RB Depth Looks Good on Paper

Green Bay enters the draft with a big question mark in the backfield considering Ryan Grant's health, James Starks' relative lack of experience and Brandon Jackson's uncertain future.

Paper champion. It's a term Mike McCarthy has been fond of saying the last couple years but an expression for which the Packers' head coach has no fondness.

"History tells you over and over again, you start building your team and you focus on what it looks like on a piece of paper, that's a big mistake in my view," McCarthy said earlier this spring at the NFL league meetings in New Orleans.

While that was McCarthy's reaction to how Green Bay's name is scribbled on all sorts of paper as a good bet to repeat as league champion next season, those also are words to strongly consider when taking the Packers' approach to this year's draft at face value.

Running back is a position that, on paper, doesn't jump out as one of the team's few glaring needs. After all, Ryan Grant and James Starks give Green Bay potentially a dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield.

However, there's no telling what kind of player Grant will be after he missed all but one game last season because of an ankle injury and whether Starks is the real deal following his breakout performance in the playoffs as a rookie. Plus, free agent-to-be Brandon Jackson could bolt.

What it all means is fans who may be clamoring for a pass-rushing stud to play opposite Clay Matthews or a blue-chip offensive tackle to pair with 2010 first-round choice Bryan Bulaga shouldn't be surprised if general manager Ted Thompson makes running back as much of a priority early in the draft.

There's too many "ifs" on the table for the Packers to feel secure and content going forward with their situation at the position.

Grant is fully healed from the surgically repaired torn ligament in his right ankle, an injury he sustained in the second quarter of the season-opening win at Philadelphia on Sept. 12. Yet, for all the optimism Grant has for being able to get on the field once the lockout is over, it's questionable whether he will regain his 1,200-yard form of 2008 and '09 as he inches closer to his 29th birthday in December.

"I'm excited, but also I'm not trying to rush things," Grant recently said in an appearance in Milwaukee.

The Packers were forced to wait on Starks in his abbreviated debut season. The sixth-round draft pick out of Buffalo was stymied throughout the offseason and training camp because of a hamstring injury, spent the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform list and didn't play until early December.

Fortunately for Green Bay, a fresh-legged Starks played a major factor in its late run to sneak into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed and win Super Bowl XLV. Starks' league-best output of 315 rushing yards in the postseason started with an eye-opening performance of 23 carries for 123 yards in the wild-card knockout of the Eagles in Philadelphia.

"What is exciting about him is his best football is in front of him," McCarthy said. "He has all the tools, the work ethic, the intelligence, the instincts to be an every-down player, and everything is in front of him."

Of course, that's high praise that looks good on paper. Starks has played all of seven games the last two years — he missed his final college season because of a shoulder injury — and one breakout performance doesn't always foreshadow greatness.

Grant and Starks will make for an interesting preseason battle, provided there is a preseason, and could be relegated to a time-share arrangement in an offense that prioritizes the pass anyhow with Aaron Rodgers at the controls.

Yet, with Jackson likely out the door, the Packers are left with a critical void to fill. Jackson, the team's second-round draft pick in 2007, never distinguished himself as every-down back material, but he was invaluable with his third-down blocking and pass-catching skills.

Neither Grant nor Starks seems cut out for that role should McCarthy decide to make only one his featured back.

Consequently, if the Packers aren't so lucky to have 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram of Alabama fall to them at No. 32 to end the first round, look for Thompson to give consideration in rounds two and three to the likes of Kansas State's Daniel Thomas, Cal's Shane Vereen and Hawaii's Alex Green if available.

If Thompson and McCarthy can get past Vereen's diminutive size (5-10) and proclivity for fumbles, his upside as a versatile contributor in a spread attack and being a dynamic kick returner to boot could be too good to pass on.

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