The competition has rarely rose to headlines in training camp, but the battle between Greg Van Roten and Patrick Lewis to backup starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith is about to reach its unstated but important climax.
When the Green Bay Packers finally have to make their decision following tonight's preseason finale against Kansas City, they’ll be choosing between two undrafted prospects who share few similarities other than entering through the NFL auxiliary door.
The differences between the two begin with their experience.
Van Roten was an all-Ivy League tackle at Penn, but undersized at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds when his senior year was over. He’s since added 20 pounds to that frame and began making the conversion to center midway through last season, mopping up behind Jeff Saturday and Evan Dietrich-Smith on the scout team.
Meanwhile, Lewis was a three-year starter for Texas A&M where he was honored as the Aggies’ co-offensive MVP with Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel last season.
Before Manziel and Kevin Sumlin’s air-raid attack lit up College State, Lewis spent two years snapping to Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in former Packers’ coach Mike Sherman’s pro-style scheme.
The experience of playing in Sherman and Sumlin’s contrasting offenses forged a perfect fit with the Packers, who signed Lewis to a $4,000 signing bonus shortly after he went undrafted in April.
Now, the two players are top in-house candidates to backup Dietrich-Smith. As expected, they remain very different players all the way down to their areas for improvement.
“I think that those two guys will be battling,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. “Fundamentally, both guys are pretty darn sound. They just have to clean up little areas both with the snaps. Greg’s are a little low. Patrick’s were high and cleaning up some of the silly mental errors that just can’t happen.”
The Packers teased using second-year offensive lineman Don Barclay at center earlier in camp, but Van Roten has held the lead in the competition dating back to the offseason program.
However, Van Roten didn’t help his cause with a rough showing in last Friday’s 17-10 loss to Seattle. After entering in the second half, the 23-year-old struggled against the Seahawks’ first-team front.
Van Roten was overpowered by Tony McDaniel en route to Eddie Lacy’s 3-yard loss to start the drive before also beginning liable on Johnathan Franklin’s 7-yard loss at the hands of Bobby Wagner on the following drive.
While both Van Roten and Campen have admitted his snaps have fluttered at times, the added weight has helped him as an emergency tackle and being able to hold up more against nose tackles.
“He’s definitely playing more stout. He had good fundamentals when he came in, which was his big point,” Dietrich-Smith said. “Going from the tackle to playing an inside guy going against dudes who are 330-plus, you definitely need that extra weight and extra strength or else it’s a disadvantage for you unless you’re really sound technically. I thought it helped him out a lot.”
Whatever remaining questions the Packers have about Van Roten and Lewis likely will be answered tonight against the Chiefs, but Campen sees plenty to like out of both.
If something should happen to Dietrich-Smith this season, he has no concerns about turning to whoever prevails.
“We’ll be ready if something we’re to happen,” said Campen of the confidence of the backup center. “We’ll be ready. We’ll be fine.”