Packers backfield awash with talent
GREEN BAY—Normally, the career-ending loss of a promising running back in midsummer would have cast a pall over the position entering training camp.
The Green Bay Packers even traded up into the 2013 fourth round to select Johnathan Franklin, who was released June 20 because of a cervical injury after playing a mere 62 snaps from scrimmage.
Franklin’s departure no doubt stings. Erratic as a rookie, there’s no way to know how much he might have improved.
Still, the truth is the Packers’ picture at running back probably remains as bright as it has been in a decade.
Entering his second season, Eddie Lacy already has stamped himself as the new Ahman Green or Dorsey Levens, the Packers’ best backs during their generation of winning football.
James Starks and DuJuan Harris provide uncommon depth, assuming Starks has emerged from his dark, oft-injured days and Harris can be the same player he was down the stretch in 2012.
The Packers even brought back fullback John Kuhn, who will be 32 in September.
“It’s the best it’s ever looked,” an executive in personnel for another team said, referring to the Packers’ backfield in the past decade during which their leading rushers included Samkon Gado, Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson, Alex Green and Starks.
“They’re good to go. As long as Eddie Lacy’s healthy, I think they’re as comfortable as they’ve ever been.”
With supply and demand at the position presently favorable to teams, the Packers have operated lately in contemporary fashion.
Unwilling to commit a first-round draft choice because of Lacy’s long injury history, they even traded down in the second round a year ago before Lacy tumbled into the lap of GM Ted Thompson on the 61st pick.
One week into unrestricted free agency this spring, the Packers refused to overpay Starks despite his impressive performance in 2013. In the end, the two-year, $3.166 million contract ($725,000 guaranteed) that the club gave Starks to re-sign meshed well with the depressed market for backs.
Harris, a midseason addition two years ago, has a year left on his contract at minimum wage.
Finally, on April 3, the Packers needed just $100,000 in guaranteed money to re-sign Kuhn for another year.
“I’m lucky,” said Sam Gash, the new position coach. “From top to bottom, the guys we have, I’m happy to be with a group as solid as this.
“I’m coming in just hoping not to mess it up. I’ll make sure the guys are where they’re supposed to be and take it from there.”
Last season, Lacy tied with Detroit’s Reggie Bush as the third best back in the division behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Chicago’s Matt Forte on the Journal Sentinel’s all-NFC North team selected by divisional scouts.
In that way, it was business as usual in Green Bay. The Packers haven’t had the best back in the NFC North since 2004, the year Ahman Green was voted unanimous first team for the fourth straight season.
By any other measure, Lacy proved to be a godsend.
“He could have been a top-10 pick,” said Gash, a two-time Pro Bowl fullback during a 12-year career and the Lions’ running backs coach from 2008-12.
“The crazy thing about the running back position is that it does get devalued until November-December. Then, when you need ‘em, oh, they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. That’s the nature of the beast.”
The Packers never needed a legitimate running game more than from early November through Dec. 22, or the two-month period when Aaron Rodgers sat out with a broken collarbone.
Time after time Lacy came through. Not only did he rank eighth with 1,178 yards, he wasn’t penalized, didn’t fumble after the first game and dropped a manageable three of 48 passes.
“He’s a power back with a quick, nifty back’s feet,” Gash said. “He’s got great power, great balance. He’s got feet that get him in and out of trouble.”
The only area of Lacy’s game that needed work was pass protection. Missed reads were the cause of the majority of his five sacks, most in a season by a Packers running back in more than 20 years.
“That’s not something that’s a concern,” said Gash. “At all. I know he can (improve). I think Eddie will be fine.”
Where does Lacy, who turned 24 in June, rank among the top backs?
“I’m going to speak selfishly and say Eddie would be my top guy,” Gash replied. “I love the other guys; they’re great backs. But he’s younger and bigger than those guys, and he’s got just as much balance. I like his demeanor and intensity.”
One of the league’s tallest runners at 6 feet, 2 inches, Starks might have run even better in 2013 than he did in late 2010 for a championship team. Surpassing 20 yards on six of his 94 carries, he resembled a poor man’s Peterson with his rampaging gait.
“He’s an angry runner,” said Gash. “I’m not trying to mess that up at all, (but) we’ve got to get him to control himself better. Once he gets the control his body will be fine.”
Starks is a better receiver than pass blocker, but both areas are more weaknesses than strengths.
With Franklin done, a resurgent Harris could be the perfect complement to the big thoroughbreds. Short but not small, he displayed an attacking, relentless style on his 71 late-season touches in ‘12.
Whereas Lacy ran 40 yards in 4.60 seconds and Starks clocked 4.52, Harris has timed 4.44.
Harris possesses enormous hands and showed courage as a pass blocker. Soon the Packers will see if there’s residual effect from Aug. 23 surgery for a torn patellar tendon.
“He’s a little guy,” Gash said. “But he’s fast, strong and powerful.”
Gash called Kuhn “one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around,” adding, “He makes up for other people’s mistakes a lot of times.”
According to Alex Van Pelt, who coached the running backs the past two seasons, Kuhn wasn’t responsible for a pressure in his 325 snaps a year ago, with about half coming in spread formations.
“He did block better,” an NFC North scout said. “He can cover you up as a lead (blocker) but he’s just not great there. He’s valuable because he’s really good in pass protection and he can catch the ball.”