Plenty at stake in backfield

From Grant to the backups, the preseason finale holds plenty of intrigue.

Don't tell the running backs Thursday night's preseason finale against Tennessee will be just another meaningless exhibition.

For highly paid starter Ryan Grant, this will be his only game action before the regular season begins with a showdown against rival Minnesota.

For Vernand Morency, Noah Herron and Kregg Lumpkin, this will be their last opportunity to impress to coaches before the final cuts are made on Saturday afternoon.

Nothing for Granted

Grant has nothing to prove. And plenty to prove. He burst onto the scene against Denver last season, and was the NFL's second-leading rusher over those final 10 games. He has a nose for daylight, and the explosion to get through a crevice before it closes.

He was rewarded with a four-year deal worth up to $31 million. That's unheard of money for a player with such a thin resume. His contract holdout put him behind, and he strained a hamstring shortly after returning.

So, Thursday's game will be his preseason debut. And it's important to him.

"Every game's a big game," Grant said of Thursday's game. "Yeah, get hit a little bit, work on the little things."

Grant will play about 10 or 12 snaps with the No. 1 offense. That will be all he gets before the regular season, and while instinct is so important at his position, he acknowledges this isn't the way he wanted to get ready for the season.

"Injuries happen sometimes," Grant said. "Of course, you always want to feel more comfortable, because the more comfortable you feel, I think the better off you'll be. But at this point in time, I've got to work a little different."

Fighting for their jobs

Only Ted Thompson knows how many running backs the Packers will keep on their 53-man roster. Grant and top backup Brandon Jackson are assured two spots, so Herron, Morency and Lumpkin will be fighting for either one or two spots.

All have done enough to stick around.

Morency, while he hasn't been productive in the first three preseason games (five carries for 9 yards), looks like he's back to the explosive form he showed in 2006. He entered 2007 as the favorite to be the starting halfback but a strained knee tendon took him out of the running.

He's a staple on special teams, and his receiving and blitz pickup skills are superb, making him a good fit for the third-down role. Plus, like Herron, he's a good person in the locker room.

"Every single day I go out to practice, I try to get better at something," Morency said this week. "I go out there with a plan, and try to implement it in the games."

Herron spent last season on injured reserve with a knee injury, but has had a strong training camp. He's averaging a team-high 5.6 yards per carry (14 attempts, 79 yards) in the preseason. He said he isn't concerned with his fate on the team, even though he's taken more scout-team reps than Morency and Lumpkin.

"There's no pressure, because I can't control that," Herron said. "The pressure isn't on me. Having been through it so many times, you can only do what you can control. You've got to make plays, you've got to be productive, you can't make a lot of mistakes. Good things will happen if you do that. I've got to continue to do those things and let the chips fall where they may. If I spent a lot of time thinking about who's staying and who's going, I'll never rest."

Herron, who starred at Northwestern, prides himself on doing the little things, not making mistakes and for his work on special teams. He might not be the most explosive back on the team, but he's the type of player coaches don't have to worry about.

"I've been called a cerebral player. I take that seriously," he said. "I take having an understanding of everything that's going on and being flawless, I take pride in that."

Lumpkin has been the out-of-nowhere star of training camp. He was a highly touted recruit by Georgia, but injuries derailed his Bulldogs career. He wasn't drafted, and only the Packers offered him a contract afterward. He's the Packers' leading preseason rusher with 126 yards on 28 carries (4.5 average).

"I think I have exceeded a little bit of my own expectations," Lumpkin said. "Coming from college, I didn't think I was going to adjust this fast. Having a great running back coach (Edgar Bennett) and great running backs to help me out as well, it just picks me up and gives me a boost."

Lumpkin, whose fumble against Cincinnati doomed the Packers' chance to rally in the preseason opener, knows his career could be at stake on Thursday.

"Yeah. I guess I can say that," he said. "I just want to go out there and play hard and make sure my tape looks good in case I don't make it here."

Coach Mike McCarthy praised Lumpkin after Tuesday's practice. He's played well in all three preseason games, and he's taken more and more snaps with the main offense.

"Lumpkin I think is a perfect example of what you're looking for in a rookie," McCarthy said. "I think talent-wise, he brings a lot to the table, because he's a big back. He has the ability to play every down, first and second down, and he's really progressed in the pass protection part of it on third down. He's improved every week."

Special teams, however, give Herron and Morency an edge. Perhaps the Packers could try to stash Lumpkin on their practice squad, but after a big preseason, he could be lost to a team that needs depth in the backfield.

"Special teams are very important. Everybody on our football team understands that," McCarthy said. "We're a type of football team that doesn't go out and just sign special teams players, situation specific. We sign good football players, both offense and defense, that also play special teams. It's important for all of our positions, because it's one thing to make the 53, but more importantly you want to be on the 45. Special teams is the determining factor when it comes down to going from 53 to 45 week in and week out."

Bill Huber is editor of Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com


Packer Report Top Stories