We continue our training camp positional series with the running backs.
Starters: RB Eddie Lacy and FB John Kuhn. This is one of the NFL’s premier backfields. After winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2013 by rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns, Lacy didn’t suffer through anything resembling a sophomore slump. In 2014, he piled up 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns. He added 427 yards and four more touchdowns on 42 receptions, giving him 3,001 total yards in his two seasons. Kuhn, meanwhile, earned All-Pro accolades. As his snap count increased during the second half of the season, so, too, did the rushing output of Lacy. During the final six games, Lacy rushed for 592 yards – third-most in the league.
Top backup: RB James Starks. After leading the NFL with 5.5 yards per carry as Lacy’s running-mate in 2013, Starks slumped a bit last season. He went from 89 carries for 493 yards and three touchdowns in 2013 to 85 rushes for 333 yards and two touchdowns in 2014. He did add 18 receptions after grabbing a combined 14 passes in 2012 and 2013.
Contenders: RB Rajion Neal, RB John Crockett, RB Alonzo Harris, FB Aaron Ripkowski. Neal was with the Packers early (training camp) and late (practice squad last season). Crockett was a record-setting rusher for four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State. He rushed for almost 2,000 yards as a senior and, aside from his 40-yard time, had a strong Scouting Combine. Harris, a 237-pound bruiser, rushed for 3,330 yards at Louisiana-Lafayette. So it’s an unproven trio but a talented one, as well. Ripkowski, a sixth-round pick, faces the daunting challenge of unseating Kuhn. He led the way for one of top rushing attacks in the major-college ranks at Oklahoma.
Is Lacy a top-three running back?: DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing by a mile. Le’Veon Bell dominated as a runner and receiver. LeSean McCoy is a dynamic open-field runner who goes by the nickname “Shady.” Marshawn Lynch is a sledgehammer of a runner who goes by the nickname “Beast Mode.” Those four were joined by Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster on last year’s initial Pro Bowl team.
But what about Lacy? Lacy deserves to be considered one of the top three running backs in the game because he does everything at a tremendous level. Need a back to make yards when they’re not there? According to ProFootballFocus.com, Lacy finished fifth in the league in yards after contact per attempt and second by getting an extra 3-plus yards after contact on 101 attempts. Need a back to protect the quarterback? In two seasons, he hasn’t allowed a sack and finished in the top five both years in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency. Need a back to make a play in the passing game? Lacy finished third in the NFL with 10.29 yards after the catch per catch. He also dropped just one pass.
“I just do the same thing I always do. Run the ball, protect, catch the ball whenever it’s thrown to me,” Lacy said. “But there’s always room for improvement. From the things I just listed, I could definitely continue to improve on that. Just keeping the same mind-set, going out and not trying to do too much, not trying to go out and play and act as if I need to be in that conversation but just go out and continue to do what I know how to do.”
What is his Achilles heal?: If there was one blemish on Lacy’s season, it was fumbles. He coughed it up three times in 246 attempts for a 1.22 percent fumble rate. That’s hardly going to land him a seat in coach Mike McCarthy’s doghouse but it is too many. Among backs who carried at least 100 times last season, that was the ninth-highest in the league. Only Detroit’s Joique Bell (five), Charles (four) and Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill (four) fumbled more than Lacy.
What stands in Starks way?: There’s no denying Starks’ talent. In five seasons, he’s averaged 4.3 yards per carry. In a tremendous stat at ProFootballFocus.com, Starks had seven runs last season in which he gained at least 10 yards after contact. That made up 7.4 percent of his carries – by far the highest percentage in the league. However, he had four drops out of 22 catchable passes – a drop rate of 18.2 percent. Among backs with at least 20 catchable targets, that was the second-highest drop rate, according to PFF. He’s also been a liability in pass protection, which is why McCarthy went with Kuhn in the third-down role for most of 2013. After five seasons in the league, Starks’ strengths and weaknesses are pretty well established. He’s a quality runner but not good enough in the passing game to be on the field to form a true tandem with Lacy.
Who’s No. 3?: Or, perhaps a better question: Do the Packers even need three running backs? Last season, DuJuan Harris had all of 17 touches, didn’t have any in the final six regular-season games and wasn’t even active for the two playoff games. Given the Packers’ depth at wide receiver, the expectation that they keep three quarterbacks and the potential of having two quality fullbacks, the Packers could save a roster spot by going light at running back with just Lacy and Starks.
If they do go the conventional route with three running backs, Neal will have the advantage entering training camp. At just about every one of the offseason practices that were open to reporters, Neal showed his excellent pass-catching skills. That’s not a surprise: He spent part of his sophomore season at Tennessee playing receiver. At 220 pounds, he fits the Packers’ mold.
“It’s early,” running backs coach Sam Gash said. “In terms of impressions, I really don’t have one right now because we have different style runners that when pads come on, that’s where I’ll start being able to see what we can have in terms of who we got. Right now, I have no real true impressions on them.”
Is there room for two fullbacks?: The obvious answer is “yes.” After all, early in McCarthy’s tenure, the Packers kept Kuhn, Korey Hall and Quinn Johnson at fullback, and the Packers need to start planning ahead with Kuhn’s 33rd birthday approaching. However, the Packers led the NFL in scoring last season with Kuhn playing less than 200 snaps on offense. Do the Packers expand the fullback’s role, in spite of that success? Can Ripkowski stick around in the NFL equivalent of a redshirt season? With fullback not exactly being a prime-time position in today’s NFL, can they sneak him through to the practice squad? Or will Ripkowski simply show it’s time for the passing of the torch?
“Kuhn is a leader. He’s a natural born leader,” Gash said. “They call him ‘The General.’ He commands respect when he’s in there. I think as he’s getting older, he’s better. I don’t think there’s been a big drop-off in my eyes from what I’ve seen from one year to the next. I think for a young guy like Ripkowski having Kuhn is definitely a plus because Kuhn brings things not only on the field but outside the game making guys good professionals.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.