The Green Bay Packers have a big decision coming at center.
All signs point to the Packers sticking with Evan Dietrich-Smith, who's a restricted free agent. Late in the season, when a team source was relayed Aaron Rodgers' belief that Dietrich-Smith is the center of the future and asked if the team shared that belief, the source said, "If that's what Aaron said, then that'll probably lead you in the right direction."
While things might have changed in the last several weeks, it's a good bet that Dietrich-Smith will be given a significant restricted free agent tender and have his hand on the ball when the Packers begin offseason practices.
Nonetheless, the depth at the interior line positions is practically nonexistent. Dietrich-Smith was the primary backup at all three interior positions, starting games at left guard before replacing Jeff Saturday at center. With Saturday having retired, the backups at the interior spots are a pair of undrafted free agents: Don Barclay and Greg VanRoten. Given that precarious position, the Packers almost certainly will draft an interior linemen – and possibly could do so with a premium pick.
The center class is one of the strengths of this draft. Alabama's Barrett Jones and Wisconsin's Travis Frederick are the headliners. Either or both could move into the first round, where the Packers hold the 26th selection.
"I'd love to play in Green Bay," Jones said during his media session here at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "I'll play wherever they ask me but definitely it would be awesome to play for a team with that kind of tradition."
Jones has many of the traits the Packers covet with their offensive linemen. First, he offers tremendous versatility. Jones started at center, guard and tackle, with Alabama winning national championships with him at each position. Plus, as the leader of the offensive linemen, intelligence is a prized commodity in a center. Jones, the Rimington Award winner as the nation's top center as a senior, was an Academic All-American, the winner of the William V. Campbell Trophy (aka the Academic Heisman) and boasted a 4.0 GPA.
The one knock on Jones, at least for the here and now, is his health. He sustained a Lisfranc foot injury – the same injury that ended running back Cedric Benson's season – but played in the SEC Championship Game as well as the National Championship Game before having surgery. He won't work out at the Combine or at Alabama's pro day.
The injury could allow Frederick to be the first center off the board. In the long and strong history of Wisconsin offensive linemen, nobody ever started the first game of the season as a true freshman until Frederick arrived in 2009. He started two games at center and two games at guard in 2009, redshirted in 2010, and started mostly at guard until replacing center Peter Konz for three games in 2011. This season, Frederick was the Big Ten's first-team center.
As with Jones, intelligence is not an issue. Frederick was working on a double major before heading to the NFL a year early.
"Intelligence is very important, especially at Wisconsin," Frederick said. "At Wisconsin, the center made a lot of the calls — the run calls, a lot of the pass calls and Mike (middle linebacker) declarations and things like that for the entire line. So at that point, you have to be able to make those calls quickly and decisively so you can get everybody on the same page and continue to move forward and have success."
Cal's Brian Schwenke is the solid No. 3, with USC's Khaled Holmes fourth and Notre Dame's Braxston Cave fifth.
Schwenke never played center in his life until his senior season, when he was forced into the lineup because of injuries. A two-year starter at guard, he felt right at home in the middle, earning first-team honors in the Pac-12.
"From what I've heard, it's a big mental game," Schwenke said. "It's your career now. You don't have school anymore, so it's now football. I don't think that will be a problem for me, because I love football. But that's kind of what I've heard is the biggest step. I mean, the talent, everyone's good. There's no guys that are kind of good, or the guys who are bad on the team any more. So everyone's very talented."
Holmes also offers versatility and intelligence, not to mention an athletic pedigree with a father who played at Michigan, a brother who played for the Dolphins and Troy Polamalu as his brother-in-law. He started at guard as a sophomore before moving to center for his final two seasons. He also was first-team all-Pac-12, was named one of six finalists for the Rimington Award and was a second-team Academic All-American. Holmes majored in classics, meaning his authors of choice growing up were Plato and Homer, then added a communications degree for a second major.
"My favorite story was the ‘Twelve Labors of Hercules,'" Holmes said. "It helped me develop my mind and, in that regard, it helped me (improve) my understanding of the game."
Cave was a three-year starter. As a senior, he was second-team All-American and a finalist for the Rimington Award. He wasn't great in drills at the Senior Bowl but performed well during the game.
"I like to think of myself as one of the best centers in the country," he said. "We'll leave that up to teams to decide."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.