On Saturday afternoon, they added a new player to the competition with the selection of Ohio State's Corey Linsley in the fifth round of the NFL Draft (No. 161 overall).
"He really is what you're looking for from a mental standpoint," said Packers offensive line coach James Campen. "He's very physical. He goes after people. Tempo setter. He plays a physical brand of football."
Linsley, 6-foot-3, 296 pounds, will join a position group for the Packers that has zero games of NFL experience. The only other true centers on the roster are 2013 fourth-round pick J.C. Tretter, who spent last season recovering from an offseason broken ankle, and Garth Gerhart, who has spent time on the practice squad the past two seasons.
"Well, it's going to be interesting," said Campen of coaching his group of centers. "You know, we have Garth and J.C. and now Corey, so it's going to be very competitive. They all know that in the room. I just had a great conversation with Corey and he's excited for the opportunity, as well, but the other two guys have been here and have been working extremely hard, too, so those things will be a weekly thing, I'm sure, going forward. I have great confidence in all three of those young men."
Linsley is the first actual center drafted by the Packers since they took Scott Wells in 2004, Junius Coston in 2005 and Jason Spitz in 2006.
"It's good to finally draft one that's played the position before," joked coach Mike McCarthy. We're all excited about that. I know James Campen's real excited. (Linsley is a) tough guy. Anybody you talk to at Ohio State and the reputation he has there, and just the way he plays, it will be good just to have a natural center come in and play that position., and I view him as a center. I know we historically move our guys around but I think it's important for him to come in and play center."
Like many of the offensive linemen on the Packers' roster, Linsley's background includes playing at other positions. He was basically an afterthought reserve at all the offensive line positions his first three years in Columbus before Buckeyes' coach Urban Meyer came aboard in 2012 and changed everything. In Meyer's words, Linsley went from a "nobody to the apex of the offense" taking over as the starter at center in 2012 for departed All-American Michael Brewster.
"Along with that change in positions, it was a change in my life, too," said Linsley of the transformative time in his career. "I put my foot in the ground and started to make myself a better person and that translated to the football field, and I started working harder and did everything I could do to be the best Buckeye I could and it worked out real well. Coach Meyer and I developed a great relationship along with our strength coach, coach Mickey (Marotti) and our O-line coach, coach (Ed) Warinner, and they really mentored me through my process by changing… just really the whole thing snowballed into this great experience I've had for the past two years. The position change, I was a different person when I played guard and had a different work ethic, a different character. It was totally different. The transition was really not only on the field, but also in my life. It was all a change for the better."
"I was suspended in 2011 for two games for a violation of team rules," Linsley continued later in a conference call with Green Bay media. "That's as much as they've ever let out and that's where I'd like to keep it at. Regardless, I felt as if I needed a change in my life because I obviously wasn't going down the football path that I wanted to. Coach Meyer, he said, ‘Are you going to commit yourself to the football team?' I said, ‘Yeah, I take responsibility for what I did. From now, I'm doing whatever you want. I‘m all-in.' That's really what sparked a change. I gave my heart to the team, which I plan to do for the Packers, too. It all turned out all right."
In 2013, Linsley was chosen as a first team All-Big Ten pick. Over the past two years in Meyer's spread offense, he helped the Buckeyes amass averages of 423.8 and 511.9 yards per game. In 2013, they rushed for 45 touchdowns, 20 coming through the middle of the offensive line.
A Youngstown, Ohio, native, Linsley has the reputation of being a "tough guy." Strength is a standout part of his game. By benching 225 pounds 36 times at the NFL Scouting Combine, he was one of only nine players (out of 335-plus) to reach at least 35 reps.
Though Tretter, who came off the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list late last season to participate in practices, would appear to be the Packers front-runner at center headed into OTAs, Campen would not rule out a variety of possibilities.
"You never know what happens with that," he said. "We have other guys who have played center. Obviously, T.J. (Lang) has been in there, Josh (Sitton) has snapped balls for us, Don Barclay has snapped balls for us. I think those things will be decided moving forward. But if you really looked at it right now, we have three guys that are centers that are going to play center and they're going to battle it out. Like we talked about before, we like to have the ability to be flexible. Someone's going to be a backup, so they've got to be able to play guard, too, and maybe another position. We certainly work as many guys as we need to to make sure we're covered going into ball games because we dress seven."
Last year's starting center, Evan Dietrich-Smith, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason as a free agent. In 2012, free agent veteran signing Jeff Saturday spent most of the season as the Packers' starter before being benched and then retiring. Before that, Scott Wells, also a free agent departure, had been the Packers' regular starter for six straight seasons.
Soon after being selected by the Packers on Friday afternoon, Linsley tweeted a picture of himself wearing a retro "Ice Bowl, Green Bay" T-shirt. Though he grew up in Ohio, he once went as Brett Favre for Halloween as a child and also owned a cheesehead.
"It was unbelievable," said Linsley of being selected by Green Bay. "I hadn't spoken to the Packers very much (prior to the draft). They actually were my childhood favorite team, so just to see that Caller ID show up ‘Green Bay, WI' it was really a dream come true. Unbelievable. Couldn't ask for a better experience."