State of the Packers: RBs

The Packers have two underappreciated halfbacks: durable, sure-handed and productive Ryan Grant and pass-blocking star Brandon Jackson. At fullback, the Packers need either John Kuhn, Korey Hall or Quinn Johnson to emerge as the leader.

Our State of the Packers series continues with the running backs.

Roster

Starters: Ryan Grant (halfback); Korey Hall/John Kuhn (fullback). Veteran backups: Brandon Jackson, Kregg Lumpkin (halfbacks); Quinn Johnson (fullback). Rookies: James Starks (sixth round), Quinn Porter (undrafted).

The big picture

Grant isn't considered among the best running backs in the NFL and his name is never mentioned as one of the best in franchise history.

Maybe that should be reassessed, because it's hard to dispute what he's done over the last two seasons. With 1,203 rushing yards in 2008 and 1,253 yards in 2009, Grant is only the third back in Packers history with back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons — following Ahman Green (2001-03) and Jim Taylor (1961-62). Only four backs in the NFL produced 1,200-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009 — Chris Johnson for Tennessee, Thomas Jones for the Jets and Adrian Peterson for Minnesota are the others. And since taking over the featured role midway through the 2007 season, Grant's 3,385 rushing yards are surpassed only by Peterson's 3,814.

All of that with remarkably sure hands in this era of defenders going for the strip on practically every play. Grant hasn't fumbled on a running play since the season finale in 2008 and is the only rusher among the top 30 last season to not cough it up at least once last season. With no fumbles in 291 consecutive carries, only Green (393) has a longer current streak in the NFL. Plus, he has played in 47 consecutive games, which is a remarkable feat considering his dodge-no-tacklers running style.

Grant's top backup is Jackson. By many measures, the 2007 second-round pick has been a big disappointment. In three seasons, he's rushed for 626 yards (4.0 average), and his carries have gone from 75 in 2007 to 45 in 2008 to 37 in 2009. His 67 career receptions are 11 fewer than Baltimore's Ray Rice had last season alone. Three of Jackson's five career touchdowns came in the Week 16 rout of Seattle.

While that lack of touches and production smack of a lack of trust, the opposite is true. Hall of Famer Marcus Allen is arguably the NFL's best pass-protecting running back in the last quarter century. Coach Mike McCarthy mentioned Jackson and Allen in the same sentence a couple months ago. So, while you'd like to have a running back catching 40 passes per season in a West Coast offense, there's something to be said for having a smart, willing back keeping the multimillion-dollar starting quarterback upright.

Starks is an intriguing talent, with a build and running style similar to Grant but with infinitely superior hands as a receiver. It's an apples-to-avocados comparison but noteworth nonetheless: Grant has 73 catches in 47 career NFL games, or an average of 1.55 per game. Starks caught 127 passes in 36 college games, or an average of 3.53. Considering how little Grant and Jackson have provided as receiving threats, Starks could find a niche in the offense immediately.

Barring an addition to the roster, Starks will battle Lumpkin and Porter for the third spot. Lumpkin spent all of last season on the practice squad after playing in two games after making the team as an undrafted rookie in 2008. Getting significant playing time in a Week 2 game at Detroit in 2008, Lumpkin rushed once for 19 yards and caught three passes for 22 yards. A hamstring injury the next week ended his season. Porter, a Division II All-American, is the leading rusher in Stillman history. With the selection of Starks, it appears Green is on the outside looking in and would be a candidate to re-sign with the Packers in case of emergency. He remains in great shape and wants to play in 2010, a source said.

At fullback, Kuhn started six games and played in 14, Hall started five games and played in 11 and Johnson played as a reserve in nine games. Based on our unofficial snap counts, Kuhn played in about as many snaps as Hall and Johnson combined, and Johnson played in 30 more snaps than Hall.

Hall's athleticism makes him the best of the perimeter blockers but his inability to stay healthy is a chronic problem, with five missed games in each of the past two seasons. Hall didn't carry the ball and caught five passes for 41 yards (8.2 average) and no touchdowns. Kuhn carried eight times for 18 yards and a touchdown — mostly on that used-too-often fullback plunge in short-yardage situations — and caught seven passes for 47 yards (6.2 average) and two touchdowns. Johnson didn't carry the ball, caught two passes for 4 yards and had two drops.

Special teams will always be the key at this position. Hall had 12 tackles, Kuhn 11 (and a killing meltdown on a blocked punt against Tampa Bay) and Johnson amazingly had none.

Johnson, a fifth-round pick in 2009, has immense potential as a sledgehammer blocker will need to make a significant jump in every area to beat out Hall or Kuhn, who are so much better as blockers in the zone scheme.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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