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): 10
Projected starter: Eddie Lacy (2nd season)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *James Starks, *DuJuan Harris, *John Kuhn, Michael Hill, Rajion Neal, LaDarius Perkins
One of the weakest positions on the Green Bay Packers’ roster for several years is now one of the team’s biggest strengths. Not too long after selecting Eddie Lacy late in the second round of the 2013 draft, the Packers realized they had the star running back their offense needed. Lacy was the first Green Bay running back to surpass 1,000 rushing yards since Ryan Grant did it in 2009. That Lacy was able to achieve that level of success despite only playing six full games alongside Aaron Rodgers shows that it wasn’t simply a byproduct of having a dominant quarterback there to take all the pressure off.
Not only did Lacy take the league by storm last season and win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but his presence also allowed James Starks to settle into a comfortable secondary role. As the backup to Lacy, Starks had a career-high in touchdowns (three) and yards per carry (5.5) while also staying healthier than he had in the past. Starks was so impressive that he went from a potential training-camp cut before the 2013 season to being awarded a two-year, $3.25 million extension this offseason.
The 1-2 punch of Lacy and Starks would already have the Packers well-equipped entering this season, but throw in the healthy return of DuJuan Harris and Green Bay is stacked at running back. Harris was the Packers’ starter (according to head coach Mike McCarthy) entering training camp last year, and only a season-ending injury really opened up the door for Lacy to take over.
The options at McCarthy’s disposal in the backfield are unlike anything he’s had in his time in Green Bay. There’s almost no way to go wrong in the way that he uses Lacy, Starks and Harris. If all three stay healthy, the Packers’ offense should be the best it’s ever been in Rodgers’ time as the starting quarterback.
At fullback, Green Bay opted to stay with reliable veteran John Kuhn. After the block that Kuhn made to help give Rodgers an extra second to throw the game-winning pass in Week 17 last season, the Packers made sure to re-sign the 31-year-old to what could perhaps be his last new contract.
Best position battle:
Starks vs. Harris.
This won’t be a competition in the same way that Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn will battle to be the No. 2 quarterback, because both Starks and Harris could contribute at an equal level. Starks (at 6-foot-2) and Harris (at 5-8) are much different runners. Starks could be the true backup to Lacy while Harris serves as a change-of-pace back. Either one of them would be a solid second choice at running back, and the fact that one of them will technically be listed as No. 3 on the depth chart demonstrates just how good this group is.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:
1. Vikings; 2. Packers; 3. Bears; 4. Lions
Adrian Peterson is still the running back that all others in the NFL hope to catch up to. Peterson is at the age now (29), though, where he’s very close to being considered "over the hill" by NFL running back standards. Though he vows to be the player that remains at an elite level well into his 30s, it is an incredibly rare thing to happen at his position. But while examining just the 2014 season, Peterson is still at — or at least near — the top of his game. The trio in Green Bay led by Lacy makes its way past Chicago and Detroit to be second in the division. Lacy was a fairly equal player to the Bears’ Matt Forte last season, but it would be surprising if Lacy didn’t pass him up in 2014. That Forte and Chicago are No. 3 on this list is proof at how good the running backs are in the NFC North. Reggie Bush had a good first season with the Lions (surpassing 1,000 rushing yards for only the second time in his eight-year career), but Detroit — even though it finished 17th in the league in team rushing in 2013 — still had the fewest yards on the ground among teams in the division.