North breakdown: Running backs

Our NFC North insiders go in depth to examine the running backs of the Packers and their rivals.

Green Bay Packers

Starters: HB Ryan Grant, FB Korey Hall. Backups: HB Brandon Jackson, HB DeShawn Wynn, HB Kregg Lumpkin, HB Tyrell Sutton, FB Quinn Johnson, FB John Kuhn.

Grant went off for 1,203 yards last season, but he considered the output to be a letdown. He admittedly wasn't the same assertive and elusive ballcarrier he was when he burst onto the scene the second half of the 2007 season. Grant's per-rush average plummeted from 5.1 to 3.9 yards, and he had few big-play runs, thanks in part to a lingering hamstring injury from the preseason. Grant went through this offseason unscathed and took plenty of reps as the featured back. After averaging just 27 run plays a game in 2008, which included several keepers by Rodgers, the Packers' aim is to consistently run the football in the low 30s this season. To do so, they will need to get more use out of promising young backs Jackson and Wynn, who combined for only 53 carries last year but averaged a whopping 6.8 yards. Johnson, a powerful fifth-round draft pick this year in the mold of former Green Bay mainstay William Henderson, will make it hard for the Packers to keep both Hall and Kuhn at fullback.

Chicago Bears

Starters: RB Matt Forte, FB Jason McKie. Backups: Kevin Jones, Adrian Peterson, Garrett Wolfe.

Forte did it all for the Bears last season as a rookie. He rushed for 1,238 yards on 316 carries for a 3.9-yard average behind a mediocre offensive line and also led the team with 63 receptions. He was as versatile as he was productive, running hard between the tackles, showing better speed than expected, catching the ball well and learning blitz pickups faster than most rookies. He also showed maturity and intelligence beyond his years. McKie is essentially a blocker and is solid in that role. Because Forte did so many things well, it was difficult for offensive coordinator Ron Turner to take him off the field, but this year the Bears are hoping for a bigger contribution from veteran Kevin Jones, who flashed at times but didn't seem fully recovered from 2007 knee surgery. When he's right, Jones can be an effective between-the-tackles and short-yardage runner, and he can also catch. Ideally, he will give Forte a bit more down time this season. At 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds, Wolfe struggled to find a consistent role in the offense but was a revelation in coverage on special teams. The Bears still like his value as a pass catcher out of the backfield, but he probably lacks the size to contribute much in the running game. Peterson has been a versatile and reliable backup for years, and he is also a standout on special teams.

Detroit Lions

Starter: Kevin Smith. Backups: Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown, Aveion Cason, Allen Ervin, Antone Smith, FB Terrelle Smith, FB Jerome Felton.

Kevin Smith showed some potential during the second half of his rookie season last year, and he has talked about his desire to be the "lead dog." But he was drafted by the previous staff because he fit a zone running scheme so well, and the Lions are now running more of a power-running attack. Smith will have to show he can fit that as well. Morris has an opportunity to play a bigger role than he did in Seattle. Aaron Brown, a sixth-round draft pick, is a skinny, speedy back who could offer a change of pace and help in the return game. Veteran Terrelle Smith has the edge at fullback over Felton, who lost the starting job as a rookie last year.

Minnesota Vikings

Starters: RB Adrian Peterson, FB Naufahu Tahi. Backups: RB Kahlil Bell, FB Nehemiah Broughton, RB Ian Johnson, RB Chester Taylor, RB Albert Young.

Peterson has proven to be one of the NFL's elite running backs in his first two seasons. Last season, he had 1,760 rushing yards and added 10 touchdowns. But that doesn't mean Peterson has become a complete player. Areas in which Peterson needs to improve in his third season include pass protection, receiving and, above all, hanging onto the football. Peterson had an NFL-high nine fumbles in 2008 and lost four of them. For as great as he can be, Peterson certainly doesn't want to get labeled as someone who has trouble holding onto the football. Peterson said heading into the offseason that he wanted to add 7 to 12 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame but that won't happen. Taylor, entering the fourth and final season of his contract, is an extremely reliable back and often is used in passing situations because his protection skills are superior to Peterson's. Taylor rushed for only 399 yards in 2008 but he finished third on the Vikings with 45 receptions for 399 yards and two touchdowns. Albert Young spent last season on the practice squad but by all accounts impressed the Vikings and will get a chance to win the job as the No. 3 running back. Tahi is expected to remain in the role as the Vikings' top fullback and the lead blocker for Peterson.


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