With the 2015 NFL Draft behind us and Organized Team Activities awaiting, we at Acme Packing Company will spend some time over the next few weeks looking ahead to this summer's practices. In particular, we'll break down some of the intriguing position battles that should begin to take form through OTA practices and minicamp before being settled in Training Camp this August.
First up is the backup running back spot.
Coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard rushing seasons, Eddie Lacy is the unquestioned starter for the Packers. According to Pro Football Focus, Lacy took nearly 70% of the 1,018 snaps played by Packers running backs in 2014 and he recorded about 65% of the rushing attempts made by non-quarterbacks. Furthermore, he played on third downs more frequently than in his rookie season, after improving both his pass-blocking and receiving abilities last year.
In other words, Lacy's job is not in question. What is very much in question is the third-string running back spot, and I would argue that James Starks' hold on the primary backup job could be in play as well. First, let's look at the candidates for the jobs.
Second year in NFL, Tennessee
5'11", 220 pounds
One of the Packers' undrafted free agent signings following the 2014 draft, Neal impressed early on in training camp before suffering a knee injury in the team's preseason opener. However, in that game he showed impressive burst, running five times for 39 yards and a touchdown. Neal was waived with an injury settlement near the end of camp before being brought back on the team's practice squad late in the season.
Neal is built solidly at 5'11" and 220 pounds, and he has good enough speed to be successful as an NFL running back. He also has an advantage over his rookie counterparts - namely, that he has already spent most of one NFL season with the Packers' organization, and therefore should know the playbook better. However, his shot at the RB3 job may depend on a whether he can show improvement in the passing game, as that is an area where one of his competitors excels.
Undrafted rookie, North Dakota State
6'0", 217 pounds
Crockett is another solidly-built back, hailing from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. While his 40-yard dash time at the Scouting Combine might not turn heads (4.62 seconds), he is still an excellent athlete - he recorded a 40" vertical jump, good for fourth among all running backs in Indianapolis.
As for his college production, it speaks for itself. He broke 1,000 yards in his sophomore and junior seasons when splitting time, and nearly hit 2,000 yards rushing as the workhorse his final season. He is an accomplished receiving back as well, averaging over 13 yards per catch in 2014 on his 30 receptions. He also contributed on kick returns on occasion, which could add to his value.
Undrafted rookie, Lousiana-Lafayette
6'1", 237 pounds
Alonzo Harris is a much different type of back than the Harris he replaced (DuJuan, who is now a Viking). Instead of a small, quick player, Alonzo is the biggest tailback on the roster, measuring in two inches taller and 7 pounds heavier than Lacy. Originally recruited as a fullback out of high school, he ended up carrying the ball more than 160 times in each of his college seasons.
One of Harris' strengths is his decisiveness as a runner. He doesn't dance around in the backfield, instead using his size and power to his advantage to hit a hole quickly and get downfield. One scouting report even compares him to LeGarrette Blount of the Patriots, based on his size and power profile.
#2 job in question?
Now we move on to the number two job, which currently belongs to James Starks. While we do not expect him to lose that job in camp, his contract situation and past success certainly would not prevent the Packers from cutting him loose if he does not earn his spot anew this summer.
Starks played all 16 games in a season for the first time in his NFL career last year. But while his carry load was similar in 2014 to that of 2013 (85 carries vs. 89), his yards per carry dipped significantly from 5.5 to 3.9. This may suggest that his success in 2013 was an outlier, as his overall career YPC sits at 4.3, far closer to his 2014 numbers. Starks was used more often in 2014 was in the passing game, as he saw more than double the number of targets thrown his way than the year before. The reason for that is difficult to determine, but all in all, Starks' skills seem to be a known quantity. The Packers coaches will not fully know what they have in the younger players until they get into training camp and preseason action.
Ultimately, Starks is in the second year of a two-year contract that is scheduled to pay him nearly $1.5 million in cash. If he were to be outplayed in training camp by a pair of younger backs, the team would save about that much in cap space by letting him go. Would it be a tall order for him to get leapfrogged by multiple players with no NFL game experience? Certainly, and I would put the chances of Starks being left off the roster at under 10%. That chance is still worth mentioning, however.
If you're noticing a trend with the size and proportions of the Packers' running backs, you're not alone. While Mike McCarthy claimed that there was no particular type of player they would look for in the team's third running back, it certainly seems that they want a big, powerful runner. With Lacy as the lead back, perhaps this should not come as a surprise. The team's run-blocking philosophy has shifted to incorporate more power blocking concepts, and having a back built similarly to the starter would allow the team to maintain continuity if he were to miss some time for any reason.
For now, Neal has the early advantage due to his experience in the Packers organization. However, Crockett seems to have the best set of overall tools and versatility, and it would not be a surprise to see him on the roster in September.
If I were to make a prediction right now as to who the running backs on the Packers' 53-man roster would be, I would go with Lacy, Starks, and Crockett. That third spot should be a fun one to track over the next few months.