EDITOR'S NOTE: Please welcome Josh VanDyke to the Acme Packing Company family. Josh is a lifelong Packers fan, a shareholder, and a sportswriter for the Michigan blog MLive.com; he also has extensive podcasting experience. We are excited to welcome him aboard and look forward to his bringing some new content to the site, both in traditional articles and as we look into expanding out into podcasts and other forms of content. -Tex
Since 2009, when Ryan Grant rushed for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns, the Packers have been woefully insufficient in developing a consistent rushing attack. Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, and company made it obvious that they wanted to change that when they drafted two running backs and two offensive linemen in the first four rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft.
By selecting Eddie Lacy (62nd overall) and Johnathan Franklin (125th overall) the Packers were able to draft two of the premier running backs that were available in the class of 2013. Lacy's hamstring injury may have prevented him from being a first-round pick, and Franklin was considered by many scouts to be one of the top 5 running backs available.
I don't think any logical Packers fan thought Brandon Jackson (702 yards in 2010), James Starks (578 yards in 2011), or Alex Green (464 yards last season) were going to be the next Ahman Green or Dorsey Levens when they were drafted. Lacy and Franklin seem to have the opposite reaction. In a recent ESPN.com article, John Clayton had high praise for the duo.
Ted Thompson created a great situation for the Green Bay Packers' backfield. Not only did he draft Eddie Lacy, but he also drafted Johnathan Franklin. They were roommates during minicamp and got along. The competition between the two could create the best backfield situation for Green Bay in years.
Clayton might not be setting the bar particular high with that statement, considering the Packers have finished 20th, 27th, and 24th in the league the last three seasons in terms of rushing yardage, but all the signs are pointing to a rejuvenated effort to reestablish the run game in Green Bay.
Tex's latest article on a possible reshuffling of the offensive line also bodes well for the running game. I believe moving Bryan Bulaga to Left Tackle and having the likes of Don Barclay, David Bakhtiari, Derek Sherrod, and Marshall Newhouse battle for the Right Tackle position is in the best interest of both developing a run game and keeping Aaron Rodgers off the turf next season. Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang have been solid at the guard positions, and Evan Dietrich-Smith has shown signs of being an above-average run blocker.
Jason Hirschhorn's post-draft breakdown of the running back position shed some light on who might make the roster, and who might get cut by the time the regular season rolls around. I agree with his prediction of Lacy, Franklin, and Green sticking to the roster, while Starks and Harris are likely to be cut. I do think Harris could find himself on the practice squad if he can double as a special teamer with his speed. Versatility often equates to value, and I think Harris would edge Starks in that category.
As for the running backs that will be fighting for carries, let's do a quick breakdown of what each back brings to the table.
Eddie Lacy (5-11, 230 pounds)
Lacy's biggest asset, besides his powerful running style, might be his vision. Bammer from Roll Bama Roll's breakdown of Lacy's vision shows a great example from last year's title game. Lacy has shown the vision and agility to find the holes his line creates for him, and possess the power to run through tackles and rack up yards after initial contact. He may not possess elite speed, but he has the ability to turn a one-yard loss into a 7-yard gain. The biggest knock on Packers running backs (including Ryan Grant) in recent years was their lack of vision in the blocking scheme, and I think both Lacy and Franklin possess that vision.
Lacy is considered to be the front-runner to be the Week 1 starter at tailback, and you would be hard pressed to find someone more capable and ready to assume that role. However, the pro-style offense run at Alabama, combined with the question of whether Lacy can be a suitable pass blocker in the NFL, could present a learning curve that could leave the door open for Franklin.
Johnathan Franklin (5-10, 205 pounds)
Franklin for Mayor (Johnathan Franklin UCLA 2012 Highlights) (via MedievalSkramGamer)
After watching Franklin's highlight video, it's easy to see why the Packers decided to draft him when he was still on the board in the fourth round. Franklin possesses the speed and elusiveness that could make for a powerful one-two punch when combined with Lacy's strength and power.
One thing that sticks out in Franklin's highlights is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He seems to have soft hands and a quick burst on his initial cut, which would make him a great candidate for screen passes and wheel routes out of the backfield. He also seems to show enough patience to be utilized in delay draws and counters out of the shotgun formation. Franklin also played in an offense at UCLA that will create a smoother transition into the complex spread offense that Mike McCarthy runs in Green Bay.
Alex Green (6-0, 225 pounds)
After finally recovering from an ACL injury, Green led the team with 464 yards on 135 attempts last season. While his numbers were less than exciting, you could argue that he might have put up better numbers if Cedric Benson hadn't won the starting job at the beginning of the season. You could also say that he might not have ever seen the field if Benson hadn't went down with a season-ending foot injury in Week 5 against the Colts. Whichever way you want to look at it, Green doesn't appear to have the qualities of a feature back. He also hasn't been 100% healthy yet in his NFL career, which is reason to still hold out hope on the young back.
I like his chances of making the 53-man roster, especially when compared to DuJuan Harris and James Starks. If Green can develop into an above-average pass protector, I believe he can be a third-down back in this spread offense, and be a solid contributor.
DuJuan Harris (5'9, 208 pounds)
Harris was a feel-good story for the Packers in 2012. The used car salesman turned NFL running back showed a quick burst and good agility on toss plays to the outside. Harris isn't going to be a bruising runner who breaks many tackles, but he does possess just enough speed to keep defenses honest on the outside. His limitations between the tackles, and as a pass protector may cost him a spot on the 53-man roster. I hope he gets a shot, even as a possible practice squad player, because he seems to have the tools to be a solid back up. The Packers have had some bad luck with injuries, so you can never have too many options at a position with so much wear and tear.
James Starks (6'2, 218 pounds)
Starks was drafted as a late-round flyer in 2010 as a running back out of the University of Buffalo with an injury-plagued career, and that hasn't changed much in the NFL either. Starks inability to stay healthy has put the Packers in a bind lately. The organization had to sign free agents like Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant, and DuJuan Harris in hopes of short-term solutions. I think Starks may be the odd-man-out in the running back equation, unless he can beat out Alex Green and DuJuan Harris during training camp.
Cedric Benson (5'11, 227 pounds)
Benson racked up 248 yards in the Packers' first five games in 2012, and showed promising signs as both a short-yardage back, as well as a pass protector. Benson suffered a Lisfranc foot injury in a week 5 loss to the Colts, and was never able to fully heal. He signed a one-year contract with the Packers, and is now a free agent. The Packers drafting two running backs will likely keep Benson from signing with the Packers again, but I expect Ted Thompson to have his number on speed dial in case of an injury.
Prediction: the Packers will not have a 1,000 yard rusher in 2013, but not because they don't lack the firepower. Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin have the complementary skill sets to form a balanced run game that hasn't been in Green Bay since 1996 with Edgar Bennett (899 yards) and Dorsey Levens (566 yards).
I expect Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to split carries at a 55% vs. 40% pace, with Alex Green picking up the remaining 5%. The back that can pick up the offense, and become a better pass protector to get the more carries. Eddie Lacy seems to be likely starter due to his size and strength, but don't be surprised if Franklin gives him a serious run for his money. This position battle will be fun to watch as OTAs and training camp ensues. Regardless of who wins the starter job, I expect both Lacy and Franklin to bring stability to an offense that has been predictable and one-dimensional for the last three seasons.