Could Packers, Ball turn out to be a match?
INDIANAPOLIS -- For all the accomplishments that Mike McCarthy has achieved in recent years as the offensive play-caller for the Green Bay Packers, one aspect has noticeably been absent. No matter which running back has been sent out to the field on first down, McCarthy has known he'd soon have to make a substitution.
The Packers don't have a running back near the caliber of Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch or Ray Rice. Instead, McCarthy has tried to run a balanced offense with a group of running backs who haven't displayed the skill set to be every-down players.
This offseason, McCarthy is hoping that changes.
"Three-down back is what you want to play with," McCarthy said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "No one likes to come out of the game, and I'd rather them stay in the game (when I'm) calling plays. Three-down back is something that, as you go through the evaluation process, is something that's part of their grade, part of their value. Whether you share them or have one, I really think your depth chart takes care of that."
In 2009, Ryan Grant ran for 1,253 yards and was on the field for 643 snaps (12th-most in the NFL among running backs that season). But since then, it's mostly been a combination of Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn, James Starks and Alex Green splitting carries.
"Just looking back at my experiences, it's nicer when you have one guy and you're feeding him," McCarthy said. "There's more rhythm to your play-calling and there's more of a rhythm to the run-blocking unit and the fits of the protection and so forth, and then you take it and extend it into the passing game with the checkdowns."
The most that any running back was on the field during the 2012 season was Tennessee's Chris Johnson, who played more than 80 percent of the Titans' offensive snaps. Realistically, that's the most any team can hope to get in the current structure of the NFL.
Still, though, there are as many as 15 current running backs who are more than capable of handling that amount of work, having shown the ability to pass block just as well as they can run the ball.
"In today's game, there's not too many of those guys out there," McCarthy said. "The fact of the matter is that it's a very demanding position. Your risk of injury is probably higher than at some other positions, particularly just in training camp and things like that. The more you have, the better you're going to be, and that's my preference."
From last year's rookie class, three every-down running backs have already emerged. Doug Martin (Tampa Bay), Trent Richardson (Cleveland) and Alfred Morris (Washington) all had no issue with the transition to the NFL and that level of offensive responsibility.
Though the Packers could target a free-agent running back like former New York Giant Ahmad Bradshaw to fill that role, general manager Ted Thompson always prefers to find the right player through the draft.
Alabama's Eddie Lacy is most likely going to be the first running back selected and will probably not still be on the board when Green Bay is up at No. 26. The answer to McCarthy's problem, however, could be a guy who has been playing in the state of Wisconsin for years.
Former Badgers running back Montee Ball views himself as just what McCarthy wants: an every-down player.
"I take pride in being an every-down back," Ball said at the Combine. "I feel that's what a lot of teams are looking for right now. You can keep me in on first, second and third down. I can make the big-time block for the quarterback to make a pass down the field."
The sales pitch that Ball is making during his interviews with each team is highlighted by what he believes are his three best traits: "accountability, durability and consistency," Ball said. "I'm extremely consistent."
In 2012 at Wisconsin, Ball ran for 1,830 yards on 356 rushing attempts and added 22 touchdowns. Though those numbers weren't as impressive as what Ball did as a junior when he was a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, it may not matter if the Packers -- or another team -- view him as that preferred every-down running back.
"You can count on me," Ball said. "I had 924 carries and only two fumbles. I do a great job of protecting the football. I score touchdowns and you can count on me to make a play and be there for you."
It's not as if the Packers' running back options in this upcoming draft are limited to Ball and Lacy. North Carolina's Giovani Bernard will be picked in the first two rounds, as will Oregon's Kenjon Barner. If Green Bay really wants to gamble, Thompson and McCarthy could grab South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore. Despite a horrific knee surgery, Lattimore could be the most talented player of that group.
But, if Ball turns out to be anything like Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin, whom he mentioned he's been compared to, the Packers won't want to miss out.
"Nothing really stands out — like speed or strength, but we (Martin and I) are very balanced overall and very consistent," Ball said.
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