With NFL free agency beginning in just over a week, it looks as though the Packers will let center Evan Dietrich-Smith test the market, but should they?

For years the center position had been the most stable position along the Packers’ offensive line. But after six years as the Packers starting center, Scott Wells signed a lucrative free agent deal with the St. Louis Rams after the 2011 season.

The Packers, feeling that they didn’t have a legitimate in house option, did something they very rarely do, and signed veteran free agent Jeff Saturday. At 37, Saturday was a shell of his former All-Pro self and was replaced mid-season by Dietrich-Smith.

Now with Dietrich-Smith on the verge of free agency, the Packers are looking at the very real possibility that they will be starting their fourth center in as many years.

So why haven’t the Packers attempted to negotiate a new contract with Dietrich-Smith?

In his first full season at starting center Dietrich-Smith graded out at +14.2 by Pro Football Focus, and is their 3rd ranked free agent center, behind only Cleveland’s 2 time Pro-Bowler Alex Mack, and New Orleans’ Brian de la Puente.  Other reviews of Dietrich-Smith’s performance were not as positive. Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gave Dietrich-Smith a C- for his performance for the year in his annual Packer report card.

It could be the Packers agree with Bob McGinn’s evaluation of Dietrich-Smith more than they agree with Pro Football Focus, and they think the position could be upgraded.

But It’s important to remember that this was Dietrich-Smith’s first full season at center.  Like most Packers’ interior lineman, Dietrich-Smith played tackle in college and was converted by the Packers to a guard and center, so center is a relatively new position for him, and at only 27, he has a lot of time to improve.

From all reports the Packers are very high on last year’s 4th round pick out of Cornell, JC Tretter. Tretter was injured early in training camp last year and spent most of the season on the PUP list, so he is a relatively unknown commodity.  Adding to the mystery surrounding Tretter’s ability is the fact that he has never played a snap at center in college or the NFL. Recruited as a tight end, Tretter made the transition to left tackle his junior year, and earned first team All-Ivy League honors his senior season. The Packers very well may see Tretter as the center of the future, but with almost no experience in the NFL or at center, the Packers would be taking a fairly substantial risk going in to the season with him as their number one option.

The Packers don’t have a lot of other viable options already on the roster. Don Barclay took some snaps at center in pre-season, but that experiment did not go well. TJ Lang filled in for a bit at center this past season, but I don’t see that as being a long term solution. And practice squader Garth Gerhart probably hasn’t shown enough to warrant a roster spot this season.

What I think is causing the Packers to risk this uncertainty at arguably the most valuable position on the offensive line is money.

At the right price I’m sure the Packers want Dietrich-Smith back. A cap friendly deal would allow the Packers to have an open competition between Tretter and Dietrich-Smith for the starting center position, and it would provide them with flexibility and stability along the offensive line.  But with TJ Lang and Josh Sitton eating up $11.5 million in cap space this season, I can’t imagine the Packers want to tie up much more money in the interior of their offensive line.

The Packers also don’t want another bad contract on the books. If Dietrich-Smith is re-signed and paid starter money,  only to be beaten out by Tretter for the starting center job in training camp, along with the extensions for Brad Jones and Morgan Burnett, that would be three rather questionable contracts handed out by the Packers in the span of two years.

You can’t blame Dietrich-Smith for wanting to test free agency. He will not get Scott Wells type money, but I do think there will be a team that needs a starting center who will be willing to give him a decent sized long term deal.

The Packers could also look to the draft or free agency to find a new center, but this is a rather thin draft at the position, and we all know Ted Thompson won’t be outbidding anyone for one of the top centers on the market. Ultimately the Packers will have to choose between the experience and stability that re-signing Dietrich-Smith would bring, and the potential upside and cost savings that Tretter offers them.


Ian Hanley is a writer at PackersTalk.com. PackersTalk.com. You can follow him on twitter at @Ian_M_Hanley.