Battle No. 1: Center
In one corner, it’s J.C. Tretter.
Tretter, a fourth-round pick last year, missed most of his rookie season after sustaining a broken leg and ankle damage during an offseason practice. He practiced for the final seven weeks of the season but didn’t play a regular-season or playoff snap. A former tight end and left tackle at Ivy League school Cornell, he’s never blocked a legit, front-line NFL player in his career and he’s never played a snap of center in a game.
In the other corner, it’s Corey Linsley.
Linsley, a fifth-round pick this year out of Ohio State, has what Tretter doesn’t: He’s played center in a game and he’s faced legit NFL talent. In fact, he was a two-time all-Big Ten selection, including a first-teamer as a senior.
The winner of this battle – by far the most important on the offensive side of the ball -- will give the Packers one of the most inexperienced starting centers in the NFL.
Where Tretter has the advantage is his one year of experience in the system, his intelligence and his athleticism. The experience and intelligence shouldn’t be overlooked in Green Bay’s up-tempo offense, in which decisions must be made at warp speed. Where Linsley has the advantage is his strength and experience at the position.
“The more experiences (Tretter) can have seeing fronts and then playing … you know, I don’t have any concern with any of the centers, quite frankly, even the youngest kid, Corey,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “Recognizing the front, getting everybody set in the right places — of course, all of our players make calls. We’re not one of those teams that relies on one guy. So, they all equally distribute calls. But that part I feel very confident in all of them.
“Now, for someone like J.C. -- which can be similar even to someone like Corey because Garth (Gerhart) has been in NFL camps -- is facing the reps against bigger, stronger, (more) powerful guys, fresher guys. Because at college, you may play against a dominant guy two or three times a year, where a guy is a real tough son of a gun. Here, I mean, the first guy on the depth chart to the third is one of the best guys you’ve faced. So, you’re getting it all the time. So, the first thing is to just get comfortable for him. That’s what he’s up against, and that’s what Corey’s up against, too — getting that feel, reaching a guy, working your hands on a one-on-one when you know you’re one-on-one pass blocking. Making the mistake and then coming back, correcting it as quickly as possible. So that’s what I think those two kids are up against the most of anything. ‘How fast can I correct that fundamental mistake, not a playbook mistake, how fast can I go and correct it so when it happens again, I can get myself and recover out of that?’”
Tretter enters training camp as the favorite, having taken all of the No. 1 reps throughout the offseason. The Packers liked him enough to not re-sign Evan Dietrich-Smith, but they didn’t like him so much that they didn’t draft a legit challenger.
“It’s an open competition,” Tretter said. “You’ve got to make the most of it. You’ve got to go out there and you have to earn it. There’s nothing at this level that’s given to you. You’ve got to go out there every day and earn your position. That’s how I went into the offseason and that’s how it’s going to continue to be until the final decision’s been made.”
Battle No. 2: Backup tackles
And in a perfect world, that’s just how it will wind up. But the NFL often is an imperfect world. Is Sherrod good enough to protect Aaron Rodgers’ blind side? Nobody knows that answer: Not general manager Ted Thompson. Not coach Mike McCarthy. Not Campen. And perhaps not even Sherrod himself.
It seems like forever ago since Sherrod, then a rookie first-round pick, struggled when given a shot to compete for the starting job at left guard, then faltered when injuries thrust him into the lineup at right tackle. Once upon a time, Sherrod was a highly regarded lineman with prototypical size, length, intelligence and athleticism. Sherrod has those first three traits, but does he still have the athleticism after a broken leg sidelined him for two full years? And does the fire still burn in his belly after not competing on a daily and weekly basis for so long?
“You see his movements out there and we just got done watching the tape today, the kid looks terrific,” Campen said. “The next step for him is to get him into the daily grind, put the pads on and go pound it. That’s his next step. But we’ve been very pleased with where he’s come from.”
Barclay’s versatility is a huge asset. Because he can play both guard spots and right tackle – and potentially center – he can enter a game and limit the games of musical chairs, such as T.J. Lang going from left guard to right tackle or, further back, Daryn Colledge going from left guard to left tackle or right tackle.
“There’s a lot of value in that,” Campen said of Barclay. “But, I’ll say this: He is not out of the starting position race. But, if it ends up that way, yeah, it’s very, very, very good. Especially when we dress seven, it’s nice to go one-for-one. Don Barclay will earn his reps, earn his opportunities. He won’t give anything up.”
Battle No. 3: Depth
If Barclay is the “sixth man” capable of playing right tackle and both guard spots, and if Sherrod is the backup left tackle, then who rounds out the depth chart?
Barring injury or one of them simply falling on his face, the loser of Tretter vs. Linsley likely will be No. 8. Eight is a fairly typical number of linemen to take into a season, though the Packers had nine on their season-ending roster last year.
Who else could be in the mix? Last year’s eighth lineman coming out of camp was guard Lane Taylor, an undrafted rookie who came on strong during the final two weeks of training camp. John Fullington, an undrafted rookie from Washington State, played both guard and tackle spots during his collegiate career. They enter camp as the front-runners for a ninth spot, though the coaches saw enough out of Gerhart, tackle Aaron Adams and guard Andrew Tiller last year to bring them back.
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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.