Camp analysis: NFC North running backs
Starter - Matt Forte. Backups - Michael Bush, Kahlil Bell, FB Tyler Clutts, Armando Allen, Harvey Unga, Lorenzo Booker.
Forte is about as talented an all-around back as there is in the league. His contract situation had become contentious, but Forte will show up ready to play after signing a contract extension that averages $7 million per year. He was leading the league in yards from scrimmage last season when he suffered a season-ending sprained knee in Week 13. Just in case Forte's unhappiness would have affected his performance, unrestricted free agent Bush was signed. He is capable of being much more than a complement, as he proved last season with 977 rushing yards and 37 receptions. At 245 pounds, he's also effective in short-yardage situations. The unspectacular but versatile Bell showed he could do some of the same things Forte does late last season. Clutts won't get many carries, but he has some versatility and can contribute on special teams. Allen is a quick, undersized, change-of-pace alternative, much like Booker, the former Viking who signed on Tuesday. Unga has the size and strength to push the pile or function as a lead blocker.
Starter - Jahvid Best. Backups - Mikel Leshoure, Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams, FB James Bryant, Joique Bell, Stephfon Green.
The Lions have put their faith in the health of Best and Leshoure. There is no certainty with either, except for the fact that Leshoure will be suspended for the first two games for violating the league's conduct code. Smith looked strong and healthy during OTAs and minicamp, but he too has battled injuries. Of the other backups, only Williams has a chance to make the roster, which seems to indicate the Lions aren't done tweaking the depth chart at this position.
Green Bay Packers
Starters - James Starks, FB John Kuhn. Backups - Alex Green, Brandon Saine, Marc Tyler, Du'ane Bennett, FB Jon Hoese, FB Nic Cooper.
Ryan Grant is out of the team picture for the first time since his midseason breakthrough in 2007. Though Grant, who turns 30 in December, still sits without a team as a free agent and would be open to returning, general manager Ted Thompson is committed to a youth movement at the halfback position. The time has come for Starks to show he can be a lead back after working in a time share with Grant last season. Starks, who excels between the tackles, ran for a team-high 578 yards last season. Yet, a troubling injury history precedes him – he's played in a total of only 16 regular-season games his first two pro seasons. Just the same, Green is a big question mark as he attempts to return from a torn ACL that ended his rookie season in late October. Green is expected to be ready for the start of training camp and, if fully recovered, has the punishing and breakaway attributes to push Starks for playing time. Saine's heady disposition and good hands make him a reliable situational back, as he displayed as an undrafted rookie down the stretch of last season. This year's undrafted pair of USC's Tyler and Minnesota's Bennett are long shots to win a roster spot. The Packers have a luxury with Kuhn, a first-time Pro Bowl choice last season who's as integral as a short-yardage ball carrier and receiver as he is as a formidable blocker.
Starters - Adrian Peterson, FB Jerome Felton. Backups - Toby Gerhart, Lex Hilliard, Jordan Todman, Derrick Coleman, FB Ryan D'Imperio, FB Matt Asiata.
Peterson is ahead of schedule in his return from a gruesome Christmas Eve injury that saw his left knee collapse under a direct shot at Washington. He's had the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments rebuilt and is determined to play in the season opener. The team says it's a realistic goal, but is obviously taking a more protective tone with their face of the franchise. The key to Peterson's multi-faceted talent is his powerful cuts. They give him his elite change of direction and set up his leverage advantage and ability to reach daylight in a blink. Even if Peterson returns for Week 1, look for his touches to be limited. With a run-oriented philosophy, this is why the Vikings used a second-round draft pick on a backup running back (Gerhart) in 2010. Gerhart is fully healed from a minor knee injury at the end of last season. He's also significantly more muscular and is itching to carry the load early on. Gerhart isn't Peterson when it comes to the combination of power, speed and quick-twitch explosion, but he can move a pile and is deceptively nimble for a big back. Felton was signed to give the Vikings a legitimate fullback that can block and catch. The battle for No. 3 running back is one to watch between veteran newcomer Lex Hilliard and Jordan Todman, a shifty second-year guy who was signed off of the Chargers' practice squad during the final week of last season. Whoever wins that job could be getting some significant carries early in the season as Peterson is eased back into the offense.
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