Evan Dietrich-Smith still holding down the middle but others adjusting to new positions
By Rob Reischel, for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
~GREEN BAY — Evan Dietrich-Smith takes nothing for granted. Not after where he’s been and what he’s experienced.
Dietrich-Smith was a lightly regarded high school player that wound up at tiny Idaho State. He went undrafted and was later released by both Green Bay and Seattle.
With his career going nowhere fast, Dietrich-Smith was exploring a career in teaching.
So as Dietrich-Smith faces the possibility of being the only starter on the Packer offensive line back at the position where he finished 2012, he’s certainly not going to get too comfortable.
“It’s just one of those things. I don’t take a whole lot for granted and I never will,” said Dietrich-Smith, who started the final four games of 2012 at center. “From where I’ve been, I know pretty much nothing is guaranteed for me.
“I’ve had to fight my way up through everything, so it’s a very satisfying thing to be in the position that I’m in. But I still don’t take anything for granted. I still treat it like it’s 2009 and I’m trying to make this team.”
Green Bay’s offensive line received one of the greatest makeovers in recent memory this off-season.
Bryan Bulaga has moved from right tackle to left tackle. Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang flip-flopped sides. And Marshall Newhouse, last year’s starter at left tackle, was switched to right tackle to compete with Don Barclay, who started the final four games there in 2012.
If Newhouse beats out Barclay, Dietrich-Smith will be the only starter in the same spot where he finished 2012.
“That is a little crazy, I guess,” said Dietrich-Smith, who has 11 career starts in Green Bay, including playoffs. “I’ve played multiple positions my whole career, so it’s kind of nice to be in the same spot. You get to concentrate on one thing and focus on your technique. I can work on the stuff I need to work and go from there.”
Dietrich-Smith was Green Bay’s sixth lineman most of last season and the top backup at all three interior positions. He started four games at left guard, then was given the starting center job in Week 16 when the Packers pulled the plug on veteran Jeff Saturday.
The move was a huge hit as the undersized Dietrich-Smith (6-2, 308) held up well. In the four games Dietrich-Smith started, he didn’t allow a sack and had zero penalties.
“When they approached me about the switch, I know it was kind of controversial for a lot of people,” Dietrich-Smith said. “But for me, I had already got a lot of playing time, so switching wasn’t that hard for me. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to play now,’ because I was already playing. It was just a different spot.”
The Packers clearly want to see more, though. Dietrich-Smith was a restricted free agent this past off-season and was tendered the lowest qualifying offer of $1.323 million.
Dietrich-Smith will now enter the final year of his contract with a world of incentive. He’ll try proving he’s a viable starter, while playing for his financial future at the same time.
“I’m not really worried about that stuff,” Dietrich-Smith said. “I’m worried about the offense being the top offense in the league, the numbers being great, and then everything else will take care of itself.”
The Packers hope their other moves this off-season will help take care of a unit that’s been suspect in recent seasons.
Green Bay allowed 51 sacks during the regular season last year, the second most in football. And counting the postseason, the Packers have allowed 202 sacks in the past four years.
While the offensive line deserves some of the blame, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was responsible for 14 sacks, or 27.5% of the total.
“It doesn’t do anybody any good to point fingers,” Sitton said. “We just all have to get better and try getting that sack number down.”
That’s the biggest reason Green Bay made the dramatic moves that could yield new starters at 80% of the offensive line positions.
Bulaga, who was drafted as a left tackle, will get his first shot at that position since entering the NFL in 2005.
Bulaga (6-5, 314) has prototypical size to play left tackle. But Bulaga’s arms (33¼ inches) and hands (9¼) are smaller than the average left tackle, and he’ll be returning from a dislocated hip injury.
Sitton will be playing left guard for the first time since entering the NFL, while Lang moves to right guard for the first time in his professional career.
Barclay started six games at right tackle to conclude 2012, while Newhouse started three games there in 2011. No matter who emerges there, experience will be lacking.
The Packers felt good about the changes at the conclusion of their June mini-camps.
“I think they’re getting more comfortable,” Rodgers said of the line. “They’re not complaining about it. They’ve all bought into it, we’re all on the same page.
“The offensive line is deeper than we’ve had in the past and they’re very well-coached. So I think you’re going to see some good changes this fall.”
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