|C Evan Dietrich-Smith|
Packers.com is taking a look at the Packers' roster, position by position. The fourth installment focuses on the offensive line.
GREEN BAY—The Packers' outlook on the offensive line for 2014 can be boiled down to two main thoughts.
There's a decision to make at center, and there's heated competition upcoming at tackle.
The decision at center involves Evan Dietrich-Smith, who took over as the full-time starter in December of 2012 and started every game last season, though he exited a couple of contests early due to injury.
Dietrich-Smith is headed for free agency, and the Packers must decide whether to make a long-term commitment to him or turn the position over to younger prospects waiting in the wings.
As the incumbent, Dietrich-Smith has a lot going for him, not the least of which is repeated public support and praise from Aaron Rodgers. The quarterback has suggested he'd like to develop a long-term relationship with one center, much like Peyton Manning had with Jeff Saturday in Indianapolis. Rodgers had Scott Wells for his first four seasons as a starter (2008-11) but has had two changes since, first to Saturday and then to Dietrich-Smith.
Rodgers likes Dietrich-Smith's smarts and communication skills, and the offensive breakdowns last season when injuries knocked him out mid-game were obvious. Moreover, Dietrich-Smith certainly had something to do with Green Bay's improved ground game in 2013.
The flip side is that last year's fourth-round draft pick, JC Tretter, who has practice-squad holdover Garth Gerhart behind him, gives the Packers an option at center should they let Dietrich-Smith go. The Packers drafted Tretter last year with the idea the former Cornell tackle could be a future center, and Tuesday's release of center/guard Greg Van Roten could speak to how highly the Packers think of Tretter.
The problem is that Tretter's rookie season was over before it started due to a season-ending leg injury on the first day of OTAs. He was able to practice for the final six weeks of the regular season but never saw the field on game day, so his promise and potential are combined with a lot of unknown.
After center, the other two inside spots are solidly in the hands of veteran guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, who switched sides in 2013 but quickly made that a non-story with a smooth transition. Sitton, named first-team All-NFC by the Pro Football Writers of America, had his best season, according to Head Coach Mike McCarthy, and Lang was healthier in 2013 than he was in 2012.
Lane Taylor, undrafted out of Oklahoma State as a rookie last season, was the top backup at guard, with practice-squad holdover Andrew Tiller behind him.
Offensive tackle is where the Packers potentially have developed an embarrassment of riches. Last year's starters, David Bakhtiari on the left side and Don Barclay on the right, are by no means guaranteed their spots next season, while pending free agent Marshall Newhouse's future is uncertain. That's because two former first-round picks, Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod, will be itching to play.
Bulaga is coming off of his second straight season-ending injury, the latest an ACL in his knee from the Family Night scrimmage, but he has the most experience and polish of any of the Packers' tackles.
A starting right tackle from 2010-12, Bulaga switched to the left side last offseason and was settling in when his knee injury thrust the rookie Bakhtiari into the full-time role. The fourth-round pick from Colorado impressed given the circumstances, experienced a couple of rough games as expected, and is no doubt an ascending player, leading to speculation Bulaga may be moved back to the right side in 2014.
Then there's Sherrod, who spent nearly two years recovering from a horrific broken leg in December of 2011. He returned to practice in mid-October, was on the 53-man roster for the second half of the season and got a handful of snaps at right tackle late in the blowout loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving, his first action on offense since the injury.
Bakhtiari, Barclay, Bulaga and Sherrod: That quartet has a combined 76 professional starts, including playoff games, with none from one of the two first-rounders in Sherrod.
May the best men win.