Who will emerge as the Packers featured back?


Eddie Lacy works out during the Green Bay Packers rookie orientation weekend. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Forget the offensive line; forget the defensive line; and don’t even worry about safety – the most-watched and most interesting Training Camp competition for the Green Bay Packers is going to come down to running back.

So, Ted Thompson goes out and drafts two high-profile rookies at the running back position … what does that tell Alex Green, James Starks, and DuJuan Harris? Well, if nothing else, it places them on notice that management was not happy with what they saw last year and there will be changes.

The first was announced last week by Head Coach Mike McCarthy when he told the world he was flip-flopping the offensive line – moving RT Bryan Bulaga and RG Josh Sitton to the left side to replace LG T.J. Lang (who will move to the right side) and Marshall Newhouse, who will have to compete for the right tackle position with two, three, maybe even four other guys.

Though McCarthy said that the major shakeup along the line was more in line with his feeling it will help protect his $110 million quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, he must also think that it won’t hurt the running game.

The second major indication that management wasn’t pleased with last year’s running game was the fact that Thompson drafted Eddie Lacy out of Alabama in the second round and then traded up to nab Johnathan Franklin out of UCLA in the fourth round.

In-house backs, especially James Starks, are now wondering whether they will be around when the kickoff of the season-opener in San Francisco comes around. Starks was rumored to be on the trading block draft weekend, and he’s probably still there – though it’s unclear whether anyone would be interested in the oft-injured Packer.

Green, who stepped in as the featured back when Cedric Benson went down with a foot injury last year, was the team’s leading rusher. However, his 400-plus yards were mostly one- and two-yard efforts that consistently left the Packers with third and long situations last year. While Rodgers was adept at picking up first downs on many of those downs, it put undue pressure on the passing game to produce.

Harris was the bright spot for the Packers last year as he came out of nowhere to kick the running game in the butt at the end of the season, though it was much too little, too late as the Packers were still relying too heavily on their pass offense. While Harris was productive in his limited time on the field, it’s not real clear whether anyone thinks he’s a three-down back. Most see him as a change-of-pace weapon.

Senior Bowl north squad running back Johnathan Franklin of UCLA (23) carries the ball during the Senior Bowl north squad practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Enter Lacy and Franklin. Both came into this past weekend’s rookie orientation practices as the golden boys ready to rescue a dying run game. According to McCarthy, he wasn’t disappointed in what he saw. He called Lacy “smooth” and was real impressed with how Franklin handled punt and kicks – leaving one to think the Packers are leaning heavily on the possibility of his taking those duties over from Randall Cobb. That, of course, will have to play out in Training Camp.

And while Lacy and Franklin were impressive, there was another guy who caught the eye of McCarthy – Angelo Pease, an undrafted free agent who was called out twice by the head coach during his two press conferences.

So, what does this all mean?

Well, it means that there will be heady competition at the position come late July – something that did not exist at all last year. That lack of competition didn’t help that aspect of the game at all. Starks was penciled in as the starter heading into training camp, immediately got hurt and then the Packers were literally left with little. They scrambled to sign Benson at the last minute to shore things up, but that lasted until the fifth game of the season when he went down to injury and was out for the rest of the year.

How will Alex Green fit into the Packers running game in 2013?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Thompson and McCarthy weren’t about to let that happen again. Thus the drafting and signing of players who can fill the bill.

What will be the outcome of all this? Well, unless things change drastically, we don’t see Starks in the mix at all. Green and Harris will be in the fight for their lives and Lacy and Franklin – and possibly Pease – will be given long, hard looks.

Who emerges as the starter? Well, at this point, you’ve got to give the nod to Lacy, the big, hard running back who could wear defenses down. Throw in Harris, Franklin, Green and possibly Pease as players that should fit in well and contribute.

If I were the head coach, that’s how the stars would align – but I’m not, so we’ll leave the tough decisions up the Packers management. That’s why they get the big bucks and we just get to write about it.

It should be an interesting show to watch.

Stay tuned …

In the meantime, here’s a video that includes some clips of Angelo Pease