Evan Dietrich-Smith signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday, his four-year worth a reported $14.5 million deal deemed too rich for the Packers' tastes. Green Bay offensive line coach James Campen spoke highly of Dietrich-Smith throughout the season but stopped short of ever giving an overwhelming endorsement.
"I think he grew as the season went along," Campen said at the end of the season. "He got better with communication, his command with tempo and getting people set and where they had to align. I thought he did a good job with that. I think still he's a player that has room to grow. So, the first time out (as the full-time starter) and starting 16 games plus a playoff game, it's important for anyone. It's what you do with that information moving forward. He's depicted that coming back this year after starting six (at the end of 2012). He (improved) from those six games in 2012. I think he did OK."
Dietrich-Smith was ProFootballFocus.com's eighth-ranked center last season, even though that statistical group charged him with five sacks allowed — second-most in the league among centers. However, on runs up the middle, the Packers averaged a sixth-ranked 5.01 yards per carry, according to league data.
So, the Packers will be entering their fourth consecutive season with a new starting center, having gone from Scott Wells to Jeff Saturday to Dietrich-Smith. Where do they turn?
The obvious in-house candidate is J.C. Tretter, a fourth-round pick last year out of Cornell. Tretter is intelligent and athletic, and he fits the mold of a Packers lineman because he played left tackle in college. However, he was injured during the first day of organized team activities after the draft and missed most of the season. He participated in only a few padded practices at the end of the season.
"A guy that hadn't played a lot of football in a long time, you know," Campen said when asked what he saw in Tretter. "But certainly got better as each week went along and then, of course, not having pads on, it's different when you get in there and push around and do those things. But, you know, same kind of guy when we saw he was drafted — confident, smart guy that knows his stuff, a kid that's been in every meeting, takes every test, every quiz and answers every question. He was prepared when he came back and that's why he's on the active roster."
Don Barclay, who started at right tackle for most of the past two seasons, is another option. With Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod in the mix for that spot, Barclay could move inside. However, he struggled at center during a trial in training camp. An entire offseason at center could make him a viable option.
The free-agent class isn't very good beyond Cleveland's Alex Mack, Dietrich-Smith and New Orleans' Brian De La Puente. Mack was given the transition tag by the Browns, meaning a $10 million contract. The Packers could make a run at him, but it would be expensive and they have to consider the impending free agency of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. De La Puente will command roughly the same contract as Dietrich-Smith received, a source told Packer Report on Friday.
Of the best-of-the-rest, San Francisco's Jonathan Goodwin will be entering his 13th season, Detroit's Dominic Raiola his 14th and Chicago's Roberto Garza his 14th. Indianapolis' Samson Satele is younger but "isn't any good," the source said. New England's Ryan Wendell was the only center to allow more sacks than Dietrich-Smith. Pittsburgh's Fernando Velasco and Cincinnati's Kyle Cook rank in the bottom quarter of PFF's rankings.
The source called this a "very weak" draft class with "only three guys who can come in and play right away."
One is USC's Marcus Martin. He didn't test well at this week's pro day, but the scouts don't seem to mind. "Martin is the best center" in this year's draft, longtime NFL scout Dave-Te Thomas said. Another source told Packer Report that Martin might wind up going in the bottom of the first round.
Another is Colorado State's Weston Richburg, who is competing with Martin to be the first center off the board. He started all 50 career games and showed he could play with the big boys at the Senior Bowl. At 6-foot-3 and 304 pounds, he fits the physical mold of past Packers centers.
The third is Arkansas' Travis Swanson. One scout said he is "head and shoulders" better than the rest of the centers in this class. At 6-foot-5, he is significantly taller than Dietrich-Smith, Saturday and Scott Wells, all of whom are 6-foot-2 . He started 50 consecutive games and routinely dominated his SEC competition.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offseason makeover continues for coach Lovie Smith. In addition to Dietrich-Smith, the Bucs have added quarterback Josh McCown, tackle Anthony Collins and tight end Brandon Myers on offense. Defensive acquisitions include pass rusher Michael Johnson, tackle Clinton McDonald and cornerback Alterraun Verner.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.