The Issues: A backfield change-up

There are other issues facing the Green Bay Packers this offseason than the defensive coordinator vacancy. In this series, we will look at every position in examining the Packers' key issues, continuing today with the running backs.

The New York Giants rode Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and Derrick Ward to victory in Super Bowl XLII. The Indianapolis Colts used Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes to win the title in Super Bowl XLI. In Super Bowl XL, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker carried the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory.

In today's NFL, workhorse running backs like Ryan Grant have become the exception rather than the rule. The Packers' starting halfback carried the ball 312 times, which ranked fifth in the league. That's a high total, considering Grant was limited early in the season with a sore hamstring and didn't have the luxury of getting many run-out-the-clock carries.

Given the recent success of two-back systems and Grant's penchant for absorbing big hits, it will be important for the Packers to develop a second back to share the workload.

Green Bay has a few candidates, but coach Mike McCarthy and running backs coach Edgar Bennett must determine whether Brandon Jackson, DeShawn Wynn or Kregg Lumpkin provide more solutions than questions.

Jackson (45 attempts), Wynn (eight) and Lumpkin (one) had fewer carries combined than quarterback Aaron Rodgers (56). That's not good, and it's a clear signal that McCarthy lacks trust in his backups.

Jackson averaged a sparkling 5.5 yards per rush but only got more than three carries in a game twice after Week 2 and touched the ball just three times in December. And while the NFL's best third-down backs are true difference-makers, Jackson's 30 receptions and 6.2 yards per catch aren't nearly good enough. Only 20 percent of his catches were turned into first downs, showing his lack of explosion and inability to make something out of nothing. All told, that production isn't nearly good enough for a former second-round pick who was touted by the coaches last offseason.

The Packers thought so little of Wynn that they released him near the end of training camp and let him touch the ball only in the final two games of the season. Lumpkin, meanwhile, showed some promise in the preseason and in Week 2 against Detroit (one rush for 19 yards, three receptions for 22 yards) before a hamstring injury the next week ended his season. With an injury history that makes Justin Harrell seem like the ironman equivalent of Brett Favre, it's hard to say if Lumpkin ever will become a reliable performer.

So, while the Packers have issues along both lines, are desperately in need of a pass rusher or two and could use another defensive back and linebacker, McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson must determine whether Jackson, Wynn or Lumpkin can provide a complement to Grant. All three have similar running styles and neither have the home run-hitting ability to be a true change-of-pace option to the hammering Grant.

Simply, there are no Derrick Wards, Darren Sproles, Chester Taylors or Leon Washingtons on the roster. Not even close.

With the list of free-agent running backs taking a steep plunge after the Giants' Jacobs and Ward, the draft might be the place to find a change-of-pace speedster. Scout.com draft expert Chris Steuber lists Michigan State's Javon Ringer (second round), Wyoming's lightning-fast Devin Moore (third/fourth round) and Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton (fourth/fifth round) as change-of-pace backs who can catch the ball.

Grant is probably a good-enough featured back. What the Packers need is a change-up that defenses have to account for when Grant needs a breather.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com.


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