Packers banking on JC Tretter at center
The Green Bay Packers betrayed no qualms when they let center Evan Dietrich-Smith leave for a modest contract with Tampa Bay as a free agent in March.
They'd drafted JC Tretter in the fourth round last year as the center of their future, and saw nothing to dissuade them that he was their guy when Tretter finally got on the practice field late last season from a broken ankle sustained last May.
So here they are after a full offseason of workouts and non-padded practices, ready to turn over their starting center job to a second-year pro who never has played the position in a game — Tretter was a tight end and tackle in college.
Not that anyone should take at face value what an NFL team says publicly, but the Packers' offseason personnel decisions at center said plenty. After Dietrich-Smith left, the Packers didn't sign a veteran in free agency and waited until the fifth round to draft a center in Ohio State's Corey Linsley.
"No I don't," offensive line coach James Campen said of whether he harbored concerns about a neophyte starting at center.
"You'll have enough preseason work and things you do in training camp and drills and those things. If a player can handle it in training camp, they can handle it in any situation. Certainly with him, he's such a calm demeanor guy that understands what's expected him from a mental standpoint. He's a smart kid, he certainly is."
Even with the change at center, the Packers go into 2014 with as stable and promising an offensive line as they've had in Mike McCarthy's nine seasons as coach.
At left tackle, they return David Bakhtiari, who was one of the big surprises of 2013 as a fourth-round draft pick who took over for injured Bryan Bulaga and showed the stuff of a possible long-time starter at that difficult position.
Bakhtiari's performance then allowed the Packers to move Bulaga back to right tackle this offseason, where he'd played the previous three years, on his return from knee-reconstruction surgery.
And at guard, the Packers return the bedrock duo of Josh Sitton, who's been their best offensive lineman the past three or four years, and T.J. Lang, who at age 26 is entering his fourth season as a starter.
As long as Tretter holds up, the offensive line should be a relative strength for the Packers.
"The more you can keep guys working together, it accelerates the group and their ability to play better," Campen said. "There's other guys than those five guys. This group of 15 guys, there's a lot of competition."
Campen said he expects Tretter to have some tough moments, especially in training camp, at his new position. Campen in fact made the change from guard and defensive end to center when he was in college at Tulane, and said the footwork at center is significantly different than elsewhere on the line because centers have to snap the ball at the same time they're starting their assignment.
But the Packers like Tretter's size (6-foot-4, 307 pounds) and intelligence, and consider him athletically comparable to former starters Scott Wells and Mike Flanagan.
"You don't ever accept getting beat, but you have to quickly learn from why," Campen said of Tretter's position change. "It's a process, and he'll go through it in training camp when we put the pads on."
Bakhtiari was one of those draft surprises that come along every few years. He appeared to be more of a developmental prospect who needed a year or two to add strength as true junior entry in the '13 draft. But when Bulaga's season ended a week into camp, Bakhtiari got first shot at the job and from Day 1 looked like he belonged.
Though Bakhtiari had his share of bad plays — ProFootballFocus.com charged him with a team-high eight sacks allowed — he never looked overmatched or overwhelmed. Campen estimated he also added seven to nine pounds of muscle this offseason.
"He's a technical guy and fully understands you get better or get worse, you're not going to stay the same," Campen said. "I expect him to be much better than he was last year."
Bulaga has had his past two seasons cut short by injury — he missed the final seven games of '12 because of a hip injury and all last season because of a torn ACL. But he's returning to probably his best position, right tackle, and practiced all offseason after undergoing surgery last August.
"He just has to get back in the rhythm of practicing and doing 100 percent football movements instead of rehabilitation movements," Campen said. "His timing is getting better."
The Packers' depth will be primarily Don Barclay, who might be able to fill in at every position but left tackle, and possibly Derek Sherrod, the 2011 first-round pick who returned to the field late last season after missing 22 months recovering from breaking both bones in his lower right leg in December '11.
Barclay will get a shot at competing with Bulaga for a starting job but probably will be the top backup at several positions after starting 21 games (playoffs included) at right tackle his first two NFL seasons.
"(Barclay) is playing all over the place," Campen said. "There's a lot of competition that will be real interesting in the second and third week of camp."
Sherrod returned to practice off the physically unable to perform list last October and at least did enough to win a spot on the 53-man roster in November. Though he's entering his fourth NFL season, this was his first full offseason in the team's workout program.
Sherrod has the size (6-6, 321) and length (353/8-inch arms) of an NFL left tackle, but training camp will show whether he at minimum can be a backup swing tackle after his long layoff.
"All those experiences (later last season) are stepping stones," Campen said. "Certainly him starting off with the (individual workouts in April) and then moving forward to here, it's great to see him out there vertical setting and doing all the things that left tackles should be doing."
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