His hair was a dead ringer. Blonde. Down to his shoulders. For a 6-foot-5 interior offensive lineman, the comparisons were inevitable.
They started when Matt Rotheram was at the University of Pittsburgh. The Panthers shared football facilities with their neighbor, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a jovial, brotherly environment. There were jokes. There was laughter.
Rotheram, with his long, blond hair, was an easy target.
“The Steelers used to call me Fake Mangold to mess with me,” he said.
That would be Fake Nick Mangold, the New York Jets’ All-Pro center. He, too, is a big, interior offensive lineman. He, too, has long, blonde hair. Rotheram was only missing a matching, lumberjack beard.
Naturally, Rotheram started watching Mangold. He noticed his size. Noticed his power. They played different positions – one a center, one a right guard – but Rotheram started pulling pieces of Mangold’s game into his own.
“You watch him get locked up in a bull rush,” Rotheram said, “and he’s not going anywhere. He sits down (in his stance) and hops around, and he gets it done. That’s important for centers to really keep the integrity of the pocket. Because if he gets pushed back, the pocket is collapsing and the quarterback is going to be flushed out. So just playing with strength and using your base and leverage.”
Rotheram, a practice squad lineman last season, hopes to keep imitating Mangold’s game in his new role with the Green Bay Packers. Already one of the organization’s top prospects, Rotheram is becoming more valuable this offseason. When he showed up for the first offseason workout, Rotheram said offensive line coach James Campen told him he’d start working at center and both guard spots.
He is not a cookie-cutter center. Rotheram, who started his college career at right tackle, is two inches taller than Packers starter Corey Linsley. Height affects leverage, and leverage is especially important blocking defensive tackles on the interior offensive line. In the trenches, the man who can get lower to the ground wins.
Rotheram knows he’s taller than most centers. He also knows Mangold is the same.
“That’s kind of similar to how I’m going to be,” Rotheram said. “He’s 6-4 1/2. I’m 6-5 1/4. I think I bend pretty well for a guy my size. I might not be the fastest guy, but I do play at pretty decent leverage for a guy my height. So it won’t be too bad.
“I think the hardest thing for me is getting the muscle memory down to snap and go. You have to learn to use one hand at a time a lot at center because that’s just how the game is.”
There are plenty of differences between playing guard and center and, yes, snapping a football while blocking is the biggest. Two hands doing opposite motions at the same time. “Advanced technique,” Rotheram called it. Not unlike rubbing your belly with one hand, and patting your head with another.
The psychological transition shouldn’t be overlooked. There is only a couple feet separating guard and center, but their perspective of the field is miles apart.
“Being a young player last year,” Rotheram said, “the way I learned the offense is I learned it from the center’s ID and his call. So as a guard, he’d say ‘blitz,’ and I’d know four-man slide left. I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the front, what the coverage is, where the safeties are aligned. I was hearing the call, and I was doing that call correctly.
“Now, I’m the center, and I have to ID these things. I’m telling everyone else where to go. So you really get a better understanding of the whole offense, you get the big picture. I think that’s going to help me play guard, too. Because understanding what’s going on can’t hurt.”
Rotheram isn’t moving to center exclusively. He’ll still get reps at both guard spots this offseason. Asked what position he should be considered, Rotheram paused to think.
He’s not just a center. Not just a guard.
“I really don’t want to put a label on it,” Rotheram said finally. “I consider myself an interior lineman. I think my days playing offensive tackle are done for.”
In the future, it’s easy to see why the Packers could use a lineman who can play all three interior positions.
J.C. Tretter, the top interior backup, is among four prominent offensive linemen scheduled to become a free agent next season. He’ll join left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton and right guard T.J. Lang. With salary-cap limitations, it could be hard – if not unlikely – to retain all three starters.
Sitton and Lang are arguably the NFL’s best guard tandem. If one or both depart the Packers next offseason, there will be significant holes to fill.
Tretter gives the Packers versatility on the inside. He’s capable of playing both guard positions, and even both tackle spots. Center is his best position, perhaps the one spot where he can carve out a long professional career.
Linsley has the starting center job locked. In a year, it’s a good bet Tretter gets an opportunity elsewhere to be a starting center.
Unless he forces the Packers to put him on the 53-man roster in training camp, Rotheram could be headed once again to the practice squad. If Tretter leaves in a year, perhaps Rotheram can be the Packers’ utility offensive lineman in 2017. He played right tackle in his first two college seasons at Pittsburgh and has the size for that position. He moved to right guard late in his college career, and that became the position that brought him to the NFL.
Now, the Packers are adding center to his responsibilities.
Rotheram didn’t have any choice in his move, but he quickly accepted it. The more positions he can play, Rotheram knows, the better chance he’ll crack the Packers 53-man roster. Asked whether the Packers are molding him to fill a similar role as Tretter, Rotheram didn’t hesitate.
“I hope so,” Rotheram said. “I think when you’re a backup, you have to be flexible. The only people in the NFL who play one position are starters. Everyone else better play multiple things, or you won’t be around too much longer.”
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May 23-24, 26: Organized team activities (May 24 open to public).
June 1-3, 6-9 More OTAs (June 2, 6 open to public).
June 14-16: Mandatory full-team minicamp.
Late July (date TBA): Packers report to training camp.
Aug. 7: Preseason opener vs. Indianapolis in Canton, Ohio.
Days until Packers regular-season opener Sept. 11 at Jacksonville.