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2016 NFL Combine Preview: Running Backs with receiving skills abound in middle rounds

With Lacy coming off a disappointing year and entering a contract year, there is plenty to look for in running backs in the middle of the draft. Will Green Bay seek a pass catching running back as an asset to aid their MVP quarterback?

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Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

With the battering ram of Eddie Lacy entering a contract year and the young John Crockett sitting in the wings, the receiving running back is the temptation the Packers might want.  When the Packers drafted Lacy they reached out for Johnathan Franklin in the same draft. Instead, due to Franklin's career-ending injury, James Starks has been the running back to run the routes and catch the screen passes.

The Packers live on the arm of Aaron Rodgers.  The greatest thing a team can do for its star quarterback is give him the tools he needs to succeed.  A running back to act as a dump off safety valve and run the screen passes to slow the pass rush is a key element of any passing game, and would make for an ideal complement to Lacy.  Here are some of the names that might surface in the Packers draft board and who will bear watching through the Combine process.

Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech

A stocky back at 5'10" and 215 pounds, Dixon provides the ability to also be the battering ram when needed. Dixon managed 1,194 yards rushing as a freshman. Eventually he crossed the 1,000 yard mark three of his four seasons in Ruston, ending his career with 72 rushing touchdowns and 4,480 yards on the ground.  Dixon shows good straight line speed with a projected 40-yard dash around 4.5 seconds  He also has very good vision and does a great job of setting up his blockers.  Dixon carries the ball high and to his chest, the perfect picture of ball security in the open field.  In space, Dixon sees the field well and makes his cuts so as to set up his blockers to make their plays.  This makes him particularly useful in screen plays.

Dixon improved his receiving game over his four years with the Bulldogs, catching 30 passes as a junior and then 33 as a senior.  He also found the end zone 13 times over those two seasons.  Dixon turned those 33 receptions into 464 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior.

The one major question with Dixon is the level of competition.  Dixon played as a freshman while Louisiana Tech was in the WAC, before the school moved to Conference USA for the last three years.  Dixon had his biggest games against teams like Idaho, Texas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Marshall.  In games against Auburn and Oklahoma, Dixon was not exactly a game changer.  However, he did a fair amount to deal with this by having a strong showing at the Senior Bowl.  Dixon cannot really answer the level of competition question at the Combine, but he can possibly impress by demonstrating agility in the shuttle run and three-cone drill.

Josh Ferguson, Illinois

Ferguson does not have to worry about having tape playing against top competition.  However, Ferguson showed much more receiving flash than rushing ability.  He ran for over 700 yards in each of his sophomore through senior seasons, but never ran for over 800 yards.  The biggest positive is that he caught 50 passes in both his sophomore and junior years.  Ferguson racked up 168 career receptions and 1507 yards.  Both CBS and ESPN have Ferguson rated lower than Dixon and the major reason is likely the overall production.

Ferguson has a smaller overall frame.  Ferguson is 5'10" (or 5'9" depending where you look) and 196 pounds. Ferguson also shows the ability to log a 4.5 time in the 40-yard dash.  He shows good change of direction and decent field vision, and might have put up better numbers on a better team.  Illinois fired coach Tim Beckman just before the 2015 season began and struggled throughout the year.  Illinois was a bad offense and on top of this, Ferguson had to deal with his share of injuries.

Ferguson needs to show that speed in the Combine and a strong showing in the broad jump and vertical jump could help demonstrate the power that could make him more desirable.  Ferguson added weight while in Champaign and a showing of some power would help boost Ferguson's draft stock.

Kenyan Drake, Alabama

Drake was the forgotten name as Derrick Henry ran all the way to the Heisman Trophy this year.  Drake stayed through his senior year, but managed to graduate with just 233 carries.  Because of this, Drake might avoid the overuse that has plagued many other Alabama running backs.  Drake served as an effective counter to the brute strength of Henry.  Still, Drake is no minuscule running back, standing at 6'1" 210 pounds.  Again, the Packers have invested in a power running game and it would be nice if even the change of pace back had some size.

