Finally healthy, Tretter relishes utility role

Weston Hodkiewicz
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There's a chance nothing changes. This Sunday could be like all the other Sundays JC Tretter has experienced in his 561 days in the NFL.

Green Bay Packers offensive lineman JC Tretter.

Depending on how Green Bay Packers starting guards Josh Sitton (toe) and T.J. Lang (ankle) check out from their injuries, Tretter and his No. 73 jersey could remain shackled to the sideline during Sunday night's game against the Chicago Bears.

However, there's also a possibility the 6-foot-4, 307-pound offensive lineman actually could play in a meaningful NFL regular-season game for the first time since the Packers drafted him in the fourth round of last year's draft.

The first 1½ years of his NFL career has been a practicum in patience for Tretter, who broke his ankle on the first day of organized team activities his rookie year. He was slated to be Evan Dietrich-Smith's replacement at center coming into this season before a significant knee injury landed him on short-term injured reserve.

His replacement, Corey Linsley, has since run away with the job, but there's still plenty of opportunity for Tretter, who worked at all five positions on the offensive line in the two weeks prior to his activation from injured reserve on Monday.

For two years, Don Barclay made a decent living out of such versatility. The former West Virginia left tackle was initially groomed as a guard before starting 18 games at right tackle in place of an injured Bryan Bulaga.

"He's kind of stepping into the role that Don had," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this week. "Don could play all five offensive positions. JC played a lot of center in training camp, did a great job, earned a lot of respect and trust from his teammates and the coaches and then got hurt.

"It's a luxury when you have a guy that intelligent as far as the offense goes, and athletic as well to be able to play all five positions. He's going to be a valuable guy for us as we enter the stretch of our schedule."

All five positions were on the table during the draft process, but the Cornell graduate's most discernible trait always has been his intelligence. It only made sense the first place the Packers looked to plug him in at center.

It's been commonplace in Green Bay to convert college left tackles into starters elsewhere on the line. Lang, Sitton, Barclay and Bryan Bulaga all did it. Chances are David Bakhtiari might have, too, if Bulaga hadn't tore his anterior cruciate ligament in last year's camp.

The Packers have always preached about trying to get their best five players on the field at any given time. It only helps that Tretter's tutelage started at center, a position responsible for knowing what everyone in the trenches is doing at a given time.

With the ever-present possibility of injury, the Packers aren't footing themselves. Chances are Tretter will be called up before the season is over even if it's not against the Bears.

"I think everybody is comfortable and confident when he's in there to play no matter where he's playing," Lang said. "He's shown that being a tackle in college obviously helps and limited time he had last year playing at guard, tackle and center. I think he's a guy that it's very good to have that versatility. It's good to get him back. It comes at a good time with Josh and I both kind of nursing some injuries. If he gets a chance to play, everybody is going to be confident in his ability."

Tretter is fine with whatever role awaits him. If he steps in at guard in the mist and rain inside Lambeau FIeld Sunday night, he feels he can quickly assimilate next to Linsley and either Bulaga or Bakhtiari.

If he doesn't play, Tretter is willing to wait his turn. After sitting out the first 24 regular-season games of his NFL career, he's just happy to be back in the conversation for playing time.

"I take it as a compliment," said Tretter of his utility role. "It's tough to be able to move across the board like that. When the coaches and staff think you're able to do that, that's obviously a compliment to your athleticism and your ability to process the entire playbook."

Trading places

So far, it would appear the Packers have received the better end of the NFC North trade of prolific pass-rushers.

The Bears cut Julius Peppers in March because of cap concerns and hoped to replace his production by signing Jared Allen away from the Minnesota Vikings with a four-year, $32 million contract.

However, the five-time Pro Bowler has been off to a quiet start in Chicago. Allen, 32, has 29 tackles, 1 ½ sacks and a forced fumble in seven starts.

Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Peppers keeps trucking along with 25 tackles, four stacks and two forced turnovers in his first eight games with the Packers, who signed him to a three-year, $27 million deal shortly after his release.

The Packers remain 26th in total defense and opposing run games have thrown Peppers for a whirl at times, but he's provided a more consistent boost to the defensive pass rush. Despite his age, his athleticism is still evident.

Peppers has kept in contact with many of his former teammates, who likely miss his production. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in three of his four seasons in the Windy City.

"Of course. I still have friends over there," Peppers said. "This is a job. This is a business. It's not like I committed war crimes or treason or anything coming over here. You know, I still have some friends over there. So I keep in contact over them."

Second chance

Rajion Neal hoped the road eventually would lead back to the Packers' locker room, but he also understands how the NFL works.

Despite his finest efforts in training camp, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound running back wasn't counting on his phone ringing again after striking an injury settlement with the Packers at the end of training camp.

The Packers said they'd keep him in their Rolodex, but the CBA still forbids players from re-signing with that particular team until six weeks after the settlement ended. Any chance of returning to Green Bay would have to wait until midseason.

So, Neal went about his business. He was cleared from his knee injury shortly after his buyout and spent the past two months working at API in Tempe, Ariz., where he trained for the combine. Recently, he even worked out for the New England Patriots.

Neal received a second chance last week when the Packers called back last week with practice-squad offer. Both sides hope he picks up where he left off in training camp when he had five carries for 39 yards and a touchdown in the Packers' preseason opener.

The Packers have a good track record with developing running backs off their scout team. DuJuan Harris, Michael Hill and Brandon Saine all started on the practice squad before being brought up to the 53-man roster.

"It was a humbling experience," Neal said. "Sitting out as long as I did, just kind of watching and waiting, that call meant a lot to me and my family."

Battling Bennett

The uncertainty the Packers face with Lang, Sitton and safety Morgan Burnett (calf) is the same situation the Bears find themselves in with tight end Martellus Bennett.

As difficult as it is to stop Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the perimeter, the Packers' secondary struggled to contain the 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end in the middle of the field during their 38-17 win on Sept. 28.

Bennett finished with nine catches on 11 targets for 134 yards. His size creates natural matchup problems, though safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Micah Hyde were able to prevent him from scoring on the Packers' goal line on a play that proved to be a turning point in the early shootout before halftime.

If he doesn't play, it would deal a significant blow to a Bears' team that's already reeling after dropping four of its last five contests.

"He's a big guy," "Hyde said. "He's hard to get in front of, hard to stop. He's been doing it a while and when he's going against someone my size, he's able to just shield them off. I don't think it was ever anything we — me personally, or anybody on the defense — did wrong. It was just that he was making plays and sometimes, these guys are going to make plays on you. You just have to keep it going." and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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