Green Bay continues search for top-tier back

Today is the fourth day of two weeks of Green Bay Packers coverage leading up to the April 25 beginning of the NFL draft.

April 12: Five best draft moments in the past 25 years
April 13: Five worst draft moments in the past 25 years
April 14: Quarterbacks position preview
Today: Running backs/fullbacks position preview
April 16: Offensive tackles position preview
April 17: Guards/centers position preview
April 18: Tight ends position preview
April 19: Wide receivers position preview
April 20: Defensive linemen position preview
April 21: Linebackers position preview
April 22: Cornerbacks position preview
April 23: Safeties position preview
April 24: Ted Thompson’s draft strategy
April 25: Forecasting the first-round pick

TODAY’S POSITION: RUNNING BACKS / FULLBACKS

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 9

On the roster

DuJuan Harris is the Packers’ best running back option at the moment. If the final six games of last season are any indication of where his career is headed, having Harris in the backfield for an entire year could be just what Green Bay’s offense needs. Of course, having such a small sample size with Harris leaves open the possibility that he can’t continue averaging 4.6 yards per carry and scoring a touchdown on a weekly basis.

Also on the Packers’ roster is James Starks, who was supposed to be Green Bay’s No. 1 running back in 2012. A preseason turf toe injury derailed those plans, leaving Starks once again as the type of player that is difficult to count on.

Alex Green could vie for some significant snaps in 2013. Last season, Green was recovering from an ACL tear that had ended his rookie season early the year prior. Green didn’t look great in his starting opportunities, but it’s possible that he improves as he gets further out from that knee surgery.

Veteran Cedric Benson is an unrestricted free agent, as is Ryan Grant. There’s a chance that Benson is re-signed as training camp approaches, but Grant will certainly not return.

At fullback, John Kuhn, 30, will be entering his seventh season with the Packers.

Last five running backs / fullbacks drafted

2011 — Alex Green, Hawaii: third round (96th overall) — still with the Packers
2010 — James Starks, Buffalo: sixth round (193rd overall) — still with the Packers
2009 — Quinn Johnson, LSU: fifth round (145th overall) — traded, September 2011, now with the Titans
2007 — Brandon Jackson, Nebraska: second round (63rd overall) — signed with Cleveland, July 2011, now with the Browns
2007 — DeShawn Wynn, Florida: seventh round (228th overall) — signed with Saints, August 2010, currently a free agent

Philosophy at the position

The search for a top-tier running back in Green Bay continues. For all of Thompson’s success as the Packers’ general manager since 2005, he’s yet to draft a truly difference-making running back.

Thompson went as high as the second round to grab Jackson in 2007 and ventured into the third round four years later for Green, but he’s yet to pull the trigger on a running back in the first round. Perhaps this is the year for that to change.

Coach Mike McCarthy commented during the Scouting Combine that he’d like to have a three-down running back. Presently, the Packers don’t have that type of player.

This draft does not have a Trent Richardson, top-five-pick type of talent. With Green Bay picking at No. 26, though, Thompson could be in a position to select the best running back of the entire class late in the first round.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Eddie Lacy, junior, Alabama (5-11, 231). Lacy is the top-ranked running back by nearly every draft expert. He has a great frame for an NFL running back and runs with good speed, especially for a player of his size. He came from a winning college program and ran through the best players that the SEC had to offer. Lacy isn’t the type of runner to dance around in the backfield. He finds the hole and hits it fast, showing a decisive ability that should help his style translate instantly and effectively in the NFL.

Though he’s the best running back in this class, he could very well be available for the Packers at No. 26. He’s had a few injuries, but he appears to be the exact type of player who could balance Green Bay’s offense and re-open the looks downfield for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Lacy says: “If Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, you’re not going to put nine guys in the box. So it’ll kind of balance it out (if I’m drafted by the Packers).  . . . I feel as though (opposing defenses) wouldn’t just be able to spread the field out. They’d have to actually have to defend the run as well.”

Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Montee Ball, senior, Wisconsin (5-11, 214). Ball chose to return to school for his senior season despite being projected as a third-round pick last year. That decision will probably result in Ball improving his draft position, perhaps going in the late first round. More likely, though, is that Ball will be picked up somewhere on Day 2 of the draft.

Ball doesn’t do anything poorly but he also doesn’t do anything spectacularly. He’s a perfectly average player. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, most NFL teams wish their running backs were as well-rounded as Ball is. But he does little to wow you. He doesn’t have great size or great speed, but he was a touchdown-scoring machine with the Badgers.

If McCarthy wants an every-down running back, there is not a prospect in this draft class who fits that description better than Ball.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Marcus Lattimore, junior, South Carolina (5-11, 221). There’s a good chance that Lattimore may not play in the 2013 NFL season. He suffered a devastating knee injury in October 2012 that required surgery on his ACL and LCL in his right knee. If not for that, Lattimore would be a much higher pick, but he still will be drafted by a team willing to give him time to heal.

Lattimore did so many positive things as a runner. He had good speed, terrific patience and is a proven pass-catcher. If he can regain that, he should still have a productive NFL career, even if it takes a full year on the sideline before showing it.

Perhaps the Packers will draft Lattimore and stash him in the trainer’s room for a year while Green Bay finds out what Harris can do. It certainly seems worth risking a fifth- or sixth-round pick to give it a shot.

FOXSports.com’s draft expert Taylor Jones says:

“I have running back as the Packers’ second-highest priority behind offensive line. Running back is such a scheme-fit position. With this class, you have to find the right schematic fit. I have Lacy and Ball being very similar in scheme perspective for an NFL team. North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard and Clemson’s Andre Ellington are a different caliber of player that will be more dynamic. Those guys are a little more valuable than just a guy like Lacy or Ball who don’t have the experience catching out of backfield or protecting too much on third down. That would add a different level of something else that a defensive coordinator would have to consider when they gameplan for Rodgers.

“I thought the Packers’ offense was at its best when (wide receiver) Randall Cobb was back there (at running back). If they can find someone who can do those types of things, that would be a great fit for the Packers with Bernard or Ellington.”

Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.