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Grading the Green Bay Packers on a Salary Cap Curve: Running Backs

With Eddie Lacy on injured reserve and James Starks injured and ineffective, it was Ty Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski to the rescue.

Everyone does player grades.

Ours are different.

We do ours on a salary-cap curve. After all, the salary cap largely determines long-term success in the NFL. Players with big-money contracts must be big-time performers. Those highly paid players must be supplemented by several small-budget but high-production players.

With that, we continue this series with the running backs. Salary comparisons are from OverTheCap.com.

Eddie Lacy

2016 cap: $1.079 million (38th at position)

After being called out by coach Mike McCarthy following the 2014 season, Lacy looked rejuvenated entering 2015. From a weight-loss perspective, his offseason workouts with fitness guru Tony Horton might not have paid lasting dividends. He looked massive again by early in the season.

Whatever weight he regained from Day 1 of training camp to Week 6 of the regular season, however, seemingly had no impact on his performance. In his five games, Lacy rushed for 360 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry, putting him on pace for 1,152 yards had he lasted the full season. Even in his last game, a gimpy, tough-guy performance against Dallas, Lacy managed to hurdle over would-be Cowboys defenders.

Lacy’s heading to free agency with an uncertain future. His talent and production as a runner, receiver and protector are undeniable. However, given his battle of the bulge, will Lacy find any sort of market for his services? Logically, the Packers and Lacy would agree on a one-year, prove-it contract. The Packers need a counterpuncher to Ty Montgomery. Lacy needs a big year to earn a big contract. It seems like a perfect match. Then again, maybe the Packers are ready to move on from a player who seems unwilling to put in the personal sacrifice necessary to maximize his potential.

“I love his energy, I love his passion. That’s how you play the game,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said a few days after the Dallas game. “That’s Eddie Lacy. We always talk about breaking tackles, what you do on your own. That passion that he displays week in and week out, that’s truly what you want to see. When we talk about what we want our tape to look like, that’s what you want it to look like.”

Grade: C.

James Starks

2016 cap: $2.25 million (23rd at position)

Starks’ season could hardly have gone worse. In 2015, he set career highs in rushing yards (601), receiving yards (392), total yards (993), receptions (43) and total touchdowns (five). His 11.37 yards after the catch per reception led the entire NFL (regardless of position) by almost 2 yards. The Packers retained Starks with a two-year deal about three weeks after he turned 30.

That 30th birthday has been the damnation of more than one running back over the years, and Starks joined that group whose career fell off the face of the earth. He rushed for 145 yards and averaged a woeful 2.3 yards per carry. Of 63 carries, he gained more than 10 yards just once. In nine games, he averaged more than 2.8 yards per carry only once. He caught 19 passes but had two drops, giving him a drop rate of 8.0 percent that was one of the worst in the league among players who were targeted at least 25 times. Starks missed the final six games with a concussion suffered in an early-morning car accident. He wasn’t missed. And probably won’t be missed. The Packers can release Starks and realize $3 million of cap savings.

Grade: F.

Ty Montgomery

2016 cap: $693,386 (67th at position)

Without Lacy and Starks (and John Crockett, Don Jackson and Knile Davis), it was Montgomery to the rescue. He led the team with 457 rushing yards on 77 attempts. Had he reached the minimum threshold of 100 carries, he would have led the NFL with his 5.9-yard average.

How good can Montgomery become? He’s already a polished runner. The offensive linemen wanted Montgomery to run with patience, so he quickly learned how to run with patience. Defenders expecting to tackle a wide receiver were met with a stiff-arm that sent them tumbling face-first to the turf. With his receiver background, it’s little wonder he caught 78.6 percent of targeted passes (one drop; 1.8 percent drop rate) and averaged 7.34 yards after the catch.

This, obviously, will be a critical offseason for Montgomery. He’s spent years training like a receiver. Now, he must train like a running back for improved durability. And he must become a better pass protector. Given his background, it’s little wonder he struggled in that phase. Dallas and Atlanta attacked when he was in the game. Fortunately, he has the intelligence and desire to improve.

“He’s an extremely skilled player,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He’s obviously a running back with the ball, but he can run around like a receiver because he’s played receiver for a number of years. I’m really proud of his effort. We often say that tight end is the toughest mentally because they sometimes have to be a receiver, sometimes a fullback, and obviously sometimes a blocker, but what Ty is doing right now is pretty outstanding because he’s playing a number of different spots — obviously a running back and doing that stuff, but he’s also catching screen passes, he’s running routes as a receiver. He’s doing a great job mentally of really grasping the things we need to do.”

Grade: B.

Christine Michael

2016 cap: $277,941 (133rd at position)

Given the injury situation in the backfield, Michael provided critical depth in the backfield to lessen the burden on Montgomery. Michael had good games against Chicago (four carries for 45 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown) and the Giants in the playoffs (10 carries, 47 yards). In nine games, he had a combined 47 carries for 172 yards (3.7 average).

There’s no doubting he runs hard and doesn’t shy away from contact. There’s also no doubting he has poor vision — the knock on him in two tours with Seattle — and no concept of how to contribute in the passing game. He caught two passes for Green Bay and has a career average of just 5.2 yards on 26 catches in four seasons. Michael has undeniable talent but he’s a poor fit for the Packers’ cerebral, pass-first scheme.

Grade: C-minus.

Don Jackson

2016 cap: $243,000 (138th at position)

Talk about cursed: Jackson, an undrafted rookie, was called up from the practice squad due to injuries to Lacy and Starks. In his first game, against Chicago, he sustained an injured hand. Then, he suffered a knee injury that sent him to injured reserve. In three games, he carried 10 times for 32 yards.

Grade: Incomplete.

Aaron Ripkowski

2016 cap: $551,500 (15th at position)

General manager Ted Thompson made the right call by moving on from Pro Bowler John Kuhn and going with Ripkowski, who played only 19 snaps as a rookie. With 288 snaps this season, only Montgomery played more among players in the Packers’ backfield. Much like Kuhn, Ripkowski can do it all. He carried 34 times for 150 yards (4.4 average) and two scores and added nine receptions (10 targets) for 46 yards (5.1 average) and one more score.

That production was quite the revelation considering he had 14 touches in 46 games at Oklahoma. Like the Packers did periodically with Kuhn, Ripkowski served as the third-down back at times for protection purposes. With Green Bay trailing 10-0 in the playoff game at Atlanta, his fumble near the Falcons’ 10 practically sealed the Packers’ fate. If he can become a more consistent blocker, Ripkowski could emerge as the NFL’s best fullback.

“I think he deserves to be in there as much as he was today, and then maybe more,” Rodgers said after the Houston game. “He does some great things for us obviously in the passing game. But running the football, he’s just a downhill, tough, football player and I’m really proud of the way he’s progressed this season. He’s a guy you can really count on now and that’s saying a lot about him.”

Grade: B.

Joe Kerridge

2016 cap: $211,765 (22nd at position)

Kerridge, an undrafted rookie, spent training camp with Washington, signed to the Packers’ practice squad on Oct. 3 and was promoted to the active roster on Nov. 7. In eight regular-season games, he played 20 snaps on offense and 55 more on special teams. He didn’t touch the ball on offense but had two tackles on special teams. McCarthy likes fullbacks so expect Kerridge to push for a roster spot in training camp.

Grade: D.

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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