Secret Superstars: Green Bay Packers
We continue the Secret Superstar series with a team that was loaded on offense coming into the 2014 season and yet still managed to find a diamond in the rough.
Center was one of the few question marks for the Packers’ offense last summer, as Evan Dietrich-Smith left for Tampa. J.C. Tretter was penciled in to start at center, but a knee injury prior to the regular season meant that the Packers were forced to turn to a rookie late-round pick for the first eight games. As it turned out, Corey Linsley would play well enough to nail down the starting job for the full 16.
Far from a sure thing, Linsley came from a stacked Ohio State team and was the fifth Buckeye taken when Green Bay selected him in the fifth round. Five centers came off the board before Linsley did at No. 161. When news hit that Tretter would miss significant time, Packer fans were hoping for the best but many were prepared for the worst.
Trial by Fire
To say that Linsley faced a tough start to the season would be a gross understatement. Opening the NFL season in Seattle, Green Bay then faced off against the dominant defensive interiors of the Jets and Lions in consecutive weeks. That Linsley came out of that stretch with only a -1.4 grade (21st in our center rankings after three weeks) was a minor miracle, and while his play was underwhelming to that point, Linsley hit his stride as soon as the schedule lightened up.
By the time Tretter had been cleared to play, Linsley had rocketed up to fourth in our center grades and had the starting job so firmly in his grasp that he probably could have been flagged for holding. In the 11 games following that brutal three game start, Linsley posted just one negative grade (-0.6 against Philadelphia) which was countered by seven grades in the green. By the end of the season he had dropped just one spot, but a strong divisional round outing against Dallas saw him reclaim the fourth spot when the dust had settled.
Linsley earned the bulk of his +12.0 in the run game, and even though he finished the year at +6.8 for his run blocking, he had five games in the red there, including a disastrous outing in Tampa Bay (-4.5 run block). That said, he balanced that out with some strong performances, but the week-to-week consistency was simply not there.
At least not in the run game. Moving backward, Linsley allowed just 17 pressures (two sacks, two hits, 13 hurries) in 17 games and only once surrendered more than two in a single game. The Packers put a premium on the pass protection abilities of their linemen and while Linsley could improve some here, he was far from a liability. In fact, he was the only rookie center to post a positive grade in that regard and his 98.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency was tops among first-year centers.
With an excellent rookie campaign in the books, it will be on Linsley to avoid a sophomore slump in 2015. He was helped by some tremendous guard play last year (T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton were ranked third and fourth, respectively, in our guard grading), and if either regresses it will be interesting to see if it affects Linsley’s play.
Considering the Packers’ history with late round picks on the offensive line, I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is the only starter drafted before the fourth round, and Green Bay will return all five players again this year after coming in at No. 4 in our offensive line rankings in 2014. Continuity is king in the realm of offensive lines, and Linsley will be the centerpiece of the unit for the foreseeable future.