The decision to hand Evan Dietrich-Smith the starting center position late in the 2012 season was not a temporary fix for the Green Bay Packers. Less than three years after being released by the team, Dietrich-Smith is no longer just the franchise’s supposed center of the future. He’s now Green Bay’s center of the present.
Aaron Rodgers wanted it to happen sooner or later. The star quarterback had been calling for Dietrich-Smith to eventually take over the job of snapping him the ball full-time. Even before Dietrich-Smith got a chance to start at left guard in Week 11, Rodgers had already publicly supported an eventual promotion for the 26-year-old offensive lineman.
It’s not as if Mike McCarthy needed much convincing to follow Rodgers’ advice, but Dietrich-Smith showed enough in his four starts at center that the Packers’ head coach has become a believer that starting him will work long-term.
“Evan Dietrich-Smith finished the season as the starter and, if we played tomorrow, he’d be the starter,” McCarthy said in Indianapolis at the Scouting Combine. “I really like Evan. He brings a lot to the table. This time last year, I probably didn’t have the confidence in him that I probably should have. He’s really grown in his time in Green Bay.
“I think he’s definitely ready to, not only be the starting center, but to be the point man for that offensive line group.”
If there were any doubt the Packers plan to enter next season with Dietrich-Smith as their starting center, that overwhelmingly positive remark from McCarthy should have cleared it up.
McCarthy, however, isn’t ready to give Rodgers any credit for the early endorsement of Dietrich-Smith.
“Aaron Rodgers is our quarterback and he’s probably our No. 1 leader in the locker room, but players play and coaches coach,” McCarthy said.
Benching veteran Jeff Saturday — whose performances had not been anywhere close to what he showed during 13 terrific seasons in Indianapolis — was likely an overdue move. Doing so just two weeks before the playoffs, though, was a risk by McCarthy. Dietrich-Smith made it pay off by making the transition to center seamlessly at a critical point of Green Bay’s season.
Changes are needed on the Packers’ offensive line, but removing Dietrich-Smith from the starting lineup and finding a replacement in the early rounds of the upcoming NFL draft just isn’t the answer. Neither is wasting more than one second thinking that Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang don’t comprise one of the league’s better young guard duos. Sitton is one of the best at his position and is locked into a long-term deal. Lang isn’t at that same elite level, but the Packers view him as a core piece and last offseason extended his contract through 2016.
Entering this past season, McCarthy viewed Bryan Bulaga as being on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle. Bulaga is recovering from a hip injury that ended his 2012 season early, but McCarthy doesn’t feel any differently now about the former first-round pick than he did a year ago.
So, then how do the Packers improve an offense line this offseason that allowed Rodgers to be sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL and didn’t perform well enough in the run game?
Dietrich-Smith has the support of Rodgers and McCarthy to start at center. Lang and Sitton aren’t going anywhere, and Bulaga will be back in 2013 to start either at right tackle or perhaps switch to left tackle.
Therefore, there’s really only one starting spot for the Packers to address.
Dating back to early in the 2011 season, Marshall Newhouse has started the last 31 games for Green Bay at left tackle. It was asking a lot to expect Newhouse, a 2010 fifth-round pick, to play such an important role for the majority of the past two seasons. Newhouse provided stability and showed some improvement as a pass blocker, but if the Packers want to boost the offensive line this offseason, it will have to be at his expense.
Green Bay’s original plan two years ago was clearly for Derek Sherrod to team with Bulaga as the starting tackles. General manager Ted Thompson used the team’s first-round pick in back-to-back years on Bulaga and Sherrod with the hope that he’d found his starters for the next decade. A poor showing by Sherrod as a rookie in training camp in 2011 was followed by a broken leg several months later. Since then, Thompson’s plan has had to be kept on hold while Sherrod recovered.
Sherrod is not a bust. It is far too early to associate such a word with the tall, long-armed, intelligent 23-year-old. But injuries have slowed his progress considerably and sent the Packers into Plan B with Newhouse.
Next season, though, will be Sherrod’s chance to become the dependable, quality starter Green Bay drafted him to be. If Thompson and McCarthy have any doubts that Sherrod can live up to that, left tackle is the area for the Packers to address. There’s no other spot of need. It may not seem like it when looking at sack totals and the lack of consistent run-game production, but Green Bay’s offensive line has four out of five starting spots decided.
Dietrich-Smith needs to prove he belongs in that group for a full season. Lang needs to continue to improve. Sitton needs to continue being dominant. Bulaga needs to have a healthy recovery from his hip injury.
Those four things will likely happen.
It’s now up to the Packers to solidify that fifth and final starting offensive line job. Once that happens, Green Bay’s starting five should be set when the 2013 season begins.