Packers See Questions, Answers in the Middle

BJ Raji and JC Tretter

The Green Bay Packers are just four practices into this year’s training camp and already, some realities are starting to take shape.

As is the case with all teams, there are needs coming into a new season.  The theme for the Packers in 2014 was fixing some existing issues in the middle.  What that refers to is both the middle of the defense and the offensive center positions.

The Packers seemed to have found a solution at center last season with Evan Dietrich-Smith.  EDS fared well for most of the season and had the all-important endorsement from his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.  It seemed that EDS would be a priority for the Packers to re-sign after the 2013 season.  Instead, the Packers chose to let him go and turned their focus to J.C. Tretter.

Tretter was a fourth round selection in 2013, having played offensive tackle at Cornell.  As with any high draft pick, the Packers had high hopes for Tretter until he suffered an ankle injury during the offseason that landed him on the physically unable to perform list until very late in the year.

Having missed all of last season, Tretter is, for all intents and purposes, a rookie this season.  He has been with the team for a full season and surely has taken mental reps during practice but nothing is a substitute for reps on the field, with the pads on.  Not only is Tretter expected to be the team’s starting center, having had no previous experience in a NFL game, but he will be the Packers fourth starting center in as many seasons.

There was a mix of doubt and optimism surrounding Tretter coming into this offseason and the true telltale sign would be the padded practices.  Those began on Monday and immediately, it became evident that Tretter has a lot of work to do.  He faced up against nose tackle B.J. Raji during one-on-one drills and was mauled.  Whether Raji has a new attitude and excitement about being turned loose at nose tackle again or Tretter just isn’t in regular season form, there is still some cause for concern.  During this week’s No Huddle Radio podcast, we joked that perhaps Tretter was asked to go easy on Raji and help boost the big man’s confidence this year.  All kidding aside, I wish that were the case.

After Wednesday’s practice, head coach Mike McCarthy addressed Tretter’s struggles and said that he needs every rep in practice and that he hasn’t seen anyone prepare more for camp than Tretter.  That could be some coach speak and bravado from a coach whose success this year is riding on an unknown in Tretter.  It could also turn out to be true.

As I’ve said many times before, I am no guru when it comes to the offensive line but it seems to me that those types of players can either play or they can’t.  That said, it’s still too early to start any talk about pulling the plug on Tretter at center.  A few practices are one thing.  A few preseason games and more practices are another.  Packers fans have to be crossing their fingers that Tretter works out and can stay healthy.  Otherwise, more shuffling of the offensive line could be done and that means less continuity from last season.

On the defensive side and looking at the picture on the defensive line last season, nose tackle Ryan Pickett was aging and Raji spent most of his time at defensive end instead of at the nose, where he is most comfortable and prefers to be.  As a result, Raji turned in his worst statistical performance during his time in Green Bay.

Having turned down a previous contract offer from the Packers rumored to be worth $8 million per season, Raji became a free agent following 2013 and tested the market.  He ended up right back in Green Bay at a bargain price of $4 million for one year “prove it” deal.  So far, Raji appears to be motivated to do just that.

His energy in camp has been described as high and he has been one of the best performers in one-on-one drills.  As long as that translates to the field during game situations, the Packers may end up with a big (no pun intended) bargain this season.  With the emergence of defensive end Mike Daniels and despite the loss of Pickett, the Packers appear poised to take a step forward with their defensive front and with Raji anchoring the middle.

At middle linebacker last year, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones faced constant scrutiny for being pedestrian and lacking any type of playmaking ability.  Hawk showed some more flash in his game, but the output from this area was still very average, at best.  I have heard next to nothing about either during camp so far.

I have heard some about Jamari Lattimore.  Lattimore stepped in last season when Jones was out with an injury and, in spots, played well.  He also didn’t play so well in others.  Consistency is something that comes with playing time and Lattimore strikes me as the kind of guy who would seem to improve as time goes on.  He was reportedly one who gave a rousing speech at halftime during last year’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.  He’s part of that new attitude that Daniels has been talking about bringing and if his intensity reaches his play, we could see a new tandem at middle backer.

Some are saying middle linebacker is this year’s safety and quarterback position from a year ago.  That is in reference to the team’s allowing themselves to be stuck with subpar performers at a position because they didn’t have the right type of guys in the fold.  M.D. Jennings was a disaster at safety and the Packers played musical chairs at quarterback when Aaron Rodgers went down because they had to scramble after letting go of both backups they entered camp with.  I don’t see the situation as being that dire, given the depth.  Still, any 3-4 defense needs stellar play from their middle linebackers and that’s not how I would describe what we can likely expect from both Hawk and Jones.

At safety, the Packers were faced with the consequences of not drafting one in 2013 and a misread on former fourth-rounder Jerron McMillian  They were left with M.D. Jennings next to Morgan Burnett as the starter in every game in 2013.  Packers safeties recorded zero interceptions all season long and for the first time in over 50 years.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson seemed to finally get the message and used his first draft choice in 2014 on Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.  Touted as one of the best safety prospects in this year’s crop, HHCD fell to the Packers with the 21st overall pick (ironically, Clinton-Dix will wear #21 this season) and could emerge as a starter.  Some may be saying “could?”.  Most first round picks are projected as starters and immediate contributors.

Keep in mind that being a starter simply means being on the field for the first snap.  The Packers run many variations of their defense and use different personnel for each.  So far in camp, the Packers have used some packages that have had HHCD, Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde on the field at the same time.

Hyde is learning the safety position and expected to contribute there this season.  He has performed well in practices so far, but has admitted that learning the mental side of the position is his biggest challenge.  Burnett has this season to improve on last year and turn the proverbial corner or face a possible slide down the depth chart or exit from Green Bay after this year.