While Kenyan Drake has the ability to be a key receiving back in the Packers offense, he also provides experience in the return game.  Drake is projected to have a 4.45 second 40-yard dash and returned kickoffs this year for Alabama.  Drake would be a welcome addition to the passing game as he posted a respectable 29 receptions in 2015.  The downside is his pass protection is considered marginal.  As a passing target, Drake could be very intriguing around the fourth round.

D.J. Foster, Arizona State

Foster is an interesting middle to late round pick.  Foster piques interest because he played three seasons at running back for the Sun Devils before spending his senior year as a wide receiver.  Yet, at the Senior Bowl, Foster was back with the running backs through practice.  ESPN lists him as a wide receiver and CBS lists him as a running back.  At just 5'10" and 196 pounds Foster could fit in the slot on many teams, but has a body size projected more toward a traditional running back.  His projected 4.55 second 40 would hurt his projection as a shorter receiver.

Foster definitely shows the versatility necessary to play the receiving back role, however.  Foster put up 59 catches as a receiver in 2015, but he was very much a part of the passing game before that.  Foster had over 60 catches in each of his sophomore and junior seasons while still at running back.  Foster also showed promise as a running back in his own right.  Foster crossed over 1,000 yards rushing as a junior (averaging 5.6 yards per carry) and had nine rushing touchdowns.  If fact, Foster had over 2,000 yards both receiving and rushing through his time in Tempe (2,355 yards rushing and 2,458 yards receiving).

While Foster is not slight, he is not ideal for the Packers' current power running attack.  The only benefit he brings in this regard is his ability to take a single cut and move upfield.  Foster would also allow the Packers to use a running back in the way they used Randall Cobb out of the backfield.  Foster could be available anywhere from the fifth to seventh round.

Tyler Ervin, San Jose State

Ervin is another smaller back (5'9", 192 pounds).  Still, he was one of the key components of the Spartan offense, running for 1,601 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2015.  On top of this, he caught 45 passes for another 334 yards and two touchdowns.  Ervin also offers experience in the return game. He is tough, cuts well and has good field vision.  Combine this with a projected 4.5 second 40-yard dash and he could be someone the Packers could look to in the fourth to sixth round range.

It is comforting to point out that Ervin did not shy away in the big games.  Beyond his 132-yard rushing performance against Georgia State in SJSU's bowl game this year, Ervin had 160 yards rushing at Auburn and 93 yards and two touchdowns at Oregon State.  Ervin also chewed up the less stout defenses on the schedule.

Ervin shows a range of skill that makes him an interesting watch.  As stated, he is not ideal for the Packers' current offensive running game, but he provides enough burst and speed to go along with his clearly capable hands to stay in the conversation.  If he can put up good numbers in the broad jump and vertical jump he might be worth a later look (though Scouts Inc. has him higher than most).

Late-Round Possibilities

One particularly interesting tandem to watch would be Bralon Addison and Byron Marshall, both out of Oregon.  Marshall has a story similar to Foster, three years at running back before moving to wide out.  He rushed for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore and then had over 1,000 yards receiving as a jurnior in 2014.  Marshall saw any draft stock he had fall away when he suffered a leg injury and missed almost all of 2015.  Marshall is the smallest of the players on this list at just 5'9", and he does not seem to have the route discipline to be a slot receiver, but has the athleticism and hands to be a fine receiving back.  Addison, on the other hard, has a poor man's Randall Cobb quality to him.  Addison was an all-state quarterback in Texas before becoming a wideout in Oregon.  Addison is more of a wide receiver target, but he did line up in the backfield and the Oregon offense tends to differentiate less between the two positions.  Addison also falls in the category of being an unpolished route runner as a receiver.  He could be a very late pick or a free agent signing.  His athleticism will intrigue someone and he should have a good Combine.

With James Starks still sitting in wait and John Crockett waiting his chance, the Packers still are unlikely to shy away from running back depth.  Running back is one of those positions where players really only have so many snaps in their careers.  Keeping a young back up with third-down upside is something the Packers have kept an eye on over the years, and we expect 2016 to be no different.