Aaron Nagler recaps the first day of Green Bay Packers training camp during a Facebook Live chat with fans. (July 27, 2017)
GREEN BAY – There was probably only one position on the Green Bay Packers last year where an injury to the starter didn’t result in a drop-off in performance.
In 2016, the Packers had two starting-caliber centers and, as it turned out, needed both of them to get through the season. Both Corey Linsley and JC Tretter suffered injuries, but the timing was lucky enough that there was only one snap all season in which someone other than one of the two played center.
On the first day of training camp for the 2017 season, Linsley was under center, which wasn’t guaranteed given he had offseason right ankle surgery and missed all the offseason work. Behind him on the depth chart are three guys who have played center about as often as the moon eclipsed the sun during their careers.
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Veteran Don Barclay had the one snap from last season, while first-year pro Lucas Patrick and rookie Kofi Amichia haven’t played in an NFL game, let alone taken a snap at center.
With Tretter slated to be the Cleveland Browns’ starting center, the weight of the position is on Linsley’s shoulders. The very fact he was cleared medically for the first camp practice meant a smooth start for the offense, even if it wasn’t that smooth for him.
“(There are) certain areas where I haven’t done the movement with my ankle, putting pressure on it in certain areas,” said Linsley, who was cleared for camp last week. “I’m just breaking that rust off. No pain. Just a matter of time before we’ll be into the swing of things.”
A typical day of training camp with the Green Bay Packers.
To say the Packers need Linsley to round back into form and stay healthy this season is an understatement. He’s a vital link between Aaron Rodgers and the pass protection given his assignment responsibilities and proximity to the quarterback.
All of the linemen make calls to set up the protection, but the center should be in charge and with veteran guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton gone, his input will be critical. Insert Barclay, Amichia or Patrick and the drop-off is enormous.
“The offense starts when I get my hand on the ball,” Linsley said. I’m talking about getting everybody on the same page, which includes the guard. If Jahri (Evans) has a question, I need to answer it real quick, making sure I’m clear and clean in my communication.
“Tempo, tempo’s huge. The offensive line as a whole sets the tempo and we feel like we take that responsibility.”
It was not a good year to draft a center – there were only four taken and the first selected was in the third round – and so general manager Ted Thompson took a chance in the sixth-round on Amichia. The South Florida product hadn’t played center since his freshman year, but was projected to play there by many teams.
Thompson didn’t even sign an undrafted free agent at the position, deciding instead to carry on the project of converting Barclay and Patrick. The move is risky as the fumbled exchange between Rodgers and Barclay showed on the first day of practice.
“We’re looking for centers to evolve in this thing,” offensive line coach James Campen said during minicamp in mid-June.
Given a truth serum, Campen might have said that they’re looking for Linsley to play every snap this season as he did as a rookie. But Linsley’s route hasn’t been as consistent since then.
In ’15 he suffered a badly sprained right ankle and missed three games. After the season, he considered surgery on the ankle but decided against it and soon paid for making that decision.
He suffered a torn hamstring before the start of training camp and sat out the first 13 weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. The medical staff felt that the injury was a result of him favoring the ankle.
“The hamstring was what the doc called a compensatory failure,” Linsley said. “I should have had the ankle fixed. (I was) trying to play tough guy; (it) didn’t work out.
“I’m moving fast and the ankle feels great. I just have to get into the groove of things. It felt good in practice in some areas and not in some other areas, so I’ll get better at that. Other than that, I’m thankful I got the ankle taken care of.”
Besides taking care of his own business, Linsley is trying to do what he can to help out his backups as they learn a new position. Linsley was limited in the number of snaps he took Thursday and probably will be brought along slowly, so there will be time to help coach the others.
It’s just not going to be easy.
“I feel like all three of the guys have done a pretty good job,” Linsley said. “It’s only been one day, but Kofi has really improved from when we were watching him in OTAs. I think Don from last year, he’s gotten miles better. Last year was his first year ever playing center. Throw him in there and see what he can do, and he did a hell of a job.
“Now he can grow and I feel like he’s done that. And the same thing with Lucas. I think they started putting him at center toward the end of OTAs. All three of those guys have done pretty good things. They’ve shown strides. They put in the work over the summer break.”
Nevertheless, the Packers will keep their fingers crossed Linsley doesn’t need a backup this season.