could increase his value by proving versatile enough to back up at guard.
During camp and the preseason, Linsley was slated as the second-string center on the team behind Tretter. That was until Tretter left the third preseason game with a knee injury.
Tretter's injury seems to be significant enough to assume that he'll miss the first few games of the season. Some have even questioned if he'll go on the injured reserve list.
Stepping into the starting role is rookie Linsley, who will take his first NFL snaps on Thursday against the defending champions.
One NFL type told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn that "He could play and they wouldn't miss a beat. He has that rare ability to stay in front of guys. Recovers well. Has balance and athleticism. Like him."
It's an interesting change of tone compared to McGinn's predraft piece on offensive linemen, which left Linsley outside of his top five centers. One notable player ahead of Linsley was undrafted free agent Gabe Ikard.
To get a glimpse at what Linsley's skill set looks like at the next level, and what might have changed the NFL's mind on him already, let's look at three of the 12 snaps he took in the final preseason drive against Kansas City.
Play 2: Linsley showed exactly why he's a good fit for this Packers offense in the second play. Smoothly and quickly getting to the second level, Linsley walled off a weak-side inside linebacker on the run play.
Play 4: On this play, Linsley blew his first blocking assignment. After he got on the target, he couldn't drive to push him and lost balance. Losing balance isn't something he consistently does, but if he could improve his leg strength over the next offseason, it would do wonders for his career projection.
Play 5: This is the second play where his lower-body strength flashes as an issue. He didn't blow his assignment, but when he met his target, the block was stonewalled. Neither budge, and James Starks ran into his back looking for a hole before he bounced out. Against larger defensive linemen, the sub-300-pound center should have lackluster drive on straight man-to-man blocks.
Linsley, at this point in the season, looks like a rookie. There's nothing wrong with that. It's not his fault that he's a fifth-round pick who is going to be baptized by fire to start his career. What can be gathered through his preseason footage is how the Packers can smooth him into the role.
He's not strong enough in his lower body to make up for his light weight when facing NFL-quality rushers in a one-on-one situation. While that's more dependent on how the defense is lined up, Green Bay has two quality guards who can play to help Linsley from time to time.
The Packers must also avoid straight blocks against poor matchups in the running game. Linsley has talent that plays better toward the angled blocking of a zone-rushing attack.
If the Packers can do that, Linsley could have a shot at sticking through this early season stretch without a major issue.
Starting two seasons in a row off with an injury, it's not unreasonable to wonder if J.C. Tretter's health is going to be a question after he recovers from his recent knee injury. By next season, Linsley could have added more weight and strength onto his lower body.
He could push himself to be the center the Packers and Aaron Rodgers have so longed for. Maybe then, Bruce Irvin and the rest of the league will acknowledge him as more than just an inexperienced rookie.
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