Empty backfield?

PackerReport.com's Matt Tevsh explains why Packers general manager Ted Thompson may be better off selecting a running back after the first round of the NFL draft, despite the team's need at the position.

Ahman Green's departure to Houston this off-season signifies a new era for the running game of the Green Bay Packers. Since 2000, the Packers relied on Green as a major part of their offensive game plan and he responded by taking their rushing attack to levels not seen since the 1960's.

Losing such a productive back, and thus having no clear-cut starter at this point in the off-season, would seem to be a major reason for concern for head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson, but the Packers will be just fine. Even with a roster of relatively inconspicuous backs and no free agents signings, the Packers are in a good position to move their running game forward.

Speculation surrounding mock drafts and personnel evaluations has the Packers picking Marshawn Lynch of California in the first round (with the 16th pick overall) which would seem to be an obvious choice, but there could be other, more appealing options depending on how the draft unfolds. Thompson has shown he is willing to take the top available player, regardless of position, in the first round and can reasonably be expected to do so again this April.

That Green was expendable had as much to do with where the Packers running game is headed as it had to do with money. Implementing a new zone-blocking system a year ago, the Packers followed suit with what the Broncos and Falcons have made so successful. History has shown that such a scheme produces great backs regardless of background.

The Broncos, who made zone-blocking trendy with undersized lineman, won two Super Bowls primarily because of the legs of Terrell Davis, a sixth-round pick. When injuries sidelined Davis, other after-thought backs like Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, and Rueben Droughns became 1,000-yard rushers.

In Atlanta, under the same scheme, Warrick Dunn went from a good to a great back and the Falcons have become one of the league's best rushing teams on an annual basis. Sure, the running of quarterback Michael Vick adds to those impressive numbers, but the point remains that zone-blocking is more crucial to rushing success than the back himself.

The Packers balked on over-spending for any free agent back in the open market this year with good reason. Though they may still sign someone, the draft, in any round, offers the best option of adding a solid runner to the mix.

If not necessarily looking for a "name" player, the Packers will be looking for the type of back that fits their system the best. They found one a year ago in Vernand Morency, trading away Samkon Gado to the Texans for him. Like Green, Gado was a popular and capable player, but he is better suited for a power running attack. Zone-blocking would seem to match the skills of a smaller, shiftier, cut-back type backs.

McCarthy indicated at Fan Fest at Lambeau Field earlier this month that he likes the backs the Packers currently have on their roster. Morency displayed a great burst last year and is a great complementary back. For the Packers to make him a full-time starter, though, would be a mistake. It would likely take away what makes him such a weapon now – that is, the ability to make big plays coming off the bench. If he can split carries with another back and avoid the repeated pounding he would take as a primary back, he will play at his peak.

Noah Herron is also a perfect fit for the role he played with the Packers a year ago. He will not be mentioned among the fastest or strongest backs in the league, but built in the Tony Fisher mold, he has been valuable, smart, and deceiving shifty as a part-time player. If needed in a pinch, he can perform as well. When called upon to carry the load against the Rams last year, he carried 20 times for 106 yards.

The Packers also have developmental backs in Arliss Beach and P.J. Pope, both second-year pros who were on the roster a year ago. Beach spent the season on injured reserve while Pope joined the active roster of the Bears practice squad halfway through the season.

With the Packers' running system in its second year of operation, they know more about where they have to improve and what they need to do to succeed. That is where their focus should be. They also have a new offensive coordinator in Joe Philbin, who will bring some new ideas, and a running backs coach in Edgar Bennett, who is as good as any in the league at getting backs ready to play. The assets are already in place to achieve success.

With that being said, here are some lesser-known backs (outside of most top-five listings at their position) in the draft which may suit the Packers wishes in the backfield: Brian Leonard of Rutgers, DeShawn Wynn of Florida, and Danny Ware of Georgia. Each have their knocks, but could be viable candidates when teamed with Morency.

At the top of the running back class is Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma and Lynch, two backs which would be good for the Packers, but not necessary at all costs. Lynch will most likely be around at No. 16, but the Packers should not feel the need to take him if there is another player available at another position that they could steal. They need to trust what the history of successful zone-blocking teams tells them: a big-name back is not always a must.

Matt Tevsh

Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com.

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