Each winter, Acme Packing Company breaks down the Green Bay Packers’ roster from the previous year by position to examine the team’s performance and needs in the offseason. Today we continue this series by looking at the running back position.
2021 will be a big year for Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst when it comes to his team’s offensive backfield. Next year, both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are slated to be free agents, as the two players enter 2020 on the last years of their rookie contracts.
This offseason, however, Gutekunst can focus more heavily on other priorities. The Packers do have three running backs eligible for free agency, but they combined for a total of just 153 yards from scrimmage in 2019. In fact, these players’ contributions are more significant on special teams, particularly in the case of one of the Packers’ latest acquisitions in 2019.
Here’s a look at the three Packers running backs whose contracts expire in March.
NFL Experience: 4 years
FA Status: Unrestricted
Expiring Contract: One year, $720,000 base salary (league minimum)
2019 Stats (including playoffs): 3 carries, 35 yards; 5 targets, 3 receptions, 18 yards; 12 punt returns, 112 yards; 9 kickoff returns, 201 yards
After bouncing around from team to team in his first three-plus years in the NFL, Ervin settled in with the Packers after a waiver claim late in the season. He sparked the return game to finally find some success, giving the Packers some signs of life on special teams for the first time all season.
Furthermore, the Packers worked him into the game plan on offense as he began to absorb the playbook, getting him the football on jet sweeps and some pass routes out of the backfield. Matt LaFleur would surely love to have him back to create some matchup issues, as his 4.41 speed would seriously stretch a defense.
With the expectation that he could be a primary return man and an occasional contributor on offense, the Packers should try to get him back on a one- or two-year deal, perhaps with a small signing bonus. That would solve one of the issues that plagued the team for much of 2019 and would give LaFleur a fun extra chess piece to use to stretch defenses sideline-to-sideline.
NFL Experience: 4 years
FA Status: Unrestricted
Expiring Contract: 2 years, $1.35M (league minimum)
2019 Stats (including playoffs): 15 games (4 starts); 1 carry, 3 yards; 12 targets, 7 receptions, 97 yards; 172 offensive snaps (15.6%), 227 special teams snaps (52.5%)
Vitale played his second season with the Packers in 2019, after originally arriving in Green Bay last October on the practice squad. Vitale ended up suiting up for the final five games of last season, then earned a spot on Matt LaFleur’s squad that wanted to get back to using a fullback more regularly.
But in 2019, he averaged just over 11 snaps per game on offense, hitting a high-water mark of 19 in the team’s week 4 loss to the Eagles. Vitale possesses very good movement skills for a fullback — a big reason why he was used as more of an H-back at Northwestern — and the Packers did get him out on some wheel routes, as three of his receptions went for 20 yards or more. But when he was injured late in the year, the Packers rolled tight end Jace Sternberger out as an H-back instead, and seemed to not miss a beat.
Where Vitale was arguably more critical was on special teams, where he was a staple of both the coverage and return units. His snap totals bear that out, and the Packers will need to replace him on those units if he departs in free agency.
Vitale would be worth bringing back on a league-minimum salary contract next season, with the expectation that he is competing for a roster spot with an eye on special teams. But don’t expect him to draw any significant guaranteed money.
NFL Experience: 3 years
FA Status: Restricted
Expiring Contract: 1 year, $645k (league minimum)
2019 Stats: None (spent entire season on injured reserve)
Last offseason, Johnson was a holdover from the Packers’ practice squad in 2018 who came back to Green Bay to compete with Vitale for the fullback job. Instead, he ended up on injured reserve, passing through waivers with an injury designation at final cuts. Johnson has spent time with four teams in his NFL career, starting out as a sixth-round draft pick by the Browns in 2015. (In fact, he was taken two picks before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Vitale.)
With Vitale likely the team’s first choice at fullback, Johnson seems an unlikely candidate to re-sign in Green Bay. As a restricted free agent, he will certainly not receive an offer sheet from the Packers to try to retain his rights leading into the start of the 2020 league year.