The injury headlines mostly coming out of Green Bay right now have been dealing with Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, James Jones and of course Randall Cobb. While all these injuries are serious to the success of the team, one injury that has slipped under the radar a little bit that could have even more disastrous ramifications is that backup interior linemen Greg Van Roten has been placed on injured reserve with a foot injury, ending his season. The reason why this should be more concerning then most people are realizing is two fold 1) there is no official backup center at the moment (Ourlads still has Van Roten as the backup) and more importantly 2) knowing how the Packers offense, chances are good an injury to starter Evan Dietrich-Smith will result in a lot of linemen playing new positions. While losing two outside linebackers or two wide receivers is obviously not great, young back up players have a good shot at hiding some of that loss; for instance Jamari Lattimore did a astounding job last week in his first start, Mike Neal and Nick Perry have also done a great job covering for the loss of Clay Matthews and Jarrett Boykin looked to finally get in sync with quarterback Aaron Rodgers near the end of the game. However, losing the starting center for the Packers is like losing the starting center, guard and probably tackle as the entire offensive line will be shuffled as a result. Considering the fact that the backup center is currently unknown, below are some of the possible offensive line options.
Situation: Evan Dietrich-Smith is injured, the Packers offensive line will look like…
Option 1: Bakhtiari (LT), Sitton (LG), Barclay (C), Lang (LG), Newhouse (RT) – postion changes: 2
Under the “best man available” strategy that the Packers love to employ, they bring out their 5 best offensive linemen out but probably in the worst position. Barclay was seriously considered for the center position during the offseason but was pretty much an abject failure with multiple botched snaps and a general uneasiness about the position according to reports. Newhouse takes Barclay’s place at right tackle, a position he’s never played in the NFL and one where he didn’t look all that comfortable in during preseason games either. Surprisingly, Barclay has been pretty decent in pass protection this year and is a sizable upgrade in terms of run blocking to Newhouse so overall, it’s a total loss at right tackle. On the plus side, Newhouse does have the most experience of the backups and probably has the best rapport with Rodgers but he’s never been able to overcome his limited physical abilities to become a really dependable player. Nevertheless, if Dietrich-Smith was injured this week, I’m guessing this is what the Packers do.
Option 2: Newhouse (LT), Sitton, Bakhtiari (C), Lang (LG), Barclay (RT) – position changes: 2
During the combine and pro days Bakhtiari apparently tried out at center for several teams and considering his build, he actually fits what the Packers typically like in their centers. Add to that Bakhtiari has a very level headed and intellectual personality and he could actually be a pretty good center. Only problem with the idea is that Bakhtiari has never played anything but tackle in college and was basically groomed from the start of the offseason for left tackle once Bryan Bulaga was lost during Family Night. This scenario also puts Newhouse back at left tackle, his more natural position. I personally think this is a terrible idea since the downgrade from Bakhtiari to Newhouse is huge added to the fact that there’s no indication that Bakhtiari can actually play or has ever practiced at center.
Option 3: Bakhtiari (LT), Sitton (LG), Lang (C), Taylor (RG), Barclay (RT) – position changes: 2
TJ Lang has joked with Josh Sitton before about who would be the first to be forced to move to center; unfortunately for Lang, the Packers think it would be him as he’s practiced as an emergency center on occasion for the last couple years. In this case, you maintain the starting tackles, which is perhaps most important but are forced to add am undrafted rookie in Lane Taylor. The Packers were very high on Taylor, making him their priority undrafted free agent this year but after an up and down preseason, adding him this early would probably be a mistake. Nevertheless, Taylor was a fantastic run blocker in college and would likely give the Packers their best run blocking unit, which would be very advantageous as the Packers shift towards the run with Cobb and potentially Jones out.
Option 4: Bakhtiari (LT), Sitton (LG), Lang (C), Newhouse (RG), Barclay (RT) – position changes: 2
Again Lang gets the short end of the stick by getting shuffled to center, but the Packers but Newhouse instead of Taylor. Coming into the draft, many analysts predicted Newhouse would be better suited playing guard than tackle and for the first couple years with the Packers, it wasn’t really apparent what the Packers would ultimately do with Newhouse, who played all over the line save center. This might actually be the best option as the Packers maintain their starting tackles while getting as switched to guard would likely hide some of Newhouse’s physical limitations and still would allow for the 5 best offensive linemen to be on the field. Again this all depends on the ability of Lang to play center and Newhouse to play guard effectively, but considering the other options have multiple switches as well this might be the most seamless.
Option 5: Bakhtiari (LT), Sitton (LG), Taylor (C), Lang (RG), Barclay (RT) – position changes: 1
Naturally with Taylor now as the de facto swing interior linemen with Van Roten on IR the Packers must now be practicing him at center. From a pure physical standpoint, I’ve written before Lane Taylor probably fits the mold of a Packers center more than any of the other candidates which is in his favor. However, Taylor has never played center in college and never played a snap of center in any of the preseason games. The second problem with sticking Taylor in at center is if he wasn’t practicing at center to start off and was only focusing on guard, it’s pretty hard to imagine him being able to make the transition that quickly, meaning that the earlier Dietrich-Smith got injured the less realistic this option is. However, if it’s late enough in the season and Taylor has been given enough reps in practice and can make the transition, this might be the most optimal situation of the options.
