There was much consternation at the beginning of the season. The Packers spent time and resources developing a plan to keep this team healthier. If you ask Mike McCarthy that’s a huge part of this team’s success, especially in the regular season. He claims to have only coached two teams of above average health in his career. The 2007 Packers that went 12-4 and made it to the NFC Championship and the 2011 team that went 15-1 in the regular season nearly setting several NFL records for offense.
The off season and in season practice schedules were edited. The team took a different approach to both nutrition and regeneration. Early on, it appeared that the Packers were on to something. Despite the inability of the newly signed Letroy Guion and Packers roster disappointment Jerel Worthy to get on the field, Green Bay was staying relatively healthy. The new practices and measures of prevention appeared to be working. Then the injury bug bit hard.
The Packers’ top utility man Don Barclay went down for the season with a torn ACL, and promising young local prodcut Jared Abbrederis did as well. When the Packers got into the preseason they lost BJ Raji for the year with a torn bicep. At least for the season it appeared that the Packers were headed down the same road that causes Aaron Rodgers to have to carry the team to a 10-6 or 11-5 record.
These were all injuries of “annoyance”. Barclay and Abbrederis were going to provide depth and possibilities for the future as both are very young players. Raji was going to start and also move back to his traditional position of nose tackle, but he hadn’t been good for several seasons. There’s no proof that he would have been good in 2014.
The next injury that befell the 2014 Packers was not “annoying”. The team’s starting center, JC Tretter was injured and placed on the IR-designated for return. Early dates with the dominant front lines of Seattle, New York and Detroit made everyone very nervous. All of a sudden the masses were upset that Thompson continued to let the starting centers of the Green Bay Packers go. Scott Wells left. Jeff Saturday retired. Evan Dietrich-Smith left. Now JC Tretter was out and the team would have to turn to 5th round rookie Corey Linsley.
As I wrote here offensive linemen are a position group that can be expected to contribute right away. One of the biggest things that rookie offensive linemen need to add to play in this league is strength. That is not a problem of Corey Linsley’s. Slightly undersized at 6’3″ and 298 pounds Linsley more than makes up for that by being one of the strongest players in the NFL, a league filled with very strong men. His 36 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press led the 2014 NFL combine.
Linsley’s strength, smarts and skill have allowed him to be a very productive member of the offensive line in just his first season. The team was so comfortable with his play that when JC Tretter returned from injury he stepped into Don Barclay’s utility role instead of into the starting lineup. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has even stumped for Linsley to be selected to the Pro Bowl. While that kind of praise is pretty high, it might also be deserved.
Linsley is Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center behind perennial All-Pro Nick Mangold of the Jets and the Seahawks’ Max Unger. Unger has only participated in 6 of Seattle’s games so of centers who’ve taken at least 50% of their team’s snaps Linsley is 2nd and tops in the NFC. His run blocking grade of +6.8 resides in the top 5 of the NFL and his penalty rating of +1.1 is tied for first. A young center who can get the protections called, move people in the run game and not make mental mistakes is very useful. One who is yet to allow a sack of QB Aaron Rodgers just might be priceless.
Speaking of prices, Linsley is set to make an average of $601,250 a year between now and 2017. His predecessors, Evan Dietrich Smith and Scott Wells are making $3.56 and $3.63 million per season, respectively. Instead of tying himself to those players, Thompson stuck to his strategy and netted himself an elite center at a younger age and a better price. I don’t know how much stock you put into Pro Football Focus’ ratings system but as far as I’m concerned i’m not qualified to judge offensive line play, so they are my bible. As of right now if you look at the center rankings, Evan Dietrich Smith checks in at #31, with a grade of -7.7. Wells is playing much worse. His -15.9 grade for the rams is good for 40th of the 42 NFL centers that have played at least 25% of their teams snaps.
Ted Thompson’s ability to find young, effective players and play them in big positions while they make rookie salaries is an example of why the Packers’ success isn’t cyclical like it is for other teams. The New York Giants might have won Super Bowl Titles in both 2007 and 2011, but they have had some truly awful seasons in between. San Francisco and Seattle were bad for long periods of time before their recent success, and it appears that those walls might already be tumbling down. Selecting players like Linsley, and in turn allowing players like Wells and Dietrich-Smith to walk is how a team can afford to pay Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews piles and piles of money to stay its stars and still field a competitive group. There are times that Ted Thompson and his methods tests fans’ patience, especially around the free agency period. I would ask those that do to remember players like Linsley and situations like we have at center right now.