2014 Packers draft preview: Interior offensive line
FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Paul Imig provides complete coverage of the Packers and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. You can find the entire series here.
TODAY’S POSITION: OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS
Importance (1-to-10 scale): 7
On the roster
No matter who starts at center for the Packers this upcoming season, that player will be the fourth one to do so in the past four years. Evan Dietrich-Smith was signed away as an unrestricted free agent by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, adding himself to the list that includes Scott Wells (starting center in 2011, now with St. Louis Rams) and Jeff Saturday (starting center in 2012 for 14 games, now retired).
There are options currently on the Packers roster that could fill the void left by Dietrich-Smith. The most logical choice seems to be JC Tretter, a fourth-round pick last year who broke his ankle in his first practice and didn’t play a snap all season. Tretter is a smart player (he went to college at Cornell) who seems capable of easily handling the mental side of the position. Also, if Tretter doesn’t become the starting center, then what for him? Considering that Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang aren’t going anywhere for several more years at the starting guard spots, would Tretter just settle into a permanent backup role? He’s too talented for that.
Tretter’s main competition to start at center could come from Don Barclay, who started at right tackle last season and will lose that spot to a healthy Bryan Bulaga. Barclay struggled tremendously during training camp in 2013 playing center, but perhaps he’ll be able to figure it out a year later. Sitton or Lang could also possibly switch from guard to center, but they’re both so good at their current positions that a move is unlikely.
Unlike center, Green Bay doesn’t have to worry about either of its starting guard positions. Not now, not next year and probably not for a couple seasons beyond that. Sitton and Lang comprise one of the best guard duos in the NFL.
There isn’t much depth on the interior of the offensive line though (especially if Tretter becomes the starting center), and that could be an area the Packers address in the draft. Greg Van Roten was released this offseason, leaving Green Bay with 2013 undrafted guard Lane Taylor and practice-squad players Garth Gerhart and Andrew Tiller.
Last five interior linemen drafted
Philosophy at the position
General manager Ted Thompson has had great success at finding interior offensive linemen in the middle rounds of the draft, as both Lang and Sitton were fourth-round picks. Tretter, who has the potential to be just as good as those two, was also a fourth-round pick.
Thompson has had plenty of chances to draft a starting center in the early rounds of the draft in recent years and hasn’t done it. Wisconsin’s own Travis Frederick went five picks after the Packers selected Datone Jones in 2013, and Frederick went on to start all 16 games as a rookie at center for the Dallas Cowboys — and he played very well, too. It seems unlikely that Thompson would abandon his strategy and pick a center with the 21st overall selection this year, but Green Bay knows that it needs to find a consistent starting center to team with Aaron Rodgers sooner rather than later.
Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)
Marcus Martin, junior, USC (6-3, 320): Martin and Colorado State’s Weston Richburg are the two top centers in the draft, though neither rate as highly as Frederick did last year. Martin is recovering from an injury (dislocated knee kneecap and high-ankle sprain), but aside from that he has a great combination of height, weight, arm length and hand size. He’d probably be a reach in the first round, but if Martin ends up becoming a 10-year starter in the NFL (which he certainly could be), then it’d be worth it for the Packers if their big board has the players above him gone.
Martin on his transition from left guard to center: "I was really focused and concentrated on developing my game, learning how to snap, trying to understand our offensive scheme as best as possible. And it was something that played a pivotal role with me being successful this year at center."
Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)
Gabe Jackson, junior, Mississippi State (6-3, 336): Jackson will play guard in the NFL, and he should be drafted by the end of Round 3 as one of this year’s five best at the position. Jackson isn’t known to be overly powerful or anything better than an average athlete, but he has just about everything else going for him. It’s widely thought that Jackson could start in the NFL from Day 1, which presents a challenge if he played for the Packers due to Sitton and Lang having the spots locked down.
Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)
Chris Watt, Notre Dame (6-3, 310): No relation to J.J., Chris Watt is a guard who would be very good value in the fourth or fifth round. He suffered PCL and MCL knee injuries last season, and he’s not a great pass protector (partially due to shorter arms and smaller hands). But Watt is a tough, hard-working player who blocked well in the running game and could instantly become the top interior backup behind Sitton and Lang.
FOXSports.com’s draft expert Peter Schrager says:
"Chris Watt is an intriguing third day guy. I’ve got him ranked a lot higher than others. I love his size. He’s a wide-body with a huge butt. That’s not being jokey, that’s being truthful. He’s a mauler who can play at the next level. The red flags are around previous knee injuries."
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