Also in the mix is Sean Richardson, who returned to the team late last season after recovering from a spine injury the year prior.  Richardson has also made some nifty plays during practice and is making a case for himself as well.

While there are still questions about how effective Hyde, HHCD and Richardson can be this season, the Packers appear to be in much better shape and should get more production out of this group in 2014.

Whether the Packers have truly fixed their issues in the middle this season is still a question, but they have at least addressed them.  Through the first week of work, it would appear that this year’s defense is ready to take a step forward and be more of a factor.  If they can all stay healthy as well, the return of some hard-nosed football could be in store this year.

 

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Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.com

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  • John Zoul

    Considering last years safety play may have been the worst in the league, it cannot get any worse. Also, an excellent point concerning Burnett, if he plays like last year he is gone in 2015. He stunk last season.

    The future starters may be Hyde and HHCD or Richardson. Burnett needs an attitude adjustment, if he actually believes he played well last season.

  • Since ’61

    I am not surprised to read that Raji is getting the better of Tretter. As a veteran I would hope that he can outplay someone who has yet to play a snap in a real NFL game. If the reverse were true I would say that it is over for Raji. It does sound to me that Tretter has a lot of work to do and a lot to learn. This is my concern with not having either an experienced center or true center at the position. It’s way too early to tell how Tretter will work out but we’ll see how he does during the pre-season games. As for ILB and Safety, if everyone stays healthy we have some depth now at both positions and hopefully the Packers will be able to identify the most effective players and packages before it costs us any real games. At this point I have no preferences as to who starts at any of these positions as long as they are effective in their roles. As Jason mentioned, given the numerous packages which the Packers employ, many of these players will probably get in the game anyway so being a starting player doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to mean. In any case, this is what Training camp and pre-season are about, getting the best players on the field for the regular season. We’ll see. Go Pack Go! Thanks, Since ’61

    • John Willard

      Since ’61, you are a realist and appear to be a practical man. I concur with your thoughts and am looking for improved play up-and-down the defense, Dbs, Safety, ILB, OLB, and D-Line. Am sure we’ll have two or three surprises to make the final 53. Go Pack!

  • JimR_in_DC

    Jason, your discussion of the center position centered (no pun intended) on either Tretter or shuffling the line. The latter choice sends shivers up my spine. But, what about the true center drafted this year, Corey Linsley? I’ve heard good things about him.

    • Since ’61

      Hi JimR – seems like we haven’t heard from you in a while. Glad to see you back.
      I’ve been thinking about Linsley also. Time will tell. Go Pack! Thanks, Since ’61

      • marpag

        According to Demovsky, Linsley “performed especially well in the one-on-one pass blocking drill. He won six of his seven turns, with the only loss coming Thursday to Mike Daniels, who has a 6-2 record of his own in that drill.” He also said that Linsley has an unspecified shoulder injury (and that Abbrederis has a knee injury).

      • JimR_in_DC

        Thanks Since ’61. It’s been a busy spring/summer for me.

        I’m excited about what I’m hearing of the Packers this off-/pre-season and look forward to seeing if the team’s holes are starting to fill in. Go Pack Go!

    • http://allgbp.com/category/authors/jason-perone/ Jason Perone

      Purely based off of how I’ve seen McCarthy handle situations like this one before, Tretter is going to get every chance to improve. Linsley has reportedly been doing OK so far, but unless there’s an injury, I don’t foresee him leapfrogging Tretter. The line shuffle is likely a last resort and depends on who’s behind the starters. Barclay could also be an option at center, as far-fetched as it sounds.

      UPDATE: Linsley did not practice on Friday due to a shoulder injury. No further update.

  • Stroh

    Last time Raji played NT every down the ILB were very good. Both Hawk and Bishop had really good seasons.

    I don’t have any worries about the Safety play this year either. Burnett will be a lot better next to players like McMillan and Jennings next to him, and Hyde seems to be playing really well.

    • Pete K

      I’m not panicking yet because Tretter will be getting solid help on both sides and a center is rarely left alone on an island. Good reasons to watch preseason.

  • Big T

    Tretter has to have something. TT dropped EDS like a bad habit. Hopefully it works out and doesn’t come back to bite him in the azz. I guess he can always lure Marshall Newhouse back for insurance, that man can play any position, just ask TT…

    • John Willard

      Big T, thanks for the satire. I know you’re joshing, because I read your blogs from last year. Enjoy your thoughts and comments. Go Pack!

  • marpag

    Surely Tretter must have taken a few one-on-one snaps with someone other than Raji. How well did he hold up with those?

    When Raji was playing his best, he was pretty slippery for a big guy. Now if Tretter is repeatedly getting schooled by Josh Boyd and Letroy Guion… well, that’s something different.

    • Big T

      I think Raji just had a good bowel movement before that practice. He will settle in to his usual self about the 3rd game of the season.

      • John Willard

        Big T, I understand he’s on a high roughage diet, so, he should be flushed-out on a regular schedule. Let’s hope Raji playing a few pounds ‘lighter’ helps!
        Go pack!…Keep that positive attitude!

      • Stroh

        Your little more than a talking bowel movement. So you should relate very well.

  • Tim

    I like the defensive outlook. Appears that there is better play at 2 sore spots from last year. Improvemennt by Raji or the other nose tackles will surely make Hawk and Jones better. Likewise the Dix, Hyde, and or Richardson project has to be a big improvement over last year as well, and should make the ilb play look better. I’ve liked where they are at DE, CB and OLB from day 1. I think they are real strong and deep there. The key to all of this might be the schemes and in-game adjustments & decision-making by Dom Capers. That worries me. I’ve heard they are simplifying the schemes on d & maybe that’s going to help. I just hope that all of the seeming confusion and failure to adjust will be gone, or at least better.