After a season in which the team saw a pair of rookie running backs combine for over 1,000 rushing yards, the Green Bay Packers have to feel comfortable with the long-term stability and potential for difference makers at the position. But as Aaron Jones serves a two-game suspension to open the regular season, management could be on the search for a reliable depth player in the backfield to help veteran Ty Montgomery back up Jamaal Williams.
Although they were running behind third-string offensive linemen in the second half, neither Joel Bouagnon nor Akeem Judd emerged against the Tennessee Titans in their first preseason action with the Green and Gold. Despite Bouagnon’s goal line score, the duo of former undrafted free agents combined for just 44 yards on 17 carries (2.58-yard average) and did not leave a first impression that either would be effective regular season players. Last year’s seventh-round pick Devante Mays also missed out on a pivotal chance to seize control of a Jones-less roster spot with a hamstring injury. After just four carries and two fumbles a season ago, Mays’ roster spot is far from secure.
Fortunately, the Packers’ matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday evening presents General Manager Brian Gutekunst with a beneficial opportunity to scout a potential final running back cut in person. Assuming he reports to camp at some point, Le’Veon Bell is locked in as the starting tailback in the Steel City in 2018. Second-year back James Connor appears to be in line for change-of-pace carries and is seen as a potential starter down the road. That puts a trio of backs in a competitive battle for a role in Pittsburgh beyond the next month. While at least one player figures to be searching for a new job at the end of training camp, all three will have a chance to display their strengths this week with Connor nursing a groin injury.
One of those hopefuls is rookie fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels of North Carolina State. A draft pick with a 6’0, 225-pound frame, Samuels would seemingly have a high likelihood of surviving the final cutdown. Samuels is a versatile, well-rounded back who set a Wolfpack record with 202 receptions and fits as a third-down option. However, his pass-blocking knocks may hinder his chances in that role and his six carry, seven-yard performance in week one of the exhibition schedule left something to be desired.
The same cannot be said for Fitzgerald Toussaint, entering his fifth NFL season. The veteran rushed for 29 yards and a touchdown on seven carries against Philadelphia, earning first-team reps in practice on Sunday. Although he’s been used in the backfield sparingly so far in his pro career, Toussaint is a trusted pass-blocker and fills several special teams roles, which the Packers have always valued. On a one-year deal, Toussaint is already in the prove-it stages of the year.
The final member of the bubble backs is Stevan Ridley, who played in two games, starting one for Pittsburgh in 2017. While Ridley certainly is not the same player he was early in his career in New England, he has been a serviceable pro entering his eighth season who can aid in both the rushing and passing games. Like Samuels, Ridley struggled in his first preseason games as a rusher, posting a mere 14 yards on 10 carries. However, he did add 45 yards receiving, including a 17-yard pickup. He may not be a home-run spark plug, but Ridley represents a rotational player similar to Knile Davis, whom Green Bay added in the midst of depth issues a few games into the 2016 season.
While the Packers will be able to sift through a number of capable running backs on the open market at the conclusion of training camp, the Steelers will provide a first-hand look at at least one of those individuals. With every day that Mays’ health concerns remain an issue, the possibility of Green Bay adding an external stop-gap player increases.