The Green Bay Packers' offensive line came together nicely this past season, though heading into the season opener there was plenty of reason for concern. Projected left tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a torn ACL, which forced the Packers to start fourth-round rookie David Bakhtiari. At right tackle, Don Barclay, an undrafted rookie in 2012, beat out the more experienced Marshall Newhouse. At center, Evan Dietrich-Smith took over after being released by the team in 2010, re-signed, then playing sparingly for three seasons.
Those three uncertain entities performed well above expectations. Bakhtiari and Barclay were capable beyond their years, and Dietrich-Smith became a linchpin. When knee injuries forced him out of midseason losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions, the line fell apart. The Lions' loss was particularly eye-opening. With T.J. Lang kicking over to center from right guard and Newhouse taking Lang's spot in the interior, the Packers managed just 24 yards rushing and 126 totals yards of offense, both easily season lows.
Now, after a relatively successful season upfront, the line is facing turmoil again, starting with Dietrich-Smith, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March. The Packers chose not to extend Dietrich-Smith during the 2013 season, despite his efforts on the field and rapport with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers, who could play behind his fourth different center in four seasons in 2014, has said in the past that he would like Dietrich-Smith to remain in Green Bay.
"I'm in my middle years now and it would be fun to go on a run with a guy for five, six, seven years because that quarterback-center relationship is very important," Rodgers said in November. "I think you see that with Evan and I, the opportunity to play together for an extended period of time and that would be kind of a quarterback's dream right there."
According to the Press-Gazette, the Packers may be willing to let Dietrich-Smith go in favor of other options on the roster. Lang is capable of playing in the middle, but more intriguing is J.C. Tretter, who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft out of Cornell. Tretter spent most of the season studying the offense while he sat out until Dec. 10 recovering from a broken ankle. He earned high marks from offensive line coach James Campen. Via the Press-Gazette, again:
"As far as him mentally, he's done every test, every quiz." Campen said. "That kid knows the offense inside and out. He's been in every meeting. As far as a physical standpoint, it helps you a lot. It gives you a lot of confidence that (he) can just go play."
As for the two tackles, Bakhtiari and Barclay will face competition from a pair of former first-round picks returning from injuries. Bulaga's starting spot seems all but assured after he started in each of his first three seasons in the NFL. Whether he goes to the left or right side, where he has played exclusively thus far, remains to be seen.
Derek Sherrod's situation is even more intriguing. He has yet to take part in a full offseason since his rookie year thanks to a badly broken leg in 2011. Barring an unfortunate setback, he'll be able to take part in every Packers workout in 2014, and could challenge for a spot along the line if he can take advantage of his clear physical gifts.
The only certainty on the Packers' line is that Josh Sitton will be at left guard after playing at a second-team All-Pro level this past season. Thankfully for the Packers, they should have more depth, if anything, with Bulaga and Sherrod edging towards full health. That's fantastic news for an offense that took tremendous strides protecting Rodgers and running the ball with Eddie Lacy this past season.