Annual Checkup: C Evan Dietrich-Smith

Today is the 12th day of FOX Sports Wisconsin Packers writer Paul Imig’s offseason evaluations of every player on Green Bay’s roster. Click here for all of Paul’s previous evaluations and come back every day through mid-March for Paul’s in-depth film and statistical analysis. Coming up soon:

Saturday, Feb. 9: TE Jermichael Finley
Sunday, Feb. 10: LB Robert Francois
Monday, Feb. 11: RB Ryan Grant
Tuesday, Feb. 12: RB Alex Green
Wednesday, Feb. 13:
QB Graham Harrell
Thursday, Feb. 14: RB DuJuan Harris

EVAN DIETRICH-SMITH, CENTER

Season stats: 12 games, 8 starts (four at left guard, four at center); two sacks allowed, seven QB hurries allowed, five penalties committed

Best game: Week 17 loss at Minnesota (all 68 snaps at center; zero QB hurries allowed, zero sacks allowed, zero penalties committed; 1.7 PFF rating)

Worst game: Wild-card win over Minnesota (all 68 snaps at center; two QB hurries allowed; season-worst minus-4.3 PFF rating)

ProFootballFocus.com season rating: minus-0.5 (No. 3 out of 7 among Packers offensive linemen)

Expectations at the start of the season: Low

Expectations were … Exceeded

Looking live: The Packers were thin on the offensive line depth chart entering the regular season. Aside from the starters, which included Jeff Saturday at center, the only lock to make the active roster was Dietrich-Smith. He was the top backup at all three interior line positions behind Saturday, left guard T.J. Lang and right guard Josh Sitton. Though he entered this season known by most as ‘the player Ndamukong Suh stepped on during a Thanksgiving game,’ Dietrich-Smith made a name for himself this season. First, coach Mike McCarthy drew up a few plays mid-season in which Dietrich-Smith entered the game as a sixth offensive lineman. It only ended up being eight snaps over two games, but it got him on the field. Those types of plays likely would have increased but Dietrich-Smith was needed in a full-time role at left guard in Week 9 after Bryan Bulaga suffered what turned out to be a season-ending hip injury. Bulaga was the starting right tackle, but McCarthy decided to shuffle the offensive line, with Lang moving over to right tackle and Dietrich-Smith stepping into Lang’s natural spot. That experiment lasted for the majority of five games before McCarthy chose to go a different route. Dietrich-Smith wound up back on the bench in Week 15, with Don Barclay at right tackle and Lang back at left guard. That’s when McCarthy made a move that he should have made weeks earlier, benching Saturday and putting Dietrich-Smith at center for the remainder of the season.

Upon further review: Aaron Rodgers was a supporter of Dietrich-Smith early in the regular season, describing him as ‘the center of the future.’ Well, the future began in Week 16. Dietrich-Smith was undrafted out of Idaho State in 2009 and was cut by the Packers in 2010, so he’s not exactly the type of player with tremendous amounts of natural ability by NFL standards. But, even in his limited snaps midway through the season, Dietrich-Smith had an energy and exuberance on the field that only took a few snaps to notice. When Dietrich-Smith had a few opportunities to play in 2011, he struggled, particularly in run-blocking. In 2012, though, with the exception of two bad games (Week 11 and wild-card weekend), Dietrich-Smith was very solid. Unlike Saturday (who is now retired), Dietrich-Smith showed the ability this season to control defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. It’s not that Dietrich-Smith had a great season, but his transition from backup to starter was smooth at multiple positions, adding tremendous value for McCarthy to adjust strategies and rotations along the offensive line.

Overall 2012 grade: B-

Status for 2013: 90 percent chance of being the Packers’ Week 1 starting center. Having Rodgers’ support is huge for Dietrich-Smith. When Rodgers speaks up about a player or an issue, McCarthy generally listens. Dietrich-Smith will almost certainly never be graded out as a top-10 center in the NFL, but he’s playing next to an elite right guard (Sitton) and a good left guard (Lang), which will help him improve. Given Rodgers’ comfort level with Dietrich-Smith at center, while also vouching for him publicly, there’s little reason to believe that anyone else will take the starting spot next season. It’s possible that general manager Ted Thompson drafts a center in the early-to-mid rounds and grooms that player to eventually take over the job. But watching Dietrich-Smith work at center for a full season in 2013 is the most likely outcome, as well as the smart move.

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