Green Bay Packers 100: Ranking the priority free agents – #1

We continue our “Packers 100” countdown looking at next year’s top free agents. Green Bay Packers football is just 79 days away. You can find the full countdown here.

1. Eddie Lacy

Contributions to date: Lacy was drafted in the second round in 2013, and he promptly won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award that season by carrying the Packers offense through the broken collarbone of Aaron Rodgers. He resuscitated a Packers running game that had largely sputtered since the departure of Ryan Grant, churning through mediocre talents like Brandon Jackson and Alex Green.

Lacy surpassed 1,100 yards in each of his first two seasons, averaging 4.1 and 4.6 yards per carry, respectively. He had significant growth in the passing game in his sophomore season, averaging 10.2 yards per reception and scoring four touchdowns, with much of that damage coming on screen plays.

A big reason for concern, though, is his uptick in fumbles: he has put the ball on the ground seven times over the last two seasons after just a single fumble in his rookie year.

Then, of course, there was 2015. Despite averaging 4.1 yards per carry, the same amount as his rookie year, Lacy was an inconsistent back and received nearly 100 less carries than he did in his first two seasons. While still effective as a north-south runner, Lacy put on far too much weight to be elusive in space and pull away in the open field. James Starks was a more reliable option for much of the season.

Future potential: This question all depends on Lacy’s weight. He’s 26 years old, which should allow him to play out at least one more long-term contract in the NFL, even with the short shelf-life of today’s running backs. He’s dealt with some nagging injuries in his career, but nothing that should jeopardize his future. His off-season work with Tony Horton seems to be pointing him in the right direction as far as losing weight and reducing the risk of injury.

Eddie Lacy and the Green Bay Packers will suffer from travel issues in 2015. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

When healthy and at his optimal playing weight, Lacy is a top talent in this league. His best traits are probably his balance and his power, which make him very difficult to tackle in the hole. He struggles on outside runs and moving laterally though, and his extra weight certainly doesn’t help there.

Importance to team: High. The Packers re-signed Starks to a two-year deal this off-season, a somewhat perplexing move given his price and age. But it’s clear that the team feels they need insurance in case Lacy never rebounds to the heights of his first two seasons.

Starks, though, is not a long-term answer. Neither is John Crockett or anyone else on the roster. Lacy is the only player on the team who can be the long-term workhorse back who makes the offense balanced and complete.

He’s what enables the team to grind out the clock late in games, and perhaps more importantly, he is crucial to the passing game. Lacy is what forces defenses to bring a safety into the box, opening up windows down the field for Aaron Rodgers and his receivers.

Prediction: He stays. It would be a bold move for Ted Thompson to allow Lacy to get away this off season when there are no suitable replacements on the roster. Thompson also doesn’t have a stellar track record of drafting running backs, so he shouldn’t count on picking up Lacy 2.0 in the draft.

Lacy’s cost will depend on his production this year. I tend to think that Lacy will have a very good bounce-back year as a result of increased focus, decreased weight and additional running room due to the return of Jordy Nelson. The Packers will probably want to protect themselves in their deal though to ensure that he doesn’t become complacent and ineffective once again.

I see the Packers giving Lacy a lucrative, but incentive-laden extension for around three years towards the end of the season or in the off-season.

Wrap up: In sum, these are my predictions for the Packers who will have contracts expiring at the end of this season:

Staying: Sam Barrington, Micah Hyde, JC Tretter, Nick Perry, T.J. Lang, Eddie Lacy

Leaving: Josh Sitton, David Bakhtiari, Datone Jones