Over the past three seasons, no position group has been more scrutinized than the running backs. Nearly every Packers broadcast included an update on how many weeks had passed since the last 100 yard rusher. While this hasn't kept Green Bay's offense from scoring (they've finished in the top 10 in points every year since Aaron Rodgers became the starting quarterback), it has made the Packers easier to scheme against. To remedy this, the front office spent more resources than it has ever in the past.
So how has this affected the roster? Let's look.
Locks to Start
If a team spends two of their top four draft picks on the same position, it's probably because they lack a reliable starter. Since Ryan Grant's ankle injury the first week of 2010, the Packers have lacked both consistency and efficiency in their ground game. It wasn't for a lack of trying, however. Ted Thompson drafted James Starks and Alex Green in back to back years before signing Cedric Benson. Ultimately, none of these yielded a long term solution at running back, thus necessitating the Packers' selection of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin this past April.
DuJuan Harris, Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin
No position battle is shrouded in more mystery than the running backs. DuJuan Harris, the player who ended last season as the starter, discovered a cyst on his lung which required surgery to remove. While he will be ready for training camp, his absence from OTAs and minicamp has likely narrowed the gap between him and the two rookies.
While we see three contenders for the starting spot, Eddie Lacy may be the only back with a guaranteed role in the offense. For the past three seasons, the Packers have struggled running the ball on third and short. Surely, neither the coaching staff nor the fans want to see a return of the John Kuhn dive. Lacy is the most powerful runner the Packers have employed since Ahman Green's prime. Accordingly, it seems likely that he will be the one who lines up behind Aaron Rodgers when the time comes to pick up those critical third downs.
Franklin is an interesting prospect: an inside runner lacking ideal size who possesses receiver skills and very good athleticism. This is the type of running back prospect that's hardest to project. Some of these backs turn out to be Ray Rice, others Knowshon Moreno. If Franklin can regularly run through the A and B gaps with success, the rest of his skill set should set him up to win the starting job. That's a big if, however.
There's also the possibility that the Packers don't choose a true starter. While employing a stable of backs isn't necessarily a bad thing, the offense could suffer if each back becomes too specialized. As two of the three are rookies, that's a fairly high probability. It's probably best that Mike McCarthy and the staff decide on a feature back so long as one of the players proves capable of the task.
Out of the Running
John Kuhn, Alex Green, James Starks, Angelo Pease
While these backs don’t have a shot in our opinion of winning the starting job, they are still competing for a roster spot. The Packers started the season with five running backs each of the last two years. If that trend continues, two spots will be left for this group to fight over.
John Kuhn is probably the safest bet of this group to make the final roster if for no other reason than he’s the team’s most reliable pass blocker. He’s also been the team’s primary fullback the last three years, but that position has become less and less favored in the Packers’ offense. With Lacy taking over in short yardage situations, Kuhn must hold onto his edge in pass protection to ensure his roster spot. Since most of the challengers are rookies, Kuhn will probably last one more year in Green Bay.
In the course of a little over two years, James Starks went from the people's champion to the doghouse. While Starks has been effective when healthy, he hasn't managed to stay on the field. That gives Starks the slimmest margin for error of any of back in this group. A single missed practice during minicamp could be all it takes for Starks to get the boot.
Alex Green isn't beloved by the fan base, but he was a third round pick for a reason. Before his ACL tear, Green was a speedy runner with power back size. While many believe knee injuries are no longer year-long ordeals in the wake of Adrian Peterson, some players still struggle to regain their form quickly. Green was one such player as his knee was never 100% last season. By all accounts, he has finally cleared those hurdles. Accordingly, Green could carve out a niche in the offense if his knee remains sturdy.
Angelo Pease didn't take long to catch the coaching staff's attention. In OTAs, Pease broke off a big run while demonstrating a better than expected ability to make decisive cuts. There are likely too many obstacles preventing Pease from making the 53, but a good showing could earn the undrafted free agent a spot on the practice squad.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn
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