2014 Packers: Breaking Down the Running Backs
By Dan Dahlke
Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy (27) rushes with the football as Atlanta Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow (55) defends. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
In this series we take a close look at the Packers 90-man roster on the verge of training camp and discuss each player’s chances of making the final 53.
The Green Bay Packers offensive backfield is deep, to say the least.
What was once considered a position of weakness on the roster only two years ago, now is a very talented and crowded group going into training camp.
In 2013, Eddie Lacy and James Starks formed an effective one-two punch to help Green Bay improve from 20th in league in rushing to seventh.
In fact, the Packers improved their average yards rushing per game by nearly thirty yards, going from 106.4 in 2012 to 133.5 in 2013. This is an even more substantial improvement when you consider their 2011 (97.4) and 2010 (100.4) team rushing averages.
With Lacy bursting on the scene in 2013 as the Offensive Rookie of the Year and Starks managing to stay healthy for the entire season, the Packers had their best ground game since Ahman Green’s stellar 2003 performance.
It will be interesting to see how good the Packers offense will be this season with a revitalized run game backing up a healthy Aaron Rodgers.
RUNNING BACKS (9)
Safe: Eddie Lacy, 5-11, 235; James Starks, 6-2, 218
Lacy and Starks are a dangerous duo in the backfield and their running styles complement each other.
Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy (27). Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Lacy is a bruiser, who can square his shoulders, knock over tacklers, and push piles. He’s a load to take down and his physical running style was exactly what the Packers offense needed last year.
He led the team in rushing last season with 284 attempts for 1,178 yards, and showcased a nose for the endzone with his 11 rushing touchdowns.
However, there is a lot more to Lacy’s game than just being a power runner. He is light on his feet and can make the quick cuts necessary to catch defenders off guard.
His change of direction is excellent. He seems to have a natural feel for where the hole is opening up in the defense. He can also make guys miss in the open field, which is a great trait for a back his size to have.
Lacy does need to improve his pass protection to see more playing time on third downs, however.
He struggled early in the season in picking up blitzes, giving up two costly quarterback hurries against Baltimore in week six and a few more down the stretch during the season.
However, he shows plenty of promise as a pass blocker and his wide frame should help him in holding his ground against pass rushers.
I fully expect Lacy to take the next step this year in becoming a more complete back for the Packers.
Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44). Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Starks had arguably his best season last year as a pro. Ironically, this was the season he wasn’t featured as the Packers’ starter.
Maybe this is the best role for him.
He provides a lot of energy coming off the bench and spelling Lacy for a few series during the game. He certainly made the most of his opportunities last season.
He gained 493 yards on the ground on only 89 rushing attempts last season. His 5.5 rushing average was the best of his career, and led the team in 2013. With Lacy sidelined with a concussion against Washington in week two, Starks had a whopping 132 yards rushing and carried a majority of the load in the ground game.
Starks may not have the durability to carry the ball 20 times a game for an entire season, but he’s valuable in the Packers offense as a second running option behind Lacy.
On the Fence: Jonathan Franklin, 5-10, 205; John Kuhn, 6-0, 250; DuJuan Harris, 5-8, 203
Green Bay Packers running back Jonathan Franklin (23). Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Franklin had a disappointing rookie season. He seemed to struggle in camp, was lackluster in the preseason, didn’t do much as a returner, and only really saw action in one game before his season ended with a concussion he suffered in week seven against Cleveland.
This year, Franklin needs to show in camp he was worth the fourth-round selection.
He did have an impressive showing against Cincinnati last season with Lacy and Starks sidelined with injury. He rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts. His 7.9 rushing average demonstrated his ability as an explosive runner.
His shiftiness seems to make him standout from the rest of the backs on the Packers roster. We got glimpses of this last season on the impressive 51-yard run he had against Cincinnati.
Franklin brings a different skill set to the team. This will also help his cause in sticking around for at least another year or two.
The Packers seem to like his potential, but he needs to show strides in the mental part of the game and emerge as a receiving threat out of the backfield.
He seems like he could be a great fit as a third-down and change-of-pace back. The Packers could utilize his ability to make plays in space, but first, Franklin needs to put it all together and showcase what he can do in camp this summer.
Green Bay Packers fullback John Kuhn (30). Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Kuhn’s age (31) and seemingly diminished role in the Packers offense makes him a candidate for the chopping block. Kuhn is a fan favorite and popular among his teammates, but he only played in 337 out of a possible 1,053 offensive snaps last season.
That means nearly two-thirds of the time the Packers offense was on the field, Kuhn was on the sideline.
Even with the Packers revitalized run game, Kuhn saw limited action as Green Bay continues to trend toward more and more single-back sets.
Now, Kuhn still offers value to the team. He knows the Packers system inside and out. He is a key special teams contributor. And, he’s a reliable pass protector on third down. Just look at his blitz pickup of Julius Peppers in the season finale as a recent example of this.
The Packers did bring Kuhn back this offseason for one more year after he became a free agent after the 2013 season, but I’m just not sure how much longer the nine-veteran will stick around.
It’s not out of the question the Packers will go fullback-less and keep an extra tight end on their final roster instead.
Only one year removed from being named the starter by the head coach, Harris is the forgotten man in the Packers backfield.
Jan 5, 2013; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back DuJuan Harris (26) during the NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. The Packers won 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Harris spent the entire 2013 season on injured reserve after suffering a knee injury in the preseason. This came shortly after returning from surgery where doctors removed a cyst on his lung.
Harris finished the 2012 season strong, leading the team in rushing for the month of December with 34 rushes for 157 yards and a team-high 4.6 rushing average.
Harris’s small, stout frame makes him an explosive runner that can hit the hole with a quick burst and pack a powerful punch.
It’s still hard to say what the Packers have in Harris at this point. He’s still relatively inexperienced.
However, the latest reports out of Packers minicamp have noted Harris getting reps as a kick returner. Maybe Harris will make his mark on special teams in camp and further justify Green Bay keeping four halfbacks on the final roster.
Long Shots: Michael Hill, 5-10, 210; Rajion Neal, 5-11, 220; LaDarius Perkins, 5-7, 195; Ina Liaina, 6-0, 250
It will be tough for this group to crack the final 53-man roster.
There is a lot of talent here, but it would take either a serious injury to one of the top backs or an impossible-to-ignore performance in the preseason to beat out Harris or Franklin for the last spots in the Packers backfield.
Tennessee Volunteers running back Rajion Neal (20). Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Hill spent some time on the Packers practice squad last season, so he brings experience to the table. Hill is a nice blend of power and agility. He rushed for 16 touchdowns and over 2100 yards as a senior at Missouri Western in 2012, but going into his second year he has still yet to make his mark in the NFL.
With a good camp he may land himself one of the eight practice squad spots.
Neal and Perkins are both undrafted rookies.
Neal is a power runner with a big frame. He was productive in Tennessee’s offense as their featured back in 2012 (215 rushes for 1124 yds and 12 TDs). He offers plenty of potential and might be a bigger-bodied back the Packers would like to keep around just in case Lacy or Starks get hurt this season.
Perkins is a smaller back out of Mississippi State with some breakaway speed (4.44) and shiftiness in the open field. His numbers as a senior (542 rushing yards and 2 TDs) weren’t as impressive as his junior campaign (1,016 rushing yards and 8 TDs), which hurt his draft stock this past spring.
Perkins is an intriguing developmental player the Packers could try to stash on their practice squad.
The Packers go heavy at the position and keep five backs on their final roster: Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Jonathan Franklin, DuJuan Harris, and John Kuhn.
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