Assessing the North: Running backs
Starter – RB Matt Forte. Backups – RB Kahlil Bell, RB Marion Barber, RB Armando Allen, FB Tyler Clutts.
Forte was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage before he suffered a season-ending sprained knee against the Chiefs on Dec. 4. He still finished with 997 rushing yards on a career-best 4.9-yard average, and he led the team with 52 receptions for 490 yards. Forte is an excellent all-around featured back who probably will wear the franchise tag in 2012 if he doesn't lower his demand for more than $20 million in guaranteed money. The Bears offered $14 million before last season. Bell proved to be a reasonable facsimile of Forte after the starter's injury, showing good vision, quickness and power along with pass-catching ability. He was clearly more effective than Barber, whose brain cramps and fumbles were instrumental in two of the five straight losses the Bears suffered down the stretch. Allen is undersized but has enough quickness to be a nice complementary change-of-pace runner. Clutts is a good lead blocker and can catch the occasional dump-off.
Starter – Kevin Smith. Backups – Maurice Morris, Keiland Williams, Joique Bell. Injured reserve – Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure.
Best and Leshoure were expected to give the Lions an inside-outside threat similar to what Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles gave New Orleans. Leshoure tore his Achilles in training camp and Best sustained two concussions in October, the last in Week 6. His 390 yards still led the team, an indication of how far the run game sagged in his absence. Both are expected to return when offseason work begins in April.
Smith was a great comeback story. Released by the Lions, unable to find work for the first half of the season, he was signed during the bye week and he wound up being the starter and had some productive moments (career-best 140 yards against Carolina). But the same issue that has plagued him his entire career – unable to stay healthy – bit him again. It's not likely the Lions want to go into 2012 with Smith as their No. 1.
Bell was signed off the Saints practice squad late in the season and given a two-year deal. They will give Bell every opportunity to prove he can be productive at this level. Maurice Morris has been a valuable and trustworthy player both in the backfield and on special teams, but he's going to be 33 and will be a free agent. Keiland Williams is under contract for 2012 and could be brought to camp, but he never won the trust of the coaching staff this season.
Green Bay Packers
Starters - Ryan Grant, FB John Kuhn. Backups - James Starks, Brandon Saine. Injured reserve: Alex Green.
Running the football took more of a backseat in the offense with Rodgers' pulling the trigger. The 395 rushing attempts are the team's fewest since Rodgers replaced Brett Favre as the starter in 2008. What's more, the carry-by-committee approach implemented by head coach Mike McCarthy resulted in the Packers' lowest yardage output by their leading rusher in 13 years.
Starks, the de facto No. 2 back most of the season, claimed this season's dubious honor with 578 yards despite being hampered down the stretch of the season by an assortment of ankle and knee injuries. The explosive runs between Starks and veteran Grant (559 yards) were few and far between. Neither had a 100-yard game, and Grant had the team's longest gain – a 47-yard touchdown late in the season. Grant, who didn't seem to be fully back after missing all but the first game of the 2010 season because of a ruptured ankle, is set to be an unrestricted free agent and iffy to return to the team. The succession plan with Starks as a featured back is on shaky ground because he's spent too much time in the training room his first two years in the league. The team has high hopes for the powerful Green, a third-round draft pick last year who suffered a torn ACL at midseason. Saine, an undrafted rookie, has potential as a versatile contributor out of the backfield after being promoted from the practice squad to replace Green. The blue-collar Kuhn, selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time, will need recovery time in the offseason after suffering a knee injury in the last game.
Starters – RB Toby Gerhart, FB Ryan D'Imperio. Backups – Lorenzo Booker, Caleb King. Injured reserve – Adrian Peterson.
Obviously, Gerhart is the starter only if Peterson can't make it back from major knee surgery in time for the regular season opener. The team says eight months is a realistic goal for Peterson's return from surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Gerhart, meanwhile, damaged his MCL in a much more minor injury during the season finale against the Bears.
Gerhart is no Peterson, but he did show much promise as a dependable backup when Peterson was out with a high ankle sprain and the knee injury late in the season. Gerhart averaged 4.9 yards on 109 carries and proved to be a nice target out of the backfield with 23 catches, three of them for touchdowns. Peterson was stopped short of 1,000 yards (970) for the first time in his career. But he was having another All-Pro-caliber season before injuries took him down. He'll attack his rehab like he attacks defenders, but an injury of this magnitude is reason for concern as to whether he'll be as good as he was before. Booker, a restricted free agent, has fallen out of favor after showing promise in 2010. He fumbles too much and carried the ball only 13 times this season.
King was promoted from the practice squad for the final game, but did not play. He's a raw rookie who likely will end up back on the practice squad next year.
D'Imperio was a college linebacker selected in the seventh round in 2010. So he's still far from being a polished blocker. He's average, at best, but he is a hard worker and a good locker room presence.
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