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Packers 2017 Roster Grades: Rookie running backs provided big sparks

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Injuries to Ty Montgomery paved the way for two Packers rookies to make their marks on the ground game.

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Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2017 season. Today, we examine the running backs.

Heading into the 2018 season, the starting running back role belonged to Ty Montgomery, fully converted from wide receiver to running back in the offseason. While Montgomery surely appeared to be the lead dog, there was a sincere hope that one of the Green Bay Packers’ three running back draftees would provide a glimpse of long-term contributor potential.

With injuries to Montgomery early in the season, rookies Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones were able to do just that. Each saw their fair share of carries and shined on a number of occasions. In fact, the trio of backs nearly split games started at the position, with Williams leading the way with seven starts, Montgomery with five, and Jones with four. In a year where the Packers received poor quarterback play, witnessed a revolving door of offensive line injuries, and got little help from receivers and tight ends, their running backs generated consistent production.

Starters: Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones

Ty Montgomery

Regular Season: 71 rushes, 273 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, 3 rushing touchdowns; 23 catches, 173 yards, 7.5 yards per reception, 1 receiving touchdown; 0 fumbles

There was optimism for Montgomery after a promising finish to the 2016 regular season at tailback and completing a shift to the position full-time in the offseason. But Montgomery looked hesitant to make cuts in the preseason and got off to a slow start in September with a 3.3-yard average per carry over the first four games. In week four, Montgomery injured his ribs against Chicago and sat out the next week, opening the door for Jones to make his first impressive start against Dallas.

Although Montgomery would return to action against Minnesota in week six, he split carries with the Packers’ rookie backs the rest of the way and was ruled out on a handful of occasions with the recurring rib injury before eventually landing on injured reserve. While rushing for 54 yards and a touchdown on six carries against the Bears in week 10, Montgomery suffered yet another setback with his ribs in addition to a wrist injury that shelved him for the rest of the season.

For Packers fans and Montgomery, it was a disappointing eight-game season that didn’t alleviate concerns about the former wide receiver’s ability to withstand contact at the position.

Jamaal Williams

153 rushes, 556 yards, 3.6 yards per carry, 4 rushing touchdowns; 25 catches, 262 yards, 10.5 yards per reception, 2 receiving touchdowns; 0 fumbles

The Packers’ fourth round draft choice earned the most snaps of any rookie running back in training camp due to his pass blocking skills, which carried over to the first part of the regular season. However, Williams carried the ball sparingly over the first eight games of the season, missing out on significant playing time when both he and Montgomery were injured against Chicago in week four. Jones’ eye-opening performance in the absence of Williams led the UTEP star to leapfrog the BYU product on the depth chart.

But with injuries mounting for Montgomery and Jones in the second matchup against the Bears, Williams received the bulk of carries, rushing 20 times for 67 yards. The numbers didn’t tell the whole story, as Williams churned his legs through contact all afternoon for important first downs late in the game. Williams’ noticeable effort opened the door for him to start a team-high seven games in the backfield with a team-high 556 rushing yards.

Going forward, Williams looks capable of being at least a strong third down and red zone back with his short-yardage ability, pass blocking, and receiving skills. Inconsistent hands and vision as a runner remain areas for improvement, but Williams should continue to provide a strong one-two punch with Jones in 2018.

Aaron Jones

81 rushes, 448 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 4 rushing touchdowns; 9 catches, 22 yards, 2.4 yards per reception; 0 fumbles

Jones’ lack of carries down the stretch was head-scratching after averaging 5.5 yards per carry on the season, but his slashing style and hands out of the backfield make the fifth round pick a possible starter in 2018. Although his pass blocking needs some cleaning up, Jones provided a bit of lightning to Williams’ thunder as the team’s speediest back.

Eclipsing 100 yards rushing in his first two starts, including a 131-yard performance against the New Orleans Saints, Jones was the Packers’ best big-play back. With several 20-plus yard runs, including a game-winning scamper in an overtime win against Tampa Bay, Jones was a legitimate factor in Green Bay’s rushing attack when not limited by an MCL injury. Aaron Rodgers has spoken highly of Jones since last training camp and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jones have a breakout season in 2018.

Backups: Aaron Ripkowski, Devante Mays, Joe Kerridge

Aaron Ripkowski

5 rushes, 13 yards; 2.6 yards per carry; 7 catches, 39 yards; 5.6 yards per reception; 0 fumbles

The NFL has gradually moved further and further away from fullback sets over the past five years, but it seemed as if the 2017 Packers did as well. Ripkowski received significantly lower snaps on offense (288 in 2016 down to 180 in 2017) and special teams (230-196), to go along with much fewer carries (34-5). In fact, Ripkowski never received more offensive snaps in a game than he did in week one when he was on the field 22 times.

Perhaps fewer red zone opportunities and the addition of Williams as a short yardage and pass-blocking back limited the third-year pro’s snaps. But Ripkowski was a relative non-factor on offense for Green Bay in just two official starts and makes one question his status moving into 2018.

Devante Mays

Regular Season: 4 rushes, 1 yard; 3 catches, 0 yards; 2 fumbles

Mays’ season was overshadowed by two fumbles on two carries in his debut against the Baltimore Ravens. The Packers’ seventh round pick from Utah State, and third back drafted in 2017, lost the trust of Mike McCarthy after that game and Mays rarely touched the ball again his rookie season despite playing in eight games. Mays will be in a tight battle with other roster additions next training camp.

Joe Kerridge

1 catch, 3 yards

Aaron Ripkowski’s understudy appeared in four games for the Packers after bouncing between the practice squad and 53-man roster late in the season. More of a core special teamer than offensive contributor, Kerridge figures to battle for a roster spot in that capacity once more next season.

Overall Grade: B+

With the success of rookie running backs across the league in 2017, the Packers were able to find a strong duo of their own on day three of the draft. Green Bay’s backfield rushed for a total of 1,291 yards, which was two yards shy of the team’s total from 2016. The average yards per carry as a unit were down (4.32 to 4.11), but Jones and Williams combined for an average close to last year’s mark and Williams’ yards after contact, in particular, aren’t well-reflected in the numbers. The backfield itself also showed much more productivity in reaching the end zone, increasing its six-touchdown total from 2016 to 11 this past season.

In addition, none of the starters fumbled a single football all season long, as they showed impressive ball security throughout the entire season.

It’s difficult to get the ground game going when a team struggles to pass the ball like Green Bay did for the majority of the season. But the Packers were more than satisfactory in that area and one could argue the running game kept the team close in a number of games down the stretch. With Jones, Williams, and a healthy jack-of-all-trades Montgomery in the boat for 2018, the future at running back looks bright for Green Bay.