Grading on a Salary Cap Curve: Running Backs

In Part 2 of our series, we grade the performance of Packers running backs Eddie Lacy, James Starks, DuJuan Harris and John Kuhn relative to their contracts. (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY)

’Tis the season when every newspaper and blogger grades each player on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. We’re no different, though we’ll take a different spin on the subject by grading on a curve. Building a roster means building around the restraints of the salary cap, so our grades are based relative to the players’ salary-cap worth on the roster.

Part 2 of our “Grading on a Salary Cap Curve” series continues with the running backs. Salary cap figures are from a source with access to NFLPA salary data. Stats are regular season only unless noted.

Eddie Lacy

2014 cap number: $771,003.

2014 recap: Lacy had a great season with his 1,139 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, good for seventh and third in the league, respectively. With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback all season, Lacy didn’t wear a bull’s-eye on his jersey. That translated into Lacy averaging 4.6 yards per carry, ninth-best in the league among runners with at least 200 carries. Lacy also finished third on the team with 42 receptions, fourth with 427 receiving yards and third with four touchdown receptions.

Just like his offensive line, the gifted second-year runner got better as the season progressed. He rushed for 592 yards and averaged a whopping 5.1 yards per carry during the second half of the season. During the final three regular-season playoff games and the playoff opener, he rushed for 97, 99, 100 and 101 yards. Lacy topped 100 scrimmage yards in each of the final nine games of the regular season to set a franchise record. He ran that streak to 10 games in the playoff win vs. Dallas but was limited to 73 total yards (all rushing) by Seattle.

Whether it was running through or around defenders in the running game (fifth with 690 yards after contact and 2.8 yards per carry after contact, sixth with 49 missed tackles, according to ProFootballFocus.com), taking advantage of second-level defenders in the passing game (third-best 10.29 yards after the catch per catch, according to league data) or protecting the quarterback (no sacks, two hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com), Lacy had a big-time season.

However, he fumbled three times (tied for third-most among running backs) and converted just 6-of-10 third-and-short runs (60.0 percent; 15th out of 20 among players with at least 10 attempts, according to STATS). He scored touchdowns on 5-of-8 runs from the 1- or 2-yard line (62.5 percent; sixth out of 16 among backs with at least six attempts, according to STATS).

Season grade: A.

James Starks

2014 cap number: $1,370,313.

2014 recap: Starks rushed 85 times for 333 yards (3.9 average) and two touchdowns. Compare that to 2013, when Starks rushed 89 times for 493 yards (league-best 5.5 per carry) and three touchdowns. He added 18 catches for 140 yards — which topped his combined total of 14 for 120 from 2012 and 2013. The passing game, however, is the No. 1 reason why Starks will have to settle for scraps when it comes to playing time. Out of 45 running backs who caught at least 18 passes, Starks’ catch rate of 66.7 percent tied for 43rd, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He also dropped four passes. Compare that to Lacy’s 84.0 percent and one drop. All of those words can be summed up on the opening drive of the fourth quarter at Seattle. On first down, Starks rumbled for 32 yards with a hard-charging cutback run. The drive died, however, when Starks couldn’t haul in passes on second down (off his hands for a potential touchdown) or third down.

Season grade: C.

DuJuan Harris

2014 cap number: $645,000.

2014 recap: Harris looked like the find of all finds late in 2012, when he went from selling cars to the practice squad to featured back. However, after missing all of 2013 with a knee injury, Harris played himself out of the running back rotation and, then, out of the equation altogether. He finished with 16 carries for 64 yards and one catch for 11 — he didn’t touch the ball on offense in the final nine games — plus finished next-to-last in the league with a 20.7-yard average on kickoff returns. With Lacy and Starks carrying the load in the running game, the Packers simply must do better if the No. 3 back is going to play primarily on special teams.

Season grade: F.

John Kuhn

2014 cap number: $1,026,875.

2014 recap: For a player who rushed for and caught a total of 20 touchdowns from 2007 through 2013, it seemed like a quiet year for the popular fullback. However, he was selected to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. He rushed 24 times for 85 yards (3.5 average) and one touchdown. Historically a favorite weapon of coach Mike McCarthy in short-yardage and goal-line situations, Kuhn was almost invisible in that role until late in the season. Including playoffs, he converted 2-of-4 third-and-short runs but was just 1-of-4 near the goal line. After scoring against the Jets in Week 2, he couldn’t punch it in on his other three attempts — with the last of those goal-line failures coming last week against Seattle. However, this might have been his best year as a blocker — particularly in the playoff win over Dallas. Kuhn will be an unrestricted free agent and will turn 33 on Sept. 9. Still, it’d be a surprise to not see him back.

Season grade: B-minus.

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.


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