Positional Battlegrounds: Running Backs

In Part 4 of our series, how can the Packers reduce Eddie Lacy's workload? Perhaps with the return of DuJuan Harris to provide a one-two backup punch.

Packer Report previews the start of Green Bay Packers training camp with a positional series focused solely on the battles that will be won and lost during the dog days (and nights) of July and August. We continue with who will fall in line behind Eddie Lacy in the backfield.

Battle No. 1: Who’s No. 2?

It’s hard to say what was more surprising last season: That the oft-injured James Starks led the NFL in yards per carry while able to play in 13 games, or that the productive Starks was given only 89 carries.

Lacy carried the load during a remarkable rookie season with 284 carries, the fifth-highest total in the league. He handled 61.9 percent of the team’s carries, the highest rate since Ryan Grant’s 64.4 percent in 2009. Lacy had at least 20 carries in 10 games; in games in which Lacy was healthy, Starks never had more than seven carries until he closed the season with 10 and 11 attempts.

Part of the issue with Starks is he’s only OK in the passing game – as a receiver and protector. That might not be a major issue in a traditional, huddle-before-every-play offense, but it is an issue when coach Mike McCarthy prefers to go no-huddle and needs his backs to play from the first play of a series to the last.

With a soft free-agent market for running backs, Starks returned to Green Bay with a two-year deal worth $3.25 million.

“Anywhere else in the league, he’s a starter,” running backs coach Sam Gash said.

So, if Starks is only good for 89 carries when he’s healthy and effective, how do the Packers reduce Lacy’s workload? Perhaps with the return of DuJuan Harris as a co-No. 2 back, assuming he can regain the form that revived a putrid rushing attack at the end of the 2012 season. It was a limited sample size, but Harris’ 4.6-yard rushing average was a full yard more than every other running back combined.

“He’s compact and (as) strong as any that I’ve been around,” Gash said. “I’ve seen him actually toss D-linemen around. I think the sky’s the limit for the guy. He obviously locks in and knows what’s at hand in terms of his job and what he’s got to do. He’s going to be a good player.”

Last season, Lacy, Starks and Johnathan Franklin combined for 392 rushes. Perhaps the better formula for Lacy’s long-term health would be something like 250 carries for Lacy and about 75 carries apiece for Starks and Harris.

“The guys who are going to be on the roster, they’re going to have to play,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “We haven’t sat down and figured out an X number of carries for Eddie. We want to get him touches, trying to get him more involved in all aspects of the game, but Eddie was a workhorse for us last year, and then when James got in there last year, he ran very hard. That was a great one-two punch. Now you factor in DuJuan and the other guys, it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Battle No. 2: Room for four?

Lacy, Starks and Franklin all missed time last season. Franklin decided to retire after sustaining a neck injury last season but Harris is back after missing the entire season with a preseason knee injury. Given the nature of the position, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Packers take a fourth running back into the season.

That player would come from a group including Michael Hill, an undrafted free agent last year who played for the Packers and Buccaneers, and undrafted rookies Rajion Neal and LaDarius Perkins. Neal might be the player to watch. Neal, who fits Green Bay’s preference at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, rushed for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior and 2,267 yards and 19 touchdowns for his career at Tennessee. He played receiver in 2011, so he’s got the pass-catching skills the Packers prefer, as well. Gash compared his running style to that of former All-Pro Arian Foster.

Battle No. 3: Is Kuhn untouchable?

For a two-word answer to that question, it’s “probably yes.” The Packers certainly didn’t hitch their wagon to Kuhn, with the 31-year-old, jack-of-all-trades fullback getting a one-year deal worth just $1.03 million. Still, the lone challenger is Ina Liaina, an undrafted rookie in 2013 who didn’t even compete in a training camp and spent part of his year out of football serving as a bouncer. While some teams have replaced their fullback with a versatile tight end able to line up in the backfield, the Packers lack a rugged run-blocking tight end.

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