The question was simple. The answer, direct.
“Who’s your center?” Mike McCarthy was asked Tuesday.
“Don’t know yet,” the Green Bay Packers coach replied.
And so, in the wake of allowing starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith to depart as a free-agent, the Packers know they’ll start their fourth different opening-day center in four years when the season opens this fall. Who he’ll be, well, that’s as clear as mud.
“We need to get working there, we've been here before,” McCarthy said, referring to the free-agent departure of Pro Bowl center Scott Wells two years ago. “I think any quarterback, coach, player, you like to have the continuity there with your center group. Hopefully we're getting ready to build that here.”
McCarthy listed four candidates: Starting guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, right tackle Don Barclay and JC Tretter, a rookie fourth-round pick from Cornell last year who suffered a broken ankle in the opening organized team activity practice of the offseason and essentially took a medical redshirt in 2013.
“Don't make a story out of it,” McCarthy said after listing Sitton and Lang. “I'm just saying we have flexibility. Josh is an All-Pro left guard, and JC is a young guy that we really like. We have options. We have player acquisition opportunities still in front of us. That will be obviously a position I'm sure we'll talking a lot about here in the months to come.”
Dietrich-Smith signed an extremely affordable four-year, $14.25 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that will pay him $3.5 million, but the Packers either never had the chance to match the offer or weren’t interested in paying him that much in the first place and simply let him walk.
“We just didn't get to the right spot (financially) with him,” McCarthy said. “(But) I'm proud of him personally, I'm proud of what he's accomplished and he'll do a heck of a job (in Tampa). Being a veteran player like he is now, going into a first year program, I think he'll make an impact.”
The Packers started Wells at center in 2011 before his four-year, $24 million deal with St. Louis, signed veteran Jeff Saturday as his replacement as the 2012 starter and then opened with Dietrich-Smith last year after he took over for an ineffective Saturday late in the 2012 season.
When Dietrich-Smith, who started all 17 games last season, had to leave two games with a recurring knee injury, it was Lang who slid over from his right guard spot to play center for the remainder of the game. After Dietrich-Smith departed for the Buccaneers, Lang indicated in a reply to a fan on Twitter that he doesn’t want to play center full-time.
The most logical incumbent starter to move would be Barclay, who started 15 of 17 games at right tackle last season after starting the final six games of 2012 (including two playoff games) there. The Packers experimented with Barclay at center during training camp last summer, and although it didn’t go that well, offensive line coach James Campen gave Barclay a bit of a pass because he’d never played the position before.
“It’s a change when you haven’t put a ball in your hand ever and you’ve got to do everything one-handed,” said Campen, a former center himself. “You have (more) space when you’re playing guard or tackle and you’re behind the ball, and now you’ve closed the distance. Then you’ve got to snap the ball and you’ve got to use your left hand. It’s a change. It takes a little bit of time.”
A year later, with more experience, Barclay could be more prepared for a switch. He also is ticketed for backup duty at this point after McCarthy said Bryan Bulaga will return to right tackle following last year’s season-ending knee injury in camp.
That said, Tretter would seem to be the odds-on in-house favorite for the job, especially given McCarthy’s curious answer when asked if Tretter would have challenged Dietrich-Smith for the starting job last summer had he not suffered the injury.
“It's a good question. We obviously were very excited about him when we drafted him,” McCarthy replied.
Two years ago, following Wells’ departure, McCarthy expressed concern about slowing down the offense with an inexperienced center, which led to Saturday’s signing. Now, though, Tretter might be their best bet.
“I think it would be difficult to (have an inexperienced center). It takes the right type of person (because) the center position, responsibility-wise, is the top 2-3-4 in football,” McCarthy said. “Mentally, everything [Tretter] could possibly do based on his medical situation that he went through, you'd be very pleased with now. He hasn't played a snap in a game – and I get all the concerns and I understand that – but he's another young man that's in there early in the morning every day working out, voluntarily.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.