The Green Bay Packers this offseason are at a crossroads with their running back position.
In 2016, nine players spent time in the backfield after No. 1 back Eddie Lacy went down. Two of those backs were fullbacks by trade, two were acquired through in-season acquisitions and another added off the practice squad. Three also were listed as wide receivers, asked to fill the void creatively when injuries took a toll.
One of those receivers, Ty Montgomery, heads into the 2017 offseason programs as a running back on the depth chart. Other than that, the cupboard is pretty bare with second-year backs John Crockett and Don Jackson coming off injured reserve and fullbacks Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Kerridge on the roster. Christine Michael and Lacy are scheduled to hit the free-agent market.
The Packers’ plans at running back will hinge on what happens with Lacy, who missed the last 11 games and the playoffs after having ankle surgery. Lacy’s four-year rookie contract ($3.4 million) is due to expire March 9.
Some have suggested that Lacy might be available to the Packers on the cheap with a one-year deal. The open market often disappoints for running backs. Lacy has a decent resume but not much leverage. Whether the Packers are considering Lacy for the short or long term, they must ask themselves one simple question: Who do they want to be?
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has always liked big, three-down backs that can not only get the tough yards but also hold up in pass protection. Lacy fits the bill. And he was off to a good start running, too, in 2016 at a career-best 5.1 yards per carry on 71 carries through five games.
In Lacy’s absence, the Packers had to re-adjust. In the process, they found a more dynamic backfield that could potentially be more lethal than Lacy breaking tackles and piling up yards after contact. McCarthy and his offensive staff had to notice.
With declining veteran James Starks out of the picture, too, the Packers had more big-play potential in the backfield in years — maybe since the 2009 season, when Ryan Grant was the featured back. Montgomery and Michael put opposing defenses on notice. Instead of defending a 10-yard box beyond the line of scrimmage, those defenses had to account for the whole field. Michael looked more like Ahman Green on his 42-yard touchdown run at Chicago and Montgomery averaged an impressive 5.9 yards per carry on 77 carries, including a brilliant 61-yarder at Chicago, a longer run than any in Lacy’s productive first three NFL seasons.
Using Randall Cobb and Montgomery in the backfield, and even Davante Adams at times, presented matchup problems for opposing defenses, which had to account for players that could run legitimate routes out of the backfield. Lacy, who is a good receiver, and Starks were really only threat in the screen and checkdown passing games and nothing else. Thus, the Packers’ playbook was limited and easier to defend with either of them in the game.
The Packers can look no further than the Super Bowl as an example of what dynamic backs can mean to an offense, even with an MVP quarterback at the helm. The New England Patriots under Bill Belichick and with Tom Brady have exploited mismatches with their running backs as well as any team in the league. James White had a Super Bowl-record 14 receptions. And the Atlanta Falcons had the best combination of backs running and receiving in the league with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. They combined for 2,990 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns (including the playoffs).
Of course, Freeman’s missed block of Patriots linebacker Donta Hightower, which led to a pivotal sack-fumble of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl, is why the Packers’ coaches preach blocking among their primary duties for their backs. There has to be a trust factor there against the blitz and because Aaron Rodgers prolongs plays longer than anyone in the league.
Trust of another kind should also play a factor in the decision-making on Lacy. McCarthy called out Lacy at his 2015 season-ending press conference for playing at too high a weight. There was also the incident that season when he missed curfew the night before a Thursday game at Detroit. Lacy responded last offseason by choosing the P90X workout program to get in better shape. But it seemed to offer only a quick fix. By the time the Packers placed him on injured reserveon Oct. 20, he appeared back closer to his 2015 playing weight.
At this point, it might not be a guess as to whether the Packers’ brass thinks Lacy can play to his potential — like he did in college during the national championship game in 2013 or for a stretch when Rodgers was out during Lacy’s rookie season. Lacy will always be a big back with the ability to break tackles. But if he cannot get to the line of scrimmage quick enough and use his gifted footwork on the second level instead of in the backfield, then he only slows down the Packers’ offense from its full potential. There are also limitations in the passing game when compared to Montgomery or, say, Matt Forte, who the Packers were considering in free agency a year ago.
These are some of the issues that those inside the walls of 1265 Lombardi Ave. must consider. Who do the Packers want to be? The answer with Lacy should less about contract terms and numbers and more about style and trust.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com