South Carolina Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore (21) rushes for a touchdown against the Tennessee Volunteers in the first half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Wild Cards and Sleepers Available at Running Back in Middle to Late Rounds for Packers

The Green Bay Packers selected running back James Starks in the 2010 draft even though he didn’t play a down in his senior season due to injury. Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve heard the expression before. Someone calls a player a big “wild card” in the draft due to a history of injury, character issues, or a lack of playing time at the big-time college level. Since they have demonstrated great physical skills and a strong potential upside, the player may have a future in the NFL.

Been there, done that
One recent Green Bay Packer who fit the wild card definition was running back James Starks. Playing in the MAC, he set Buffalo’s career rushing record with 3,140 yards and 40 touchdowns. Starks accomplished this while missing his entire senior season due to a shoulder injury. The Packers chose him in the sixth round in 2010. Then Starks became a key contributor in the final stretch of the 2010-2011 season on the Packers way to a Super Bowl championship.

Starks missed 13 games due to injury over the last two seasons, one of the reasons why the Packers are believed to be shopping for a running back in the draft this month.

Tempting choices in middle rounds
If they don’t pick a running back in an early round and the top tier running backs are gone in the middle rounds, the Packers may be tempted to take a strong look at two of the more intriguing wild card prospects with great upside potential: Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina and Christine Michael of Texas A&M.

South Carolina Gamecocks former player Marcus Lattimore makes a reception during pro day in Columbia. Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Lattimore, who is not ready for prime-time because he is in the middle of a major knee rehab, is receiving cheers for his determination following a horrific knee injury in October 2012 that ended his season. Prior to the injury, many thought he would be the nation’s top running back. His rehab is a feel-good story documented in this month’s ESPN The Magazine Draft Issue. Adrian Petersen, Frank Gore, and Willis McGahee, all active NFL players and alumni of the extensive knee rehab fraternity, are encouraging Lattimore to carry on with his tremendous progress.

Christine Michael is not hearing all cheers in the press box even though he successfully rehabbed a broken right tibia in 2010 and a torn ACL in 2011. In 2012, he scored 12 touchdowns, proved to be very effective in short yardage situations, and demonstrated a great ability to spin away from tacklers. He also was benched periodically.  At the NFL combine, Michael dominated with his skills. He was the top running back in the bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, shuttle, three-cone drill, and most meetings missed by oversleeping. Wait a minute, doesn’t that make him a sleeper prospect, too? Michael blamed it on NyQuil.

Running back Christine Michael of Texas A&M could be available for the Packers in round 3, though injuries and  his time in the coach’s doghouse make him a wild card.

Robert Cessna, a writer for Aggiessports.com, wrote, “You’d like to think there’s a logical explanation, but Michael is out of hall passes. Many wondered why it seemed that Michael was in Kevin Sumlin’s doghouse all season, and this only confirms why.”

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, “The reality with Christine Michael is there’s not a more talented running back in this draft, but you’ve got to do the homework on the kid.”

Analysis
The Packers should rate Michael a better prospect by default, simply because you can’t predict the outcome of Lattimore’s rehab. Other wild card and sleeper running backs who could land on the Packer draft board in the late rounds are Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead and Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson. Burkhead was on and off the field due to injuries in 2012 but finished strong with 140 yards rushing and a touchdown against Georgia. Jefferson comes from a school that hasn’t produced many NFL players, but his 1,883 yards rushing in 2012 speaks volumes about his potential.

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