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Packers Training Camp Preview: Running Back unit gets a facelift over the offseason

The Packers added a whole bunch of rookies to the running back unit, which returns none of the tailbacks who started last year atop the depth chart.

NFL: Green Bay Packers-OTA Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing our series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ 90-man roster prior to training camp, we examine the quarterback position and reveal our pre-camp predictions for the team’s 2017 53-man roster. Ten APC contributors submitted full roster predictions, and we will present the consensus predictions drawn from those individual guesses over the next two weeks.

I believe the New England Patriots are the most well-run franchise in pro-sports, featuring the best coach in NFL history and a front office that excels in both scouting and analytics. Analytics is a bit of a dirty word in football, but smart front offices make use of the same technology and concepts as their cousins in the NBA and MLB, even if they are less forthcoming with the details. Nowhere is the influence of statistical analysis more apparent than in the Patriots’ use of running backs. I have a reputation for complaining about teams running too much, but if everyone ran with the same philosophy and personnel as the Pats I would be completely on board — and make no mistake, the Patriots use running backs and run the ball a lot.

At least since Kevin Faulk first showed up, the Pats have focused on discrete back skills over the need for an every down back. They have routinely employed one lead power back, one lead receiving back, and one backup for each, and they value efficiency greatly over raw totals. Last season LaGarrette Blount powered his way to 18 scores (on just 3.9 YPC), but it’s really Dion Lewis and should-have-been Super Bowl MVP James White who actually did the heavy lifting offensively. Whatever you think of Tom Brady, he is almost certainly the greatest short-to-medium passer in NFL history, and a good receiving back, be it Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, or James White, is a necessity.

The Pats also let us into their statistical black box by signing not one but two DVOA darlings in the offseason. Mike Gillislee, formerly of the BIlls, ranked first in DVOA last season while Rex Burkhead led all backs who did not have enough attempts to properly qualify and showed some nice receiving chops. So what’s the point of all this Patriot talk? This is a Packer site, after all?

The Packers may not be quite as good as the Patriots, but they also are not stupid. They’ve seen what the Pats have done with the position, and also may have noticed the Falcon duo of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman doing strikingly similar things. The shift of Ty Montgomery from wide receiver to running back, combined with a draft that was heavy on either power or passing with nary an every down back in sight, signals a change in how they plan to handle things going forward. This is a good thing.

Returning Players

Ty Montgomery

Year: 3rd
Age: 24
How acquired: 3rd-round draft pick (94 overall), 2015

What more can be said about Ty Montgomery? The lead back entering the 2017 season after converting from wide receiver in mid-2016, Montgomery excelled immediately. He showed rare elusiveness and the kind of balance and power that even the best back prospects rarely possess. His instincts are still a work in progress, which is understandable given the switch, and he occasionally whiffs in blitz pickup, but there is nothing in Montgomery’s list of weaknesses that can’t be fixed by an offseason of work, and he has the ceiling of an elite back if he can make everything click.

Aaron Ripkowski

Year: 3rd
Age: 24
How acquired: 6th-round draft pick (206th overall), 2015

People still yell “Kuhn” when Rip gets the ball, and at this point it’s a disservice to Rip. With the exception of a huge playoff fumble, Ripkowski did just about everything you could ask of a fullback. He was a good to great lead blocker on those rare occasions that the Packers employed one, but more importantly, he was surprisingly agile in blitz pickup. And while he was not exciting as a receiver, he at least hauled in 9 of 10 passes thrown his way. His passing game work, and his ability to fill the role of power halfback on occasion, will keep him employed for the foreseeable future. After all, you don’t give an all-timer like John Kuhn his walking papers for just any old guy off the street.

Joe Kerridge

Year: 2nd
Age: 24 (25 in September)
How acquired: Signed to practice squad October 10, 2016; promoted to active roster November 11

The Michigan grad is as “just a guy” as you can get, serving mainly as an extra blocker or very occasional lead blocker, as well as special teamer. He was stuffed on his only carry last year and did not do much to distinguish himself in his short stints on the field. Carrying one fullback is a luxury for most teams, and it is a luxury they are likely to do without going forward.

New Blood

Jamaal Williams

Year: Rookie
Age: 22
How acquired: 4th-round draft pick (134 overall), 2017

Even though he is actually slightly smaller than Montgomery, Williams is likely to get the first crack at the Packer power back role. He was productive as a banger at BYU, and has the frame and decisive style to get tough yards between the tackles. Williams has been a bit injury prone and missed some time in college for doing college kid things at the famously conservative Mormon university. His measurables also won’t blow anyone away as he struggled with combine agility drills, but if you are looking for the power skill set in a late 4th round player, you couldn’t have done much better.

Aaron Jones

Year: Rookie
Age: 22
How acquired: 5th-round draft pick (182 overall), 2017

Here is the Packers’ James White. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. Jones is a bit on the small side for a modern NFL back at 5-9, 208, and he played for a small school. And...that’s it.

Everything else about Jones profile suggests the Packers got a steal with their compensatory 5th round pick, as Jones excelled in all agility drills, putting up some of the best marks of the combine.

When healthy he was also a surprisingly polished receiver, and he will slide immediately into the Ty Montgomery hybrid-WR-Matchup-Nightmare spot should anything happen the Ty. When you can get measurables and production in the 5th, you’ve done well.

Devante Mays

Year: Rookie
Age: 23
How acquired: 7th-round draft pick (238 overall), 2017

In the 5th you can find production and measurables together, but down in the 7th you usually just find one of those, and it’s usually production in some tiny conference that won’t translate up the NFL ladder. Mays did not actually play much in general as a junior college transfer with some nagging injuries. When he did, he was quite effective against lesser NCAA competition. What put Mays on some radars was his truly freakish athleticism. At 230 pounds Mays ran a 4.51 (and purportedly a 4.44) 40 at his pro day, which would be off the charts good. He also manages a 40.5 inch vertical and is, generally, built like a truck of a man. He will get a long look in the power back role. Like all 7th rounders, Mays has warts, but he is also as intriguing at the back spot as Malachi Dupre, another 7th rounder, is at WR.

William Stanback

Year: Rookie
Age: 23
How acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent after rookie minicamp tryout

Much of what I just wrote about Mays you can also say about Stanback, who is a surprisingly athletic monster of a man with surprisingly good measurables whose skills never translated to success in Division I. Off-field issues landed him in Division 2 for his senior season and didn’t do anything to help whatever draft stock he may have had. Stanback moves well for a 230-pounder and may be more agile than Mays, but I am always skeptical of athletes who do not put up big numbers in college. Stanback has the tools to shoot up the depth chart and claim a power back spot with an impressive camp or special teams play, but he’s still a relative longshot.

Kalif Phillips

Year: Rookie
Age: 23
How acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent

The real longshot here is Phillips, who reads like every UDFA pickup ever. He’s a hard worker who boasts a productive college career at Charlotte. He’s also on the small side for someone who ran a 4.66 40-yard dash, and who appears to be average-at-best as a receiver. Try-hard guys do sometimes make it on vision and intangibles, but they also generally need to show those features on a practice squad for a bit. If you are a long shot, it’s always good to be a long shot running back, where injuries frequently open up slots. It is also a relatively simple position and teams are more willing to give you an opportunity outside of scheme. These are the kinds of things you hope for if you’re in Phillips’ position.