Positional Review: Running Backs

We look back at the season with our featured performer, depth chart, unit grade and look ahead to 2013. Short on options in the backfield after injuries to Cedric Benson and James Starks, DuJuan Harris ran so well that he'll probably be the starter to open camp.

Packer Report continues a position-by-position review of the 2012 season with the running backs.

Featured performer

When Ryan Grant sustained a season-ending ankle injury just eight carries into the 2010 season, the Green Bay Packers' running attack went into a long, deep slumber.

Oh, there were moments: James Starks' emergence during the 2010 playoffs. John Kuhn and Starks running out the clock in 2011 games against Detroit and Minnesota, respectively. Grant's 92-yard day at Chicago and his 47-yard touchdown run against Oakland in 2011. Cedric Benson's 81- and 84-yard games early in 2012, and Alex Green's explosive 41-yard run at Indianapolis after Benson went down with a season-ending foot injury.

But those were just fleeting moments. Late in the season, desperate times called for desperate measures. Benson was on injured reserve, Green was inconsistent and Starks sustained what wound up being a season-ending knee injury late in a promising performance against Minnesota.

Short on options, the Packers gave a chance to a running back who simply didn't measure up to the measurables sought by general manager Ted Thompson and his scouting department. DuJuan Harris, at 5-foot-7, is 5 inches shorter than Green, 6 inches shorter than Grant and 7 inches shorter than Starks.

The first time he touched the ball, he rumbled around right end and ran over Detroit safety Ricardo Silva for an 11-yard gain. Like a bolt of lightning, the Packers suddenly had a reliable running game.

When Grant found nowhere to run in his first two attempts in the season-finale at Minnesota, Harris got his shot and made a resounding statement with 70 yards on 14 carries. He was the featured back in the playoffs with 100 yards on 28 carries, 164 total yards, and a touchdown in each game.

"He's fearless," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said late in the season. "He runs quickly through the hole and there's not a lot of dodging going on. He showed that the first carry he got out here when we tossed him the ball against Detroit and he ran over the safety. I think he's got a good mix of speed and toughness and the ability to run through arm tackles."

Rest of the depth chart

With Green being brought along slowly from a torn ACL and yet another injury for Starks, the Packers signed Benson rather than bringing back Grant. Benson, with 71 carries for 248 yards, played to his standards. He got what was blocked and ran decisively but wasn't much of a a threat once he got into the second level. He averaged 3.5 yards per carry, about in line with his career mark of 3.8. He caught the ball well (14 catches) and proved to be an excellent teammate, both before and after the injury.

Starks' talent is undeniable but he can't outrun the injury bug. In three seasons, he's played in 27 of a possible 55 games. On Dec. 2 against Minnesota, Starks was in top form with 66 yards on 15 carries, including a 22-yard touchdown. A helmet to the knee, however, wound up ending his season after 71 carries for 255 yards (3.6 average) and a touchdown.

Grant, re-signed in December, had a chance for a 100-yard game against Tennessee before settling for 80 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. He gained 9 yards on nine attempts in the back-to-back games against Minnesota and didn't get a touch at San Francisco. He gained 127 yards on 31 rushes (4.1 average).

Fullback John Kuhn ran 23 times for 63 yards (2.7 average) and one touchdown and added 148 yards on 15 receptions (9.9 average). Held to one touchdown in the regular season after scoring 18 over the previous four seasons, he scored twice in the playoff win against Minnesota. He was used in the third-down protection role by default because of Starks' injuries and a lack of trust in Green, and wound up playing almost 100 more snaps than anyone else in the backfield.

Brandon Saine played only on special teams in the first six games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Unit grade

C: Remember when Grant had back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009? Since then, the team-leading figures have been Brandon Jackson's 703 yards in 2010, Starks' 578 yards in 2011 and Green's 464 yards in 2012. Green's mark is the lowest for a Packers leader since Darick Holmes' 386 in 1998. It's the first time since 1990-1991 (Michael Haddix and Darrell Thompson, respectively) that the Packers have gone without a 600-yard rusher in back-to-back seasons.

Looking ahead

Unless the Packers use an early pick on a running back, Harris figures to enter training camp as the starting running back. Really, who else is it going to be? Benson and Grant, who are 30, are free agents. Starks hasn't been healthy since his junior season at Buffalo. Green, a third-round pick in 2011, fell off the face of the earth. Saine is coming off a torn ACL.

Even with 16-attempt games when falling way behind at Minnesota and at San Francisco, the Packers averaged 28.8 rushing attempts over the final 10 games after averaging 24.0 in the first eight games. Whether it's Starks or Green or a draft pick, the Packers will need someone else to emerge to maintain the balanced play-calling that coach Mike McCarthy used during the second half of the season.

Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

Packer Report Top Stories