With the news that the Green Bay Packers will be without the services of starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga, opportunity has come knocking for a once unknown and unwanted backup lineman.
Evan Dietrich-Smith, an undrafted rookie in 2009 and twice released by NFL teams, has just been handed a seven week window to show the Packers – and perhaps the entire NFL – that he belongs. More importantly, he has the chance to prove he belongs in the starting lineup.
Barring injury, Dietrich-Smith should spend the remainder of the 2012 season stationed at left guard. This, however, may not be where his future lies. While Dietrich-Smith’s greatest asset to the Packers has been his versatility, the team may soon discover that the heir to Jeff Saturday already resides on their roster. If that were to happen, it would be a remarkable story and an even more remarkable surprise.
During the 2010 preseason, Dietrich-Smith was unable to beat out Nick McDonald – himself an undrafted rookie that year – for the final offensive line spot despite a full year on the active roster. The linemen-starved Seahawks picked him up only to release him that October. It appeared that in less than two years, Dietrich-Smith was already on his way out of the league.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. On New Year’s Eve 2010, the Packers were forced to put tackle Marshall Newhouse on injured reserve, opening up a spot for an offensive lineman on their 53 man roster. Dietrich-Smith, being both highly versatile and familiar with the Packers’ zone blocking scheme, was granted one more shot with the club.
While he was merely a ride-along on the Packers miracle Super Bowl run, Dietrich-Smith’s late season signing ensured him the inside track to make the team in 2011. He did just that, starting three games on top of occasional injury substitution duty.
While playing for hobbled right guard Josh Sitton during a Thanksgiving matchup with Detroit, Dietrich-Smith unwittingly made headlines when he became the target of Ndamukong Suh’s right cleat. The event overshadowed the progress Dietrich-Smith made since returning to the club. While he still struggled with consistency, the Packers did not have to make major adjustments to account for him.
As we documented last month, the Packers backed themselves into a corner with their lack of depth along the offensive line. While Dietrich-Smith has improved greatly since returning and the play calling hasn’t been substantially altered by his presence, he’s still a largely untested commodity in charge of protecting the league’s most valuable player. Should Dietrich-Smith get knocked back at the point of attack or fail to pick up a blitzing linebacker, Aaron Rodgers could be left immobilized on the turf.
A similarly grim reality comes into view should Dietrich-Smith prove incapable or get hurt. The in-house replacement options are all undrafted rookies, one of which didn’t even make the 53 coming out of preseason.
Consequently, it’s imperative that Dietrich-Smith hold steady at left guard and remain healthy. If he can stabilize the offensive line, he could be looking at a new contract and the starting center position heading into 2013.