Packers basking in deep backfield

During the first week of training camp, running back Najeh Davenport has been a one-man wrecking crew for the offense of the Green Bay Packers.

For the first week of training camp Najeh Davenport has been a one-man wrecking crew for the offense of the Green Bay Packers.


Last year, the Lions got a taste of Davenport. This year, the rest of the NFL will.


The Packers, who won a Super Bowl seven years ago with Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens splitting the rushing load, will try to win another this season and prolong Ahman Green's career in the process by making Davenport an integral part of the offensive equation.


"When you're a serious running football team, with the kind of power schemes that we use, you need at least two guys sharing the load," running backs coach Sylvester Croom said. "I don't think Ahman's wearing out but I'm always worried about injuries to running backs."


Enter Davenport, one of the most impressive looking physical specimens on the Packers' practice field this summer.


Davenport had just 39 carries for 184 yards in his rookie season, including 32 for 157 yards in two games against the Lions when Green was hurt. His year ended in Week 10 with a fractured orbital bone.


A shade over 6-0 and just under 250 pounds, Davenport has put his days as a swingback behind him. He's a full-fledged running back now looking to become the next pile-driving big back in the league.


"I want him to make people afraid," Croom said. "I want to put fear into them. If he's hungry and plays with some attitude, ain't too many people who are going to deal with him."


Twice last season the Atlanta Falcons blasted the Packers' defense by alternating scatback Warrick Dunn with rookie T.J. Duckett, who is almost the exact size as Davenport and only a little faster. Croom also recalls 1992, his first season coaching running backs in San Diego, when Marion Butts, Rod Bernstine, Eric Bieniemy and Ronnie Harmon combined for 1,807 rushing yards.


"We used two guys as one and then as soon as we had a chance to get a third guy in the game we did," Croom said. "Just so we would save those guys for the season.


"Ahman's a great back. But for a guy to carry the ball 20-plus times a game, particularly a guy with his running style, that's a lot."


The Packers also return Tony Fisher, a heady second-year player who picked up most of his 76 carries late in the year when Green's left knee quad tendon kept flaring up. Undaunted, they went out on the street in early June and signed Lamar Smith, who for the last nine seasons has gained a reputation as one of the NFL's toughest runners. The Packers also like free agent Reggie White.


"If Lamar is back to his form, that will be interesting," Croom said. "We're so much better than we were last year. These are quality guys. I think all of them will be on rosters on opening day."


The catalyst, of course, is Green. He's the main reason why the Packers rushed for 120.8 yards per game, their highest average since 1985, and ranked 12th in the NFL, their best finish since 1997.


Only 26, Green has had 1,104 touches in three seasons for Green Bay, counting playoffs. His left leg could become a chronic problem and his asthmatic condition already is, worsening in cold weather.


Green invites collisions because he backs down from no one and is less elusive than some other franchise backs. The Packers' misdirection ground game generally keeps Green between the tackles, where contact is most intense.


Croom attributes the decline in Green's runs of 20 yards or more (from 12 in 2001 to seven last year) mostly to injury. He calls Green "as good as there is in the league" as a pass blocker, says his fumbling problem (15 in the last three years) is under control and considers him a good receiver despite the fact that he dropped eight passes in the last seven games.


Davenport has had his share of injuries, too, including a torn knee ligament and broken foot in college. Plus, he isn't much more than a neophyte in the passing game.


Fisher does have exceptional hands and is mature beyond his years. The coaches never felt good enough about Fisher's ability to let him share time with Green but when Green went out he did an adequate job.


"He's as smart a guy as I've ever coached," Croom said. "There's nothing flashy about him, but I told him he'll play 10 years as long as he stays hungry because the guy is dependable."


Smith was leading Carolina in rushing with 737 yards 11 games into last season when he was arrested for drunk driving on Thanksgiving Day and given a paid leave of absence for the rest of the season. He was cut March 5 and took the $655,000 minimum salary from the Packers.

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