NFC North: Grant trails other RBs

In the second of our positional breakdowns, we look at the running backs in Green Bay and its rivals.

There's nothing wrong with Ryan Grant.

But in a division that includes Minnesota's killer one-two punch of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, stellar Chicago rookie Matt Forte and promising Detroit rookie Kevin Smith, the Packers need more than 3.9 yards per carry from their featured running back.

With no contract issues, Grant will be a full participant during offseason workouts. He wasn't last year, and perhaps that factored into the hamstring injury that prevented him from touching the ball during the preseason.

But beyond Grant, the Packers need a complement. Will that be Brandon Jackson, who was productive in his limited opportunities but seemingly hadn't earned the trust to take a bigger role? Will that be DeShawn Wynn, who looked so good in the season finale? Will that be Kregg Lumpkin, the preseason sensation who was lost for the season with an injured hamstring?

They'll need the added production because the Vikings' Peterson and Taylor combined for 2,159 rushing yards and had almost 2,700 all-purpose yards, and the Bears' Forte is an every-down star.

Here is a breakdown of the NFC North's running backs.

Packers

Starters — RB Ryan Grant, FB Korey Hall. Backups — RB Brandon Jackson, FB John Kuhn, RB DeShawn Wynn. Injured reserve — Kregg Lumpkin.

Grant's first full season as a starter didn't have the same pizzazz and punch as his breakthrough second half of the 2007 season. A hamstring injury that he sustained shortly after reporting to training camp late because of an unsettled contract impacted Grant well into the regular season.

Although he wound up with a respectable 1,203 rushing yards, Grant's per-carry average dipped greatly from 5.1 yards in 2007 to 3.9. He also had only four rushing touchdowns, down from eight the previous season. Grant's vision in finding running lanes in the Packers' zone-blocking scheme was fuzzy, and he lacked breakaway speed — his longest run was 57 yards.

Jackson, the opening-day starter as a rookie in 2007, had limited opportunities to run with the football as the third-down back but often made the most of those 45 touches by averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Wynn, another young prospect with starting experience in 2007, may have turned the corner in the season-finale with a seven-carry, 106-yard effort, including a 73-yard touchdown, after he had been cut in the preseason and then spent five weeks on the practice squad.

Hall was hindered by an early-season knee injury. Kuhn emerged as an effective blocker and was mostly reliable as a ball carrier in short-yardage situations.

Bears

Starters — RB Matt Forte, FB Jason McKie. Backups — RB Adrian Peterson, RB Kevin Jones, FB Jason Davis. Injured reserve — RB Garrett Wolfe.

Forte can do it all, but the Bears would be wise to ease his burden in the future after he had 379 touches as a rookie, just five less than league-leader Adrian Peterson. Forte doesn't have elite speed, and he isn't big enough to move the pile by himself, but he has just about everything else you want in a three-down running back, including vision, smarts, maturity, blocking ability and soft hands.

McKie is just a part-time player and almost exclusively a lead blocker. Jones was expected to be Forte's complement because of his strong inside running, but he carried just four times in the final 11 games and didn't play in five of them. He could be better next year after more time to rehab a 2007 knee injury.

Peterson is a reliable backup with good hands, and he runs hard but lacks speed. Wolfe's limited role in the offense diminished in his second season, although he was a standout on special teams. Davis is similar to McKie in size and ability.

Lions

Starter — Kevin Smith. Backups — RB Rudi Johnson, RB Aveion Cason, RB Brian Calhoun, FB Moran Norris, FB Jerome Felton, FB Jon Bradley.

Smith came on the second half of the season. The more he got the ball, the better he ran. He finished just short of a 1,000-yard season and appears to be a solid building block for the future. The Lions need another runner, though, at a time when two backs are the standard. Johnson never looked anywhere close to his old Pro Bowl form.

Cason, after being cut, came back and helped boost an awful return game, but wasn't a real factor. Calhoun spent the season on IR. Felton is a smart player who impressed early, but he lost his job to Norris, who made an impact with his lead blocking. Bradley is a converted defensive lineman whose future is uncertain.

Vikings

Starters — RB Adrian Peterson, FB Naufahu Tahi. Backups — Chester Taylor, Maurice Hicks, Jeff Dugan.

Peterson continued to prove himself to be one of the NFL's young superstars, rushing for a league-leading 1,760 yards on 363 carries with 10 touchdowns. Peterson, though, still needs to make significant strides in his blocking and pass-catching. He had 21 receptions, but that was far fewer than Taylor, who was third on the Vikings with 45 catches and two touchdowns.

Taylor continued to be used in many third-down situations because the coaching staff does not have confidence in Peterson's pass-protection abilities. Having to take a dominating offensive presence off the field on a key down is far from ideal. With Taylor entering the final season of his contract in 2009, eventually it's going to become a must that Peterson can be counted to stay on the field. Taylor would seem a likely candidate to depart after next season given that he remains a very capable running back and yet had only 101 carries this season.

Hicks, meanwhile, had no role other than to return kicks in his first season with the Vikings. Tahi emerged as the starting fullback and frequent lead blocker for Peterson after free-agent acquisition Thomas Tapeh was released early in the season. Dugan also saw time at fullback and late in the season became a primary ball carrier in short-yardage situations. Tapeh's short tenure with the Vikings had to make one think the team regretted letting veteran Tony Richardson get away to the New York Jets in free agency.


Packer Report Top Stories