Late in 2012, Evan Dietrich-Smith took over as the starter for the Green Bay Packers at the center position after veteran Jeff Saturday was benched for ineffective play. The guy known as "EDS" started nine games prior to the 2013 season, Dietrich-Smith put together a solid season for the Packers.
APC continues our offseason review of the Packers in 2013 with a look at the center position.
2013 Packers Centers
Starter: Evan Dietrich-Smith
Backups: T.J. Lang (also J.C. Tretter)
Practice Squad: Garth Gerhart
Injured Reserve: Greg Van Roten
After the failed Jeff Saturday experiment in 2012, the Packers were desperate for Dietrich-Smith to take the next step and solidify himself as a solid NFL center. After starting the final six games, including the playoffs in 2012, Dietrich-Smith earned his starting position in 2013. Many people expected the former undrafted free agent and four-year pro to struggle initially, which he did. With the Packers shifting the offensive line around in the offseason, the center position was the only position on the offensive line that appeared to be at least somewhat stable. Dietrich-Smith's health was a big worry for the Packers organization as rookie JC Tretter suffered a broken ankle in OTAs and Greg Van Roten was put on IR, leaving no backup plan in place if EDS were to be injured at any point in 2013. Simply put, the team needed him to play all 16 games.
In 2013, Dietrich-Smith started each of the Packers' 17 games, including the playoffs. It was a rough start to 2013 for the first-year starter as Dietrich-Smith gave up three sacks in the first three games. Dietrich-Smith would get better as the season grew and would only allow two sacks in the final 14 games of the season, including the playoffs.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dietrich-Smith finished the season with an overall grade of (+12.1) which was eighth-best out of a total 35 centers who played at least 400 snaps. That is a dramatic improvement over Jeff Saturday's 2012 overall grade of (-4.9) which was 29th-best out of the 36 centers who qualified for the season ranking.
Still, at times Dietrich-Smith appeared to be overmatched against some of the NFL's elite inside pass rushers. At this point, for an undrafted free agent, Dietrich-Smith has overachieved. He is the best option the Packers have not only in 2013, but also in the immediate future. This was never more evident then when Dietrich-Smith left two games early this season due to injury. When Dietrich-Smith left games against both the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles, guard T.J. Lang shifted over to center, tackle Don Barclay moved over to right guard and Marshall Newhouse came in at right tackle. In both these situations the Packers were at their worst on the offensive line. Communication breakdowns resulted in four sacks given up in just 68 total snaps without Dietrich-Smith, all coming from the shifted right side.
Sure Dietrich-Smith isn't a top notch NFL center quite yet, and he may never be. However, after one full season as the exclusive starter for the Packers at center, Dietrich-Smith was impressive and should be a priority for the Packers in free agency this offseason.
I originally gave the position a grade of C+, but Dietrich-Smith's ability to stay healthy and play all 17 games, along with his solid play in just his first year as the starter made me think he had earned a higher grade.
Dietrich-Smith played a total of 1,137 snaps, missing only 68 snaps throughout the course of the regular season and playoffs. He also gave up five sacks in 17 games. For a team that has suffered a number of injuries to key players and positions, the Packers were able to count on Dietrich-Smith week in and week out to be ready to play, and in the NFL that is often half the battle.