This is the second in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: RUNNING BACKS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starter: Eddie Lacy (rookie)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Johnathan Franklin, *DuJuan Harris, *Alex Green, *John Kuhn (FB), James Starks, Angelo Pease, Jonathan Amosa (FB)
This could be the year that the Packers end their streak as being among the NFL’s worst rushing teams. The three running backs who are likely to be the top three on Green Bay’s depth chart this season weren’t even on the roster a year ago. When the Packers opened training camp in 2012, James Starks was the starter. Alex Green was right behind him, but he was brought along slowly while recovering from an ACL tear that landed him on injured reserve the previous year. But, as has often happened with Starks in his career, an injury took him out of contention and sent Green Bay into the free-agent market to sign veteran Cedric Benson. As the 2012 regular season neared its conclusion, the Packers had already sent out four starting running backs before turning to undrafted DuJuan Harris, who just months earlier was selling used cars. Good running teams don’t cycle through that many starting running backs in one season.
There are several unknowns at Green Bay’s running back position this year, but it should be a significantly better group than the Packers have had in a long time. General manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy showed an offseason commitment to the running game by drafting Eddie Lacy in the second round and trading up to select Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round. Lacy, picked at No. 61 overall, is the highest-drafted running back in Thompson’s nine drafts running the franchise. It’s not something that Thompson prefers to do, but Lacy’s talent and draft freefall was enough to convince him to make the pick. Another Thompson rarity is giving up multiple draft choices to move up, but he didn’t hesitate to do so when Franklin was still on the board at No. 125.
Having two rookie running backs with as much potential as Lacy and Franklin gives Green Bay’s offense the chance to become much more balanced. McCarthy has said in the past that a balanced offense is about more than attempts or yards, but it’s a safe bet to believe he’d love to no longer try to sell that theory. Opposing defenses showed the Packers last season just how much they respected Green Bay’s “balance” by often keeping two safeties deep. Even with those looks, the Packers only finished 20th in total rushing yards and 22nd in yards per attempt. Green Bay’s passing offense also took a hit, dropping from third in the NFL in passing yards in 2011 to ninth in 2012.
Just because the Packers improved their running back roster doesn’t necessarily guarantee better results, but Green Bay is certainly in a better spot entering this season than it has been in years.
Best position battle:
Who will win the starting job? During organized team activities and minicamp practices, the Packers rarely had the two rookie running backs with the starting lineup. Harris was sidelined after a cyst was discovered near his lungs, so it was Green and Starks able to take advantage with many of the first-team snaps. McCarthy is going to make Lacy and Franklin earn it.
It seems unlikely that McCarthy is going to hand the ball exclusively to one running back this season. This could be a running-back-by-committee type of year for Green Bay. Lacy is the power runner and perhaps becomes the go-to guy in short yardage. In the opinion of Aaron Rodgers, Franklin might be the running back most capable of performing every-down responsibilities. Harris is the speed and change-of-pace back. Or, Green and Starks could prove to be more game-ready and end up as the two most-used running backs on the team. There are quite a few possibilities.
The projection made for this series is Lacy winning the starting job, but this will be one of training camp’s best position battles.
A secondary battle to watch at running back is at the bottom of the depth chart. Will the Packers keep three running backs? If so, does that mean Starks and Green get cut? Do all five make the final roster? Can McCarthy even make good use if the team keeps four of them? One of them will likely not make it, so every practice and every preseason game will be important.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:
1. Vikings; 2. Bears; 3. Packers; 4. Lions
It’s not even close. With Adrian Peterson, Minnesota’s running game is unmatched. A serious knee injury at the end of the 2011 season couldn’t stop Peterson from recovering in record time, leading the Vikings to the playoffs and winning the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. The lifespan on running backs is short and Peterson (28 years old) is starting to approach that age where it all falls apart quickly. But doubting Peterson right now seems like a mistake. Chicago finished 10th in the league last season in total rushing yards, with Matt Forte surpassing 1,000 yards and Michael Bush being a reliable No. 2 option. Forte and Bush should again be a good tandem for the Bears. Green Bay now has the tools to be a good running team, but until McCarthy shows a firm commitment to it and either Franklin, Lacy or Harris are able to take over a game occasionally, the Packers have ground to make up in catching the Vikings and Bears. Is Reggie Bush the answer to the Lions’ struggles rushing the ball? When Detroit convinced Bush to sign this offseason, indications were it was with the promise of being the starter. Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell could also get a lot of carries for the Lions.
“We’re all friends. We compete. If we come off and somebody made a mistake, the other guy explains it to him and we try not to make that same mistake again. It’s not a competition. Well, I mean, it is, but it’s not like one person is trying to hold back information from another.”