Green Bay Packers: Final 53-Man Roster Predictions

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Aug 29, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy (27) is tackled during the first quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Running Back

* = starter; + = roster spot

* Eddie Lacy
+ James Starks
* John Kuhn
+ Rajion Neal
John Crockett
Alonzo Harris
+ Aaron Ripkowski

Aug 29, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) catches a pass during the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field. Philadelphia won 39-26. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, we had something impressive happen with this roster: for the first time in what seems like forever, players were able to stay healthy!

Take a look at Green Bay’s rating under Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost* (AGL) metric for the years Aaron Rodgers has been the starting QB for the Packers:

2008: 48.2 AGL (17th-most)
2009: 37 AGL (8th)
2010: 86.3 AGL (30th)
2011: 58.7 AGL (16th)
2012: 108.1 AGL (32th)
2013: 104.5 AGL (30th)
2014: 41.9 AGL (3rd)

As you’ll see, things changed drastically in terms of injury luck for the Packers in 2014. One area of the team where that is seen best is at the running back position.

Last season, we saw just about every running back snap going to either Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and John Kuhn. For a team with as rotten injury luck as Green Bay has had in recent years, that had to be unexpected. That doesn’t even really touch on the fact that the main guy in the backfield (Lacy) has dealt with concussions while his primary backup (Starks) has been known primarily as an injury-plagued players himself.

Aug 3, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers fullback John Kuhn practice during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Suffice to say, we could be primed to see at least some drop-off in fortune at this position.

The good news is that Green Bay currently has brought together a decent collection of talent to hopefully stem those injury tides to some degree.

First off is of course Lacy. Since he came to Green Bay in 2013, he’s given the Packers what they lacked previously during Aaron Rodgers’ tenure: a bonafide workhorse runner to balance out the offense. In the five seasons before Lacy’s arrival, Green Bay ranked 17th, 14th, 24th, 27th, and 20th in rushing yardage. During the past two, the Packers have been up at 7th and 11th. That balance has been key in each season; during 2013 it allowed the Packers to survive half the year without Rodgers (collarbone injury) to still make the playoffs, while last year it was key in the Packers eventually leading the league in points per game.

Obviously, Lacy is a lock for the roster.

Starks should be a virtual lock as well. While he isn’t quite the player Lacy is, he has proven himself to be a powerful runner and capable fill-in on multiple occasions. Add in his decently cheap contract for good measure and it’s a good bet that he’ll fill in as the lead backup once again.

Here’s where things get more complicated for me: the fullback spot. On one hand we have Kuhn, the reliable fan-favorite who’s been around for years. On the other, there is Aaron Ripkowski, the newly drafted guy. Now while it may seem obvious for Kuhn to be picked at first, we should recognize that Green Bay is a team that relies heavily on drafting guys to come in and replace aging players.

Sep 3, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Rajion Neal (34) rushes with the football as New Orleans Saints safety Pierre Warren (42) tries to make the tackle during the second quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

My thoughts here though go in a third direction: the Packers keep both.

Keeping Kuhn — an experienced, reliable veteran — provides Green Bay with someone who’s been around the offense longer than just about anybody; to see how much that can help, just look back to his game-saving block in the 2013 game vs Chicago that allowed Aaron Rodgers just enough time to make the winning TD pass to Randall Cobb. That is valuable ability, and even though fullbacks are a dying breed overall if you have a good one, that man can and should be a usable asset.

Having Ripkowski make the roster too would help in a number of ways. One, he acts as the possible future beyond Kuhn (whenever Green Bay does move on from him). If he makes the roster, he’ll also undoubtedly be used for special teams, an area the Packers have been adamant about improving upon. There is the possibility of Ripkowski working as a virtual tight end as well in certain formations (something to keep in mind when that position comes up later in this series). All in all, it appears he should be able to grab a spot on the roster.

After Ripkowski though, things are more muddled.

Four backs is already a decent amount, but I’m thinking that the golden luck injury-wise for this area last season is probably an aberration — and I think Green Bay could ultimately agree.

Sep 14, 2013; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners fullback Aaron Ripkowski (48) makes a catch before the game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Oklahoma won 51-20. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Of the three left, we can probably cross John Crockett off the list first. While he did appear to be the most intriguing guy leading into the offseason and training camp work, an ankle injury hindered his opportunities to produce and so he subsequently hasn’t quite showed enough to warrant a possible spot.

The battle between Neal and Harris however is more interesting.

Neal has been around the team longer, promoting intrigue along the way in two straight offseasons. Harris wasn’t a highly regarded prospect, but his work since being picked up as an undrafted free agent this offseason has been enough to make it a contest between the two.

From everything I’ve read up on the two, it sounds as if Neal has the edge here. With the injuries that hit other positions (which I’ll get to soon), the Packers may end up resorting to more running this year. If that ends up being their plan, then we should expect to see Neal force his way into being the fifth running back chosen for the squad.