August 6, 2013

What to expect from Packers’ crowded and young backfield

By: Ryan Jensen

It has been 4 years since the Green Bay Packers had a 1,000 yard rusher. After Ryan Grant's 1,253 yard season in 2009, he was injured in the first game of the 2010 season sending the Packers running game on a downward spiral. Brandon Jackson led the team in rushing in 2010 with 703 yards with just a 3.7 yard average. James Starks was the leading rusher in 2011 with 578 yards and a 4.3 yard average, and Alex Green led the team last season with 464 yards and a dismal 3.4 yard average. I can't help but daydream about the days when the running game was the most consistent part of the Packers offense, specifically in 2003, when Green Bay had 3 running backs who averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry: Ahman Green (5.3), Najeh Davenport (5.5), and Tony Fisher (5.0). I believe the Packers are ready to drastically improve with the addition of rookie running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin.

Eddie Lacy is Packers’ best RB option
Lacy is the best option for the Packers offense. He will compliment QB Aaron Rodgers perfectly by converting the 3rd and shorts and punching in the short distance touchdowns. There have been some unfair questions about Lacy's weight due to an unflattering picture, but he will surprise people with how light he is on his feet. Listed at 5'11'' and 230 lbs, the strength and power he brings to the table is a given, but it's how well he maneuvers his size that makes him so dynamic. He knows when to be patient and will let blocks develop, but will also lower his shoulder and power over defenders for extra yardage. Lacy's role will be most prominent in the redzone. He unofficially ran for 65 yards on 8 carries at the Packers Family Night Scrimmage, showing his ability to get up field in a hurry off of a good block and a nice cut.

Will Franklin earn the third-down RB job?
There has been some speculation that Franklin will emerge as the starter before the season ends. He has impressed early on by bursting out of his cuts with tremendous speed. At 5'10'' and 205 lbs, he is smaller than Lacy but his acceleration will compliment Lacy's style perfectly. He is not afraid of running through the middle, but has had a history of fumbles. With the right coaching, he should be able to clean that up. His pass protection was questioned before the draft, but has been very physical in training camp and is clearly working hard to earn the role of the 3rd down back.

Are Starks, Green (and Harris?) relevant?
Alex Green and Starks are also in the mix. Both players have had opportunities to be the featured back in this high octane offense, but generally have not had much success because both have struggled to stay healthy. Starks has been the most consistent back in camp so far this year, but he also has the most experience. He started with the number ones on Packers Family Night, and looked like the running back from the 2010 playoffs. Alex Green will have his work cut out for him trying to earn touches, but he does look better than he did last year when he was still recovering from the knee injury which held him out of the 2011 season.

Another player that cannot be forgotten about is DuJuan Harris. He earned a chance to make the team with what he did at the end of last season by averaging 4.6 yards per carry and being effective in the passing game. He has a very high motor and a low center of gravity (5’8’' and 203 lbs). He has been out early in training camp due to a knee injury, and is also recovering from surgery in which he had a large fist-sized cyst removed from near his lung. As DuJuan Harris' agent, Dave Lee, pointed out, "The cyst was pressing against his lung, and now he has full capacity with his lungs so he should have even more endurance and speed, so it was a blessing in disguise."

If DuJuan Harris does in fact bounce back in better shape with a year of experience under his belt, it would be hard to keep him off the field. We have seen the ceiling from Starks and Green and know what we are getting with those guys, and it's time to see what these young runners can do.

Green Bay has also been impressed by undrafted rookie free agent, Angelo Pease. He performed well at the Packers' rookie orientation in May, showing the ability to make decisive cuts. He managed an impressive touchdown on the Packers Family Night scrimmage. He has also done a good job in pass protection which could earn him a spot on the practice squad, or even the 53-man roster.

What should we expect from this crowded backfield?
I expect to see a lot of Starks throughout the preseason and early in the regular season because he has the most experience on the roster. He keeps the defense honest, because he is more of a passing down threat than a rusher, but can easily get his average above 4.0 yards per carry.

Lacy will earn most of the redzone touches, and could become a 20-25 touch per game player, but it will be difficult to keep the dynamic Franklin and Alex Green on the sideline. Look for Lacy to get about 15 touches, Starks with 5, Franklin and Green each with 2-3. Harris and Pease could have success if the opportunity presents itself, but they are buried behind a lot of talent. Coach Mike McCarthy will stick with the hot hand, which will be Lacy by October.


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