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Packers Training Camp Preview: Jump expected from second-year running backs

With the growth of three recent draft picks, the Packers’ running back group looks to build off an impressive 2017 season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Continuing our series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ 90-man roster prior to training camp, we examine the running back position and reveal our pre-camp predictions for the team’s 2018 53-man roster. Follow along over the next two weeks as we break down the roster position-by-position and reveal our predictions.

Before the 2017 regular season began, the Green Bay Packers’ stable of running backs largely remained an unknown. Although expectations were heightened for incumbent starter Ty Montgomery in his second season in the backfield, as well as rookies Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, the crew remained relatively unproven.

Fast forward to the pre-training camp period of the 2018 season and the running back position is seen as a team strength. Montgomery battled injuries and never became the productive starting running back many envisioned. But his first-year teammates met expectations and provided a glimpse of a running cast that could be the best of Aaron Rodgers’ career. Though Number 12 did not get to benefit from the trio that combined for 1,273 yards on the ground for the entirety of the 2017 season, he should feel the impact in 2018.

Jones’ recent two-game suspension casts a darker shadow on the first couple weeks of the season, but Williams and Montgomery look more than capable of picking up the slack and handling duties as runners and receivers. With a healthy season from the three backs, and presumed maturation from the two second-year players in all facets, the Packers should be able to improve upon the three 100-yard individual rushing games from a season ago and make Green Bay’s offense a strong, two-dimensional unit.

Aaron Jones

Years of NFL experience: 1
Current Contract: Second year of rookie contract, signed through 2020; 2018 Cap hit $538,705 ($489,706 base salary + $49,000 signing bonus)
2017 stats: 12 games; 81 rushes, 448 yards (5.5-yard average), 4 rushing TDs; 9 catches, 22 yards (2.4-yard average), 0 TDs

The UTEP product enjoyed a solid rookie season with Green Bay and optimism is high for his production in year two. Offseason strength and conditioning work has reportedly made Jones stronger in his lower half without jeopardizing the speed and elusiveness that allowed him to average 5.5 yards per carry in 2017.

Jones must improve as a pass blocker to increase his snap count in year two, but he presents a potential three-down option in the backfield as an explosive runner and receiving threat despite his 5’9” frame. Jones should eclipse the 448 yards he gained on the ground as a sophomore, even with his two-week suspension to begin the season.

Jamaal Williams

Years of NFL experience: 1
Current Contract: Second year of rookie contract, signed through 2020; 2018 Cap hit $696,498 ($555,000 base salary + $141,498 signing bonus)
2017 stats: 16 games; 153 rushes, 556 yards (3.6-yard average), 4 TDs; 25 catches, 262 yards (10.5-yard average), 2 TDs

The other second-year back made up the power half of the two-headed backfield and busted through defensive fronts for 556 yards as a rookie. Although his 3.6-yard rushing average will not jump off the page, Williams fought hard for most of those yards in a year where the passing offense was not feared.

Williams rushed for 113 yards against Tampa Bay last season and had a memorable 54-yard touchdown reception versus Pittsburgh. The former BYU star is not a slouch as a receiver and should be featured in that role again in 2017, along with Jones. A runner that gained confidence as the season progressed, Williams is poised for a strong season in 2018 and should be the opening week starter.

Ty Montgomery

Years of NFL experience: 3
Current Contract: Final year of rookie contract; 2018 Cap hit $880,137 ($716,500 base salary + $151,637 signing bonus)
2017 stats: 8 games; 71 rushes, 273 yards (3.8-yard average), 3 TDs; 23 catches, 173 yards (7.5-yard average), 1 TD

Heading into a contract season, Montgomery’s career in Green Bay can be largely summed up as a missed opportunity. As both a wide receiver and running back over the course of three seasons, Montgomery has been in position to become a pivotal weapon for the Packers, including the 2017 season in which he began as the squad’s starting back. But injuries have been a plague for the Stanford playmaker, appearing in just 29 of 48 regular season games.

With Jones sitting the first two weeks, opportunity comes calling once again for the Packers to receive a lift from Montgomery as a runner. Before being shut down last year, he appeared hesitant on handoffs and was averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. It was far from the 5.9-yard clip he showed in limited 2016 starts. Without a proven third receiving option, Montgomery could also be a weapon on short routes out of the backfield as the Packers try to maximize his skillset.

Devante Mays

Years of NFL experience: 1
Current Contract: Second year of rookie contract, signed through 2020; 2018 Cap hit $573,759 ($555,000 base salary + $18,759 signing bonus)
2017 stats: 8 games; 4 rushes, 1 yard (0.3-yard average); 3 catches, 0 yards

The 2017 third-day pick’s claim to fame as a rookie was fumbling on his first two pro carries. Mays received just two more carries the rest of the way, gaining a mere yard on the season. Mays appeared in eight games overall, earning 51 special teams snaps.

With the early season suspension to Jones, a door is open for Mays to make the roster out of training camp as an active third back. The college film of Mays at Utah State showed the ability for him to contribute between the tackles, occasionally having the ability to burst outside. If he can show enough improvement in preseason action, Mays could receive at least a two-week regular season trial in 2018.

Aaron Ripkowski

Years of NFL experience: 3
Current Contract: Final year of rookie contact; 2018 Cap hit $731,599 ($705,000 base salary + $26,599 from signing bonus)
2017 stats: 16 games; 5 rushes, 13 yards (2.6-yard average); 7 catches, 39 yards (5.6-yard average)

The role of the fullback is diminishing around the NFL, even for teams that have typically utilized that player like the Packers. Ripkowski’s offensive snaps decreased by over 100 between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, while his carries dropped from 34 to five.

As he enters a contract season, it’s hard to envision the Packers moving on from the fullback position altogether. Special teams value remains for Ripkowski and he has shown the ability to fill in as an emergency tailback in addition to being a lead blocker. But his status after the 2018 season is a little less known.

Joe Kerridge

Years of NFL experience: 2
Current Contract: One-year contract; 2018 base salary and cap hit of $630,000
2017 stats: 4 games; 1 catch, 3 yards

Kerridge was re-signed on a one-year tender in April after bouncing between the practice squad and active roster in 2017. The fullback endured being released twice during the year, but found his way back to the team and will fight for a spot again this training camp. Kerridge has just one rush and one reception over the last two years and is mostly a special teams player with 23 snaps in that area last season. He figures to have an uphill battle to make the squad.

Joel Bouagnon

Years of NFL experience: 1 (Injured Reserve as a 2017 rookie)
Current Contract: One-year contract; 2018 base salary and cap hit of $480,000
2017 stats: Sat due to injury

The former Northern Illinois running back landed on injured reserve last preseason with the Chicago Bears. But Bouagnon enjoyed two solid seasons as a collegian, rushing for 1,286 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. The Packers showed pre-draft interest in Bouagnon, a 6’2,” 230-pound back, and he will have the opportunity to compete with Mays for a two-week spot on the active roster in Jones’ absence.