The Green Bay Packers will enter the 2014 season with their fourth starter in four consecutive seasons at the center position after Evan Dietrich-Smith signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent on Friday.
According to Adam Caplan of ESPN, Dietrich-Smith's deal was for $14.25 over four years, including $7.5 million guaranteed. With a deal averaging roughly $3.5 million per season, one could infer that the Packers didn't exactly value Dietrich-Smith very highly with plenty of salary-cap space available.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has publicly lobbied for the Packers to keep Dietrich-Smith on his weekly radio show on the ESPN Radio affiliates in Milwaukee and Madison, but he'll have a new exchange partner this upcoming season.
Back in February at the NFL Combine, head coach Mike McCarthy said, "If you look at our depth chart right now, this is the best group of offensive linemen from a depth standpoint that we’ve had in my time in Green Bay." Some of that depth has taken at hit with the departure of Dietrich-Smith.
The Packers find themselves back to Square 1 at center after Scott Wells left after being named a Pro Bowler in the 2011 season.
In 2012, the highly-respected Jeff Saturday was signed as a stop-gap solution, but when he proved to be past his prime, Dietrich-Smith was inserted into the starting lineup late in the season, allowing Green Bay to release Saturday the next offseason.
Dietrich-Smith started all 16 games in 2013 and graded out as the eighth-ranked center in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.com (premium content).
Over the course of his five-year career in Green Bay, Dietrich-Smith also showed his versatility by being able to play guard as well. In 2012, he notably was the recipient of a stomp from Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh while filling in at guard.
The Packers are now forced to look for a new starter at center, and the player who may get the first crack is J.C. Tretter, the fourth round draft choice of the Packers' last season.
Tretter may have loads of potential, but the Packers would be taking a major risk by banking on a player who has never played major college football and has never played a single NFL snap. After breaking his ankle during an offseason practice, Tretter began last season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list before being activated to the 53-man roster late last year.
Another in-house option the Packers have at their disposal would be transitioning T.J. Lang to center full-time. Last year, Lang played center in an emergency situation in two games after Dietrich-Smith went down with a knee injury.
Any such move would probably be made in light of how highly the team views Lang at guard. A move to center would represent his third position switch in three seasons, after switching from left guard to right guard last year.
Garth Gerhart, who's been on the practice squad for the past two seasons, is another possibility.
The Packers also have the option of addressing the position in the NFL Draft, although there's not many centers in this year's draft class that are viewed as can't-miss, high-round prospects.
One final avenue available to the Packers could be free agency, where Alex Mack is able to sign with another NFL team despite receiving the transition tag from the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns, however, have the right to match any offer Mack receives. The value of the transition tag for offensive line is just above $10.0 million, although Mack does not have to accept a contract of that value with another team.
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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