With 13 days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the running backs.
Starters: RB — Eddie Lacy; FB — Aaron Ripkowski. Backups: RB — James Starks, John Crockett, Don Jackson, Brandon Burks, Brandon Ross; FB — Alstevis Squirewell.
Coming: Jackson, Burks, Ross, Squirewell. Going: FB John Kuhn.
Fullback: Kuhn is like a fire extinguisher — break glass in case of emergency. As it stands, Ripkowski is set to enter the season as the Packers’ starting fullback — the first time someone other than Kuhn has been the primary fullback since Kuhn was part of a three-man timeshare in 2010. Is Ripkowski ready or will the glass have to be broken? A sixth-round pick last year, Ripkowski played all of 18 snaps on offense, with never more than four in a game. In other words, he’s hardly a known quantity. Kuhn, meanwhile, played 305 snaps and averaged 41.3 snaps during the final four games. A three-time Pro Bowler, the Packers know exactly what they’re going to get from Aaron Rodgers’ right-hand man. While Kuhn did everything well, Ripkowski has the potential — potential, being the key word — to be the best lead-blocking fullback since William Henderson.
“I just need Rip to be Rip,” Rodgers said. “I just need him to bring the energy he brings. He’s a great blocker, and I don’t need him to be John Kuhn. John was a special player mentally and, obviously, physically made a lot of plays for us. Rip brings a high level of physicality to our offense and great things to our special teams. I just need him to be the best Aaron Ripkowski he can be and that’s going ot be good enough for our offense and something we can work with moving forward.”
The other fullback on the roster is Squirewell, a standout defensive lineman at Division II Newberry. Squirewell (6-0, 265) ran his 40 in 4.98 seconds, with a 34-inch vertical leap and 23 reps on the bench press at his pro day.
No. 3 running back: This is among the most wide-open battles on the team. Crockett will enter camp as the leader based on experience. An undrafted free agent out of North Dakota State last year, Crockett spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad. When Lacy and Alonzo Harris broke curfew before the Dec. 3 game at Detroit, Harris was released and Crockett was promoted. He rushed for 22 yards on five attempts in that game and finished the season with nine rushes for 21 yards and zero receptions.
“We just had this conversation yesterday,” coach Mike McCarthy said during last month’s minicamp. “His redshirt year is over. He needs to make an impact. He needs to show up on special teams. He’s kind of trying to find his way a little bit as far as where he needs to play at weight-wise and so forth. He’s done a lot of good things. But he’s going into his second training camp, so he needs the details work and take advantage of these opportunities because those two young guys behind him, I’m excited to see them run the ball when we get the pads on.”
Actually, it’s three guys, now that the Packers on Tuesday signed Ross, an undrafted free agent out of Maryland who spent three weeks with the Vikings. He was honorable mention all-Big Ten with 958 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior, with his 6.4-yard average leading the conference. He ranks fourth in school history with 2,543 rushing yards.
Jackson got to Green Bay from Nevada via a highway to hell. He rushed for 957 yards as a junior and 1,079 yards as a senior. “Not even a chance I could have imagined this,” Jackson said. “Going through everything that I went through to get to this point is unorthodox and not really natural. It was full of speedbumps. I couldn’t have pictured this six, seven years ago. But it’s real, it’s here now, and I’m excited about the opportunity.”
The short but well-built Burks rushed for 1,005 yards as a senior at Troy. Where Burks has the advantage in this battle is as a receiver. While Jackson (seven catches for 77 yards) and Ross (five catches for 17 yards) were nonfactors in the passing game during their final seasons, Burks caught 29 passes as a senior and 88 passes during his final three seasons.
Where do they stand athletically? Ross is 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds with a 40-yard time of 4.44 seconds, a 37.5-inch vertical jump and just 10 reps on the 225-pound bench press. Jackson is 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds with a 4.50 in the 40, 38.5-inch vertical and 15 reps on the bench. Burks is 5-foot-8 5/8 and 208 pounds, with a 4.56 in the 40, a 37-inch vertical and 24 reps on the bench. At the 2015 Scouting Combine, Crockett compiled a 4.62 in the 40, a 40-inch vertical leap and 15 reps on the bench.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
If Lacy is motivated either internally or financially, the Packers’ offense could be dominant this season. By now, you know the story of Lacy’s lackluster 2015 — an overweight Lacy rushed for 758 yards and three touchdowns, caught 20 passes for 188 yards and fumbled four times. During his first two seasons, he averaged 1,159 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns and 38.5 receptions for 342 yards. After the season, McCarthy — in a rare public rebuke of a player — minced few words regarding Lacy.
“At the end of the day, we're all grown men,” Lacy said in May. “Whether he calls me out, I just have to take care of that responsibility. You don't get mad or flash out or anything like that. You just take it as it is what it is and make it go away.”
As Lacy enters his final season under contract, there is plenty at stake. That gives him millions of reasons to be in the best shape of his life entering training camp in hopes of rekindling his massive 2014 season of 1,139 rushing yards (4.6 average) and 42 receptions (10.2 average).
“I’m not too focused on that,” Lacy said of free agency. “That don’t matter if I don’t do what I have to do.”
Starks. Statistically, Starks had never been better than he was last season — a bold statement, considering Starks led the NFL in yards per carry in 2013. He posted career-high totals almost across the board: 148 rushes, 601 yards, 43 receptions, 392 receiving yards, 9.1 yards per reception, 993 total yards and five total touchdowns.
More importantly, given the Packers’ no-huddle offense demands that players be able to play all three downs, Starks had never been better in the passing game. His 11.37 yards after the catch per reception led the entire NFL (regardless of position) by almost 2 yards, and his four receptions of 25-plus yards led all NFL running backs. Plus, while pass protection never has been his forte, at least he didn’t give up a sack, by our unofficial count.
With Lacy’s lackluster performance, Starks became the unofficial No. 1 running back. Even though he started only four games, Starks’ 528 snaps were 58 more than Lacy played and more than he played in 2013 and 2014 combined.
Starks would have played even more if not for the one blemish on his season: fumbles. Starks fumbled five times — matching the total of his first five seasons and ranking third among running backs. He fumbled four times in four December games, which is why he went from 36.3 snaps per game during the first 13 games — including six consecutive games of at least 32 snaps — to 18.7 for the final three.
Starks, who turned 30 on Feb. 25, was rewarded with a two-year, $6 million contract. One of the most unselfish and unassuming players on the team, Starks will be ready when needed — whether it’s for three plays or 30.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.