Option 6: Bakhtiari (LT), Sitton (LG), Tretter (C), Lang (RG), Barclay (RT) – position changes: 1
This is probably the Packers’ dream scenario; Evan Dietrich-Smith gets injured late enough in the season that Tretter gets off the PUP, does well enough to be elevated to the 53-man roster and is inserted as the Packers center of the future, where a lot of analysts had predicted Tretter to end up after he was drafted. Unfortunately, there are a ton of problems with this scenario; first off there’s no indication that Tretter is going to be able to come off the PUP and play as most people suggest that the Packers will ultimately redshirt Tretter and send him to the IR. Secondly, while Tretter was likely selected as the center/swing interior linemen of the future for the Packers, Tretter played tight end and then tackle at Cornell, meaning he actually has no experience at any of the interior line positions. Finally, after being away from the field for essentially the entire offseason and regular season, it’s unlikely he could catch up schematically to all the protection calls a Packers center have to make. Still the Packers can dream and in a perfect world this would likely be their choice.
Option 7: Bakhtiari (LT), Sitton (LG), Free agent/trade (C), Lang (RG), Barclay (RT) – position changes: 1
Perhaps the most unlikely scenario, mostly because the center free agent market is bare at the moment and Ted Thompson has always been unwilling to trade picks away for replacement level players. Of note, Barrett Jones has been inactive for every game for St. Louis, but it’s unlikely that the Rams would be willing to trade away a mid round draft pick so early (then again, that’s starting to change). Perhaps the biggest problem is that Jones would have zero experience with the Packers offense and no rapport with Aaron Rodgers, which is huge considering how much responsibility the center has and how much communication occurs between the center and quarterback in the Packers offense. Another candidate would be Patrick Lewis, who spent the offseason with the Packers coming in as a undrafted rookie free agent from Texas A&M; however while Lewis played center for the Aggies, he saw most of his time at guard for the Packers and again was beat out by Lane Taylor as a backup guard. Perhaps the best option is Garth Gerhart (brother of the Vikings Toby Gerhart), who played for the Packers during the preseason and was recently resigned to their practice squad; Gerhart is a natural swing interior linemen and has experience with the Packers offense, but keep in mind he didn’t make the 53-man roster so there was obviously people who the Packers liked better. Perhaps the only notable veteran free agent of note would be Kevin Matthews, son of hall of famer Bruce Matthews and cousin to the Packers own Clay Matthews; of course Matthews is only of note because of his last name and relation to Clay. The only benefit to any of these options is that the Packers would keep the other 4 offensive linemen in place, but other than that there’s not much to like.
Pseudo-option 8: Bakhtiari (LT), Sitton (LG), Lang (C), Barclay (RG), Sherrod (RT) – position changes 3
I put this as a pseudo-option because it requires that Sherrod clear his medical issues and gets elevated to the active roster, and then practices well enough to gain the trust of the coaches. I’m just speculating that Lang is a better center than Barclay based only on how poorly Barclay played center in the limited chances he got. I’d also shy away from putting Sherrod at guard since he looks so out of place when the Packers asked him to play guard during his rookie year. I’m not really putting this as an option as it depends on Sherrod getting promoted to the active roster, which while at the moment looks to be the case, how well Sherrod will play after not seeing the field for 2 years is yet to be seen.
Overall, I’d be willing to guess that option 1 is the most likely as rumors pointed to Barclay shifting to center in an emergency with the logical candidate for right tackle then being Marshall Newhouse. Personally, I like option 4 better as you get to keep both Bakhtiari and Barclay at tackle and you mitigate the downside of Marshall Newhouse while still getting his experience in the offense. The wildcard in my opinion is really Lane Taylor, if the Packers think Taylor can handle playing pivot then that makes the most sense, but would also indicate a general distrust of Newhouse (who I’m still predicting will be cut in favor of Sherrod whenever they ultimately decide to activate him).
However, when it comes down to it, the best option is still Bakhtiari/Sitton/Dietrich-Smith/Lang/Barclay as it appears that the line has finally gelled and has become a big reason why the Packers are experiencing so much success in the running game. I don’t think any of the combinations I’ve listed is superior to the starting 5 right now and in all honesty if Dietrich-Smith were to get hurt it would probably be a disaster for the offense, perhaps even more disastrous than losing Randall Cobb (Finley, Jones and Nelson should be able to cover) or Clay Matthews (the Packers are now 4-1 in the last two year without him). One of the biggest criticisms of Mike McCarthy and his staff over the year is their propensity to play “musical chairs” with the offensive line. Unfortunately with the active man roster being so restrictive all teams have no choice but to play musical chairs to some point, but not to the same extent as a full line mix up as the Packers always seem to do. I think this does highlight how precariously thin most teams are in terms of offensive line depth and while the season would definitely be over Aaron Rodgers went down, losing Evan Dietrich-Smith might not be too far behind.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.