This is the second installment of my “Five Players That Have to be Good” for the Green Bay Packers. My second choice is offensive lineman Greg van Roten.
On game days, most teams (Packers included), dress 7 offensive linemen. The general idea behind this is that there is a backup tackle and a backup interior offensive linemen available should someone get hurt during the game. The backup interior OL is either expected to be able to play center, or one of the starting guards has to have the ability to slide inside. Center is not a plug and play position in the NFL. The center needs to be able to work with the QB and his line mates to make protection calls and recognize blitz packages.
When Scott Wells was allowed to leave in free agency following the 2011 season, it was assumed that a draft pick would be used to get a young center to fill his shoes, as that was the Packer way under GM Ted Thompson. When the board didn’t fall that way and Thompson decided to use his first 6 picks on defense, the Packers had to turn to a veteran. They signed Jeff Saturday, one of the most respected centers of his generation. Although Saturday did make the Pro Bowl, it was on reputation. Saturday was benched towards the end of the season and replaced by Evan Dietrich-Smith.
Last season, “EDS” was the Packers’ “Break Glass In Case of Emergency” interior lineman. When Bryan Bulaga went down with a hip injury and Derek Sherrod was unable to make it back from his broken leg, TJ Lang was kicked out to RT and EDS came in at LG. When Saturday was deemed unworthy at C, EDS came in. The Packers trusted Evan Dietrich-Smith to cover any gaps that they had in their interior offensive line.
Here’s a terrifying question: now that Saturday has retired, who plays center if something happens to Evan Dietrich-Smith in 2013? I’ll tell you this much it isn’t going to be a drafted center, or anyone who has played center in a meaningful NFL game. TJ Lang has taken “emergency” snaps at center in practice. JC Tretter was drafted out of the Ivy League in the 4th round to possibly be the first interior lineman off the bench, but he broke his ankle Ryan Grant style in OTAs. Is the answer to the question “everyone panic!”?
Right now the answer to the question is another Ivy Leaguer, Greg Van Roten out of Penn, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of college. He, like so many of the Packers offensive linemen, played tackle in college. His size, (6’4” 293) makes him a little too small to hold up on the edge of the line as a tackle, but a serviceable size for a center. Van Roten also should have the smarts required to handle the position. He was a 2 time first team Ivy Leaguer and honorable mention as a sophomore. He started all 30 games for the Quakers following his freshman year, all at the coveted position of left tackle. It is to the Packers advantage that he was immediately converted into a backup interior OL last season, and has spent time in practice and in the preseason taking snaps at center.
The Packers will be fine at tackle as far as depth is concerned. Whoever doesn’t win the RT job between Newhouse, Sherrod (if healthy), or Barclay will be the first man up (although I would imagine that if Newhouse wins the job and Bulaga goes down for any lengthy period of time he would go back to LT and Barclay would play RT again). The fact that the entire line has been flip flopped, with only EDS remaining in his position makes the lack of proven depth behind him all the more concerning. If EDS went down early, it’s entirely possible (and very scary) that Green Bay could have 5 OL on a line that just gave up 51 sacks each playing out of position. For this reason if Dietrich-Smith was to go down with an injury, it’s very important that Van Roten can come in, make the correct protection calls, and hold up as a blocker (especially in pass pro). Neither I, nor anyone else in Packer Nation feels it necessary to watch the Graham Harrell Experience: Part Deux because Aaron Rodgers got smacked.
Greg Van Roten has to be good.