As we hit on earlier this morning with our recap piece of the center position in 2013, we concluded that Evan Dietrich-Smith did a solid job in his first full season as the starter at center earning a grade of B-. Of course there is room for improvement for Dietrich-Smith, as he looks to become a long-term starter in the NFL.
In the 2013 draft the Packers selected guard/center J.C. Tretter in the fourth round out of Cornell University. At the time many considered Tretter to be the heir apparent to Dietrich-Smith, and with a full season under his belt, challenge EDS for the starting spot in 2014. However, with Tretter breaking his ankle early in OTAs and subsequently being placed on the PUP list for the majority of the season, that plan was never able to come to fruition, and the Packers went along with EDS as the starter.
Now with Dietrich-Smith set to hit free agency, the Packers appear to be back at square one in their hunt for a starting center. One could argue that aside from cornerback Sam Shields, EDS is the Packers' most important free agent in 2014, and I would agree with that narrative. EDS provided solid play all through 2013, and unlike nearly a quarter of the team, EDS played all 17 games, including the playoff game.
Nonetheless this article is designed to take a look at the options the Packers may have if they are either unable or unwilling to sign Dietrich-Smith.
If the Packers were to lose EDS, the No. 1 candidate to replace him should be Alex Mack. Mack is arguably the NFL's best center and at the ripe age of 28, Mack has plenty of football ahead of him. According to Pro Football Focus, Mack was the NFL's fourth best center (best overall in the AFC). He allowed just two sacks in 2013, compared to the five sacks given up by EDS.
More on EDS
More on EDS
Like EDS, Mack has managed stay healthy his entire career, which began in 2009. Since his rookie season, Mack has started all 80 games for the Cleveland Browns, and has molded the Browns' offensive line into one of the NFL's best. Mack will be the most coveted center to hit free agency this offseason, which could easily lead to a bidding war between a number of teams seeking his services. With general manager Ted Thompson's normally conservative approach to free agency it would appear unlikely we see Mack in green and gold in 2014.
Brian De La Puente
It took the former undrafted free agent a few years to hit his stride in the NFL, but since things began to click for De La Puente, he has become a top-notch NFL center for the New Orleans Saints.
De La Puente had a bit of a down season in 2013-2014, as Pro Football Focus had him as the NFL's 16th best center with an overall season grade of (+4.0). Remember, EDS finished the season ranked the NFL's eighth best center with an overall grade of (+12.1) according to PFF. Regardless, De La Puente is a known commodity and has proven on numerous occasions that he can play at a high level in the NFL. He also wouldn't break the Packers' bank in regards to a potential deal. Like EDS, De La Puente was a restricted free agent last year and will hit unrestricted free agency for the first time this offseason.
2014 NFL Draft Prospect
Travis Swanson (Arkansas)
The 2014 NFL draft is not a draft deep with center talent, in fact, only one prospect even has a first round grade and that is Swanson. At 6-foot-5, 310 pounds, Swanson has the ideal size of a NFL center. CBS Sports ranks him as the No. 1 center prospect in this draft and considers his strength to be in the pass blocking game. Some scouts also like Swanson's athleticism in general, which they think can be useful in the run game as a potential rare pulling center.
As the draft season approaches the NFL combine, which will take place in February, Swanson's draft stock could rise or fall depending on how well he does in individual drills. One has to think that he is selected in the late first round, perhaps early second, as he is the top center in this draft. That might be a little too early for Thompson and the Packers to pull to trigger considering the more important needs at different positions. Swanson started 50 consecutive games to end his collegiate career at Arkansas.