Coming off his first full season in the NFL, Grant burst onto the scene in 2007 putting up numbers among the best running backs in the NFL over the second half of the year. Starting with the Oct. 29 game at Denver, he ran for 1,159 yards on 222 carries (a 5.2 yard-per-carry average) with 11 touchdowns. He had 201 of those yards and three touchdowns in a snowy divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field against the Seahawks.
So impressive was Grant in his first year with the Packers that it prompted now-retired quarterback Brett Favre to say this about the running back after just six games as the team's regular starter: "Ryan Grant is legit… Barring injury, he could become a great player."
In many ways, the 25-year old Grant already is a great player. He just needed a chance. With diligence and effort, he was finally healthy enough in 2007 to make it all come together. At Notre Dame, injury and depth issues always brought him down. With the Giants his first two years in the NFL, he gained a new perspective as a player (on the practice squad) and as a person (when a freak accident at a New York night club put him on the non-football injury reserve list).
With all the "measurables" and an understanding of the Packers' offense in his back pocket now, it is up to the Packers' front office, the team's offensive line, and head coach Mike McCarthy to do their part.
That published reports came out a week ago explaining why Grant might hold out when training camp arrives and that he will not sign the $370,000 minimum tender he is classified for should be of some concern to the Packers. Grant is technically not under contract this offseason as an exclusive rights free agent because he hasn't signed the tender. He also does not have the option to negotiate with other teams based on a lack of accrued seasons toward free agency. By all accounts, though, he still will participate in all of the Packers' off-season activities.
Even after just one season, Grant has clearly shown he is worth much more than $370,000 for the upcoming year. The Packers should be thinking long-term with him now – especially considering the team's salary cap flexibility.
Furthermore, the Packers have more than enough information on Grant, whom they have tracked since before the 2005 draft, to feel like giving him a big contract will be a wise investment. Playing hardball with Grant makes no sense, so getting a deal done with him in the next few months should be a priority.
Unless the Packers have a major trade in mind for another back or if they plan on moving up in this April's draft to get one, they will not find a better back than Grant. Grant prepped for two years with the Giants in which he built himself into a prototypical NFL back. Not only is he strong (at 6-1, 224 pounds), but he also is among the elite backs in the speed department (he ran a 4.4 in the 40 at the 2005 NFL Combine). Few have that explosive combination, and the smarts to match it.
Perhaps just as important, Grant fits McCarthy's mission of finding "Packer People" to fill out the roster. He has remained humble and true to himself through his success in the past year and hopefully that will continue.
"He's still the same guy," said Carlyle Holiday, who was a teammate of Grant's at Notre Dame and spent last season on injured reserve with the Packers. "He's motivated. He's a hard worker. The only thing is in college he got banged up a little bit which is unfortunate, but now he still runs the same way. He runs hard and is always out there trying to do his best. Nothing's really changed since I've known him."
Grant's talent, however, will only go as far as the Packers' offense will take it. An unsettled guard position needs to solidify next season, and the Packers need to find plays in their zone-running system that will maximize Grant's skills. By all accounts, they are on the way to improving those needs.
For McCarthy, who all but shunned the running game in the bitter-cold NFC Championship game, indications are that he will make a greater commitment to it in 2008.
"You need to run the football in January to win in Green Bay, Wisconsin," said McCarthy at his season-ending press conference in late January. "And it's not actually the run average, it's the attempts. Now, third down was a big part of the failure in this particular game against the Giants. But the running game, there's so many things that come off of that - the keeps, the attitude, the wear and tear of a four-quarter game. So that is a focus of ours. The identity of our football team will always be built around our offensive and defensive line, and we need to improve the run-blocking. That will be a primary focus of ours in the off-season."
A close second should be getting a long-term deal done with Grant, regardless of his lack of experience. Because even with less than a season's worth of significant play on his resume, he has shown enough to indicate that he is no fluke.