Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find the entire list here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players, but rather it’s a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
NO. 2 – EDDIE LACY, RUNNING BACK
AGE / EXPERIENCE
24 / Second NFL season
WHY HE’S NO. 2
Eddie Lacy didn’t change the face of the Green Bay Packers offense last season, but he certainly gave it a much-needed second dimension. The Packers have been in need of a dominant running back for years. A running back who could take pressure off the passing game and force opposing teams to respect both elements of the offense. Aaron Rodgers needed a running back with him who could put an end to the two-deep-safety looks that are challenging for even elite quarterbacks like him. All of that arrived in the form of Lacy in April 2013 when Green Bay drafted him in the second round.
With Lacy’s 1,178 rushing yards as a rookie, he was the first Packers running back to surpass 1,000 yards since Ryan Grant in 2009. In that three-year gap between them, Green Bay was led in rushing yards by players who didn’t even get near 1,000 yards. Brandon Jackson came the closest in 2010 with 703 rushing yards, but it really tailed off when 2012 leading rusher Alex Green failed to even reach 500 rushing yards.
Lacy is No. 2 on this list because he makes the days of average running backs being the Packers starter a thing of the past. He wasn’t just the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, Lacy was arguably one of the league’s five best running backs. The scary thing for opposing players who have the unfortunate task of tackling him is that Lacy has the potential to become an even better running back over the next few seasons. The difference between Lacy improving upon his rookie season (or at least replicating it) and him stumbling in Year 2 would be a huge swing in just how productive Green Bay’s offense can be in 2014.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
Despite missing what basically amounted to two full games due to a concussion, Lacy finished third in the NFL in rushing touchdowns, eighth in rushing yards and was the fifth-highest rated running back by ProFootballFocus. That’s nearly the production that Adrian Peterson had as a rookie in 2007. While Lacy is several great seasons away from being at Peterson’s level, it’s obviously encouraging for the Packers that he had that type of success right away in his career.
With Lacy’s early-first-quarter injury in Week 2 and Rodgers’ early-first-quarter injury in Week 9, the two players actually only played six full games together. If Lacy can run the ball with that success while playing the majority of his snaps with Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn at quarterback, just imagine how dangerous he could be with a full season next to Rodgers.
A big key for Lacy is staying healthy. He can’t really control the concussion he suffered in Week 2 when Washington safety Brandon Meriweather decided to hit him head first, but Lacy has a violent running style. Many question whether he can keep delivering — and absorbing — blows like he does and keep going strong for multiple seasons. But with this Most Important Packers series focusing on just the 2014 season, it’s fair to assume Lacy’s body isn’t going to wear down this quickly, so he should be strong in Year 2 of his blossoming career.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
Green Bay re-signed James Starks this offseason partially as an insurance policy in case Lacy can’t make it through a full season. It was somewhat surprising that the Packers brought Starks back (two years, $3.25 million), but they likely saw the writing on the wall with Johnathan Franklin, who was forced to retire after one season due to a neck injury.
Starks has been the No. 1 running back at times throughout his career, starting nine games (including Super Bowl XLV) in four seasons. Being able to turn to a relatively dependable veteran was obviously something general manager Ted Thompson valued when opting to re-sign Starks. But what shouldn’t be lost in the discussion about Starks is that he is also the "2" in the "1-2 punch" he and Lacy gave Green Bay last season.
DuJuan Harris was viewed as the Packers’ starting running back heading into the 2013 season. Only a season-ending injury changed that and gave Lacy the opportunity to shine. Harris is back now, and though head coach Mike McCarthy will no longer refer to him as the starter, the 25-year-old running back will contribute in the backfield.
With Franklin’s career over, it opens the door for Michael Hill (or perhaps undrafted rookies Rajion Neal and LaDarius Perkins) to make the active roster behind Lacy, Starks and Harris.