The Green Bay Packers entered the 2016 season with a rejuvenated Eddie Lacy leading a solid power ground game with venerable backup James Starks there to take a few snaps, and Aaron Ripkowski poised to fill the Kuhn role full time, all while wide receiver Ty Montgomery took another step towards developing into a dangerous slot receiver. Then things got weird. Really weird. For those who claim Ted Thompson does not use all avenues available to him in player acquisition, Ted can just point to his 2016 running backs. And it all worked out in the end.
The New Blood
#32 Christine Michael
Experience: 4th Season
College: Texas A&M
How acquired: Claimed off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks
Regular Season: 31 carries, 114 yards, 3.7 yards per carry, 2 catches, 11 yards, 5.5 yards per reception, 1 TD, 0 Fumbles
Playoffs: 16 carries, 58 yards, 3.6 yards per carry, 1 reception, 3 yards, 0 TDs, 0 Fumbles
When Eddie Lacy went down the Packers tried almost everything to replace him. They promoted practice squad players, had guys switch positions, made a trade, and in Michael’s case, actually made a waiver claim. Of all the new blood to join the running back corps this year, Michael was by far the most productive. This is a very low bar, but his presence was welcome even when Montgomery took over full time, as the wideout was unlikely to carry a full load. Michael is still very much a boom and bust back, and he lacks elite, or even average vision, but as a limited backup with home run potential, he is worth having around for the right, cheap price. He’ll be on the open market this offseason, and it would not take a very big offer to price him out of Green Bay. He was originally drafted by the Seahawks with the with the 62nd pick in the 2013 draft. Eddie Lacy was taken with the 61st pick.
#34 Don Jackson
How acquired: Promoted from practice squad
2016 statistics: 10 carries, 32 yards, 3.2 yards per carry, no receptions, no touchdowns, no fumbles.
The practice squad will turn out the occasional gem, but for every gem there are 50 replacement-level players, and Don Jackson seems to be a solid member of the majority. He didn’t have a lot of time to show his potential as he was slowed by a hand injury in his first game, and eventually lost for the season to a knee injury, but it looks likely that Jackson is just another guy. He is familiar with the system and every team needs organizational depth, so he may stick around, however he also plays one of the most fungible positions in all of sports, and once the team has seen you, you are no longer just untapped potential.
#30 Knile Davis
Experience: 4th Season
How acquired: Acquired via trade from Kansas City for a conditional draft pick.
2016 statistics: 5 carries, 5 yards, 1 yard per carry, 2 receptions, 4 yards, 2 yards per carry, 1 kick return, 18 yards, 0 TDs, 0 fumbles.
In the 2013 NFL draft the Packers picked 2 running backs, the first being Eddie Lacy in the 2nd round, followed by Johnathan Franklin in the 4th. In between Lacy and Franklin, Seattle picked Christine Michael, and Kansas City selected Knile Davis. Davis became another potential solution thrown at the Lacy problem via a conditional draft pick (meaning: nothing) sent to the Chiefs. The idea was that the outstanding Packer offensive line would provide Davis ample space to put his 4.37 speed to good use. Davis also has experience returning kicks and he figured to at least add some value on special teams. Instead he was a complete negative, failing to read his blocks and running blazingly fast directly into other people. The Packers thought so little of Davis that they released him after two weeks, and he found himself back with the Chiefs where he continued his work as an extremely ineffective backup. Just 25 years old, speed will probably keep him in the league until everyone sees just how bad he is at football.
#40 Joe Kerridge
How acquired: Undrafted Free Agent
2016 statistics: 1 rush, 0 yards.
The Packers sure do love their fullbacks. There is nothing wrong with carrying players for their special teams ability, and Kerridge seems to be game as a special teamer, but it is also nice to use special teams to hoard depth at actual positions of need, and no one really needs a fullback. Kerridge is fine for what he is; a big lug who can get in someone’s way on a kickoff, or blow up some unsuspecting gunner.
The Old Man Returns
#44 James Starks
Experience: 7th Season
How acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent to a 2-year, $6,000,000 contract ($1,500,000 Guaranteed)
2016 statistics: 63 carries, 145 yards, 2.3 yards per carry, 19 receptions, 134 yards, 7.1 yards per reception, 2 touchdowns, 1 fumble.
Starks was an important cog in the 2010 Super Bowl team and has been an exemplary backup to (and occasionally superior to) Eddie Lacy, however sometimes the wheels come off a running back when he hits 30, and boy did the wheels come off for Starks. While his contract isn’t big enough to be truly terrible, he was extremely unproductive to the point that anyone other than Knile Davis was likely a superior fill-in. Starks is signed for 2017 but it’s hard to imagine him making the roster, and it is likely his time with the Packers, and in the NFL is finished. He ended the season on IR with a concussion, and hopefully he can make a full recovery and enjoy retirement. There will no longer be a Starks in Winterfell.
The Position Switch
#88 Ty Montgomery
Experience: 2nd Season
How acquired: Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2015 NFL draft, 94th overall.
Regular Season: 77 carries, 457 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 44 receptions, 348 yards, 7.9 yards per reception, 3 TDs, 2 fumbles, 18 kick returns, 366 yards.
Playoffs: 25 carries, 91 yards, 3.64 yards per carry, 10 receptions, 77 yards, 7.7 yards per reception, 2 TDS, 0 fumbles.
It’s unusual to plug a gaping hole in your running game by making a wide receiver play there, but that is exactly what the Packers did when all other options essentially crashed and burned, and outside of some issues in pass protection, Montgomery actually managed to improve the position. While Eddie Lacy is an excellent power back, he’s not a big threat in the passing game, and so defenses only have to account for him in one way. Not so with Montgomery, who can run the receiver route tree as well as pounding it between the tackles. Montgomery exceeded everyone’s expectations in the actual running portion of his new job, looking every bit like a player who has been there his entire career. He is fully committed to the position for next year with a number change coming, and if he can stay healthy and improve in pass protection, he has the potential to be one of the league’s best running backs going forward, while still on a 3rd round rookie salary through 2018. The Packers need to add depth at running back, but they have a star firmly entrenched in the starting role.