Packers thin, unproven at running back
This is the second in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.
July 10: Quarterbacks
July 11: Running backs
July 12: Wide receivers
July 13: Tight ends
July 16: Offensive linemen
July 17: Defensive linemen
July 18: Linebackers
July 19: Safeties
July 20: Cornerbacks
July 23: Specialists
July 24: Coaches
July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp
July 26: Fans’ guide to camp
TODAY’S POSITION: RUNNING BACKS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 4
Projected starters: James Starks (3rd season), John Kuhn (7th season)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Alex Green, FB Jon Hoese, *Brandon Saine, Marc Tyler
The breakdown: Apparently this is it for the running back group in Green Bay. Despite finishing 27th in the NFL in rushing last season with steady veteran Ryan Grant, the Packers believe they can now get by without Grant. By all indications, Grant has interest in returning to Green Bay for a sixth season, but the interest appears to not be mutual.
Though it’s possible that general manager Ted Thompson could make a move to add a veteran running back during training camp — or re-sign Grant – that appears unlikely. Because as far as Starks and Green have been told, there will not be any help on the way.
That is showing a lot of faith in the oft-injured Starks to carry much of the load in the running game. By the end of last season, a variety of injuries had Starks very limited in what he could do. In the Packers’ final five games, playoffs included, Starks was only healthy enough to be able to run the ball 12 times.
Starks and Grant split carries last season. Starks had 133 rushes for 578 yards, while Grant finished with 134 carries for 559 yards.
Now, Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy are hoping that Starks’ injury problems are behind him and that he can be the featured runner in an offense that much prefers to pass. With Aaron Rodgers as the team’s quarterback, that is certainly an understandable strategy. However, in order for Rodgers to get more time in the pocket and keep defenses guessing a little bit, Starks and the rest of the group had better give a better showing than they did in 2011.
That group includes Green, a rookie last year who the Packers drafted in the third round out of Hawaii. By midseason, the plan was for Green to become a bigger factor in the offense. However, a torn ACL while playing special teams in Week 7 put an early end to his season.
Green is expected to be fully healthy and ready to go by training camp, which means he’ll get the opportunities early that he missed out on last season. With the Packers not selecting a running back in this year’s draft, it’s obvious Thompson and McCarthy really want to give Green an extensive look before bringing in other youngsters to compete for the job.
A year ago, Saine was an undrafted rookie free agent on the Packers’ practice squad. But once Green got injured, Saine was called up to the active roster. Though Saine was given only 19 carries, McCarthy liked his dependability. It appears likely that Saine will be the third and final running back to make the active roster this season.
The other factor in the running game is the possibility of Kuhn, a fullback, getting more carries. Kuhn rushed only 30 times in 2011 after getting 84 attempts in 2010, but with several young, unproven running backs, he could be more involved this season.
Best position battle: Starks is absolutely No. 1 on the Packers’ depth chart heading into training camp. But if Green is healthy and ready to go, he has the undeniable talent that could launch him past Starks and into the starting role.
While this scenario is somewhat unlikely, it’s not like the Packers have Arian Foster in their backfield to rely on. And because there isn’t a proven starter, a strong training camp from Green could go a long way in making him the primary running option. If Starks’ injury-prone past continues to haunt him, then it will certainly be Green who steps in.
An interesting aspect of training camp could also be the development of Tyler, an undrafted rookie free agent out of USC. Tyler, one of the nation’s top running backs coming out of high school, looked the part during offseason practices and has every opportunity to make the active roster given the Packers’ lack of experienced players locked into those spots.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Vikings; 3. Packers; 4 Lions. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is as good as any running back in the NFL, but a serious knee injury late last season is going to be difficult to overcome. Chicago’s Matt Forte is still unhappy about his contract, but if that negatively affects his play, the Bears brought in Michael Bush to cover for him. Bush had a great season in Oakland in 2011, rushing for 977 yards. The Lions are hoping that Jahvid Best is over his serious concussion issues from last season because without him, Detroit’s running game will be one of the worst in the NFL.
Green says: “I definitely learned a lot just sitting back and just started to learn instead of learning while I go. I’m learning a lot about the whole concept. I’m definitely ready to go out there and compete and show what I can do. Come camp, hopefully I’ll put the time in and I’m ready to go.”
Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.