Pete Dougherty column: Thompson settles for pedestrian at RB

Packers GM has devoted few resources to position

Nov. 30, 2012
Alex Green, left, and James Starks have shared running duties after the loss of free-agent pickup Cedric Benson to season-ending injury. File/Press-Gazette Media
Alex Green, left, and James Starks have shared running duties after the loss of free-agent pickup Cedric Benson to season-ending injury. File/Press-Gazette Media

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson didn’t even wait until training camp this year to cut safety Charlie Peprah.

Thompson probably was emboldened to make the move after watching young safeties M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian in offseason practices, but still, he in effect was depriving himself and the coaching staff of using Peprah as a safety net. If the two young players failed, the Packers would have to find someone better than the 29-year-old Peprah had been in 2011.

It was the kind of proactive move the best franchises in the NFL force on themselves. There’s much truth in the old saw that if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

It also makes you question why Thompson hasn’t done the same at running back in his eight years as GM. The fact is, the Packers haven’t had a good rushing game since before Thompson, when Ahman Green was one of the league’s best backs in the early 2000s.

In 2003, Green had the eighth-best rushing season in NFL history (1,853 yards). In ‘04, the year before Thompson took over the Packers’ football operations, the then-27-year-old Green, who was starting to break down because of knee injuries, had his last good season (1,163 yards and a 4.5-yard average).

By in ‘06, Thompson’s second season as GM and Mike McCarthy’s first year as coach, Green wasn’t close to the same player but still was the Packers’ primary back. Yet since then, Thompson has continued putting fewer resources into halfback than any other position except the specialists in the kicking game.

He stuck with Ryan Grant long after Grant’s performance nose-dived following his promising 2007 season, and even fell back on the well-past-his-prime Green when injuries hit in ‘09. That’s when he should have been forcing himself and his scouting staff to find a good young back, even if it meant churning through players at the position.

In one way, it’s understandable why Thompson skimps at running back. With the elite quarterback play of Brett Favre and now Aaron Rodgers, the Packers offense has been and will be built around throwing the ball. Finding playmakers in the passing game and protecting the quarterback are the priorities on offense.

But while the running game is devalued in today’s NFL, it still has its place. It’s something you don’t need until you need it, which as the Packers found out last season usually is in a money game.

Even in that context, and keeping in mind Thompson has drafted well overall, the short-shrifting at running back is staggering. In his eight years as GM, Thompson has drafted more tight ends (five) and quarterbacks (five) than halfbacks (four). Of those drafted halfbacks, two were upper-half selections (Brandon Jackson in the second round in ‘07 and Alex Green third round in ‘11) and two were late-round shots (DeShawn Wynn seventh round in ‘07 and James Starks in the sixth round in ‘09).

That’s not many bites at the apple.

Jackson was good in blitz pickup but not a good runner; Wynn was injury prone and never held the starting job despite getting multiple chances; Starks has been injured more often than not; and Alex Green, who is coming off ACL surgery from last year, has shown some open-field talent but a lack of instincts in less than two seasons with the team.

There’s no shame in missing on draft picks, whether it’s because of injury or performance. Drafters miss more than they hit. But then you have to take more later-round shots than Thompson has at running back, or barring that, dig out an undrafted gem.

Thompson instead has stuck too long with aging and declining backs.

In ‘07, Grant had revived the Packers’ run game by jumping from the bottom to the top of a gruesome depth chart after Thompson acquired him for a sixth-round draft pick when training camp ended. But that was Grant’s high point. After his holdout and then hamstring injury in ‘08, he became a pedestrian back, his 1,253 yards rushing in ‘09 notwithstanding.

At that point, Jackson had shown no signs of becoming a productive runner, and when Thompson needed a backup in mid-season ‘09, he opted for Green, who was 32 at a position where 28 is old, instead of a young back off a practice squad or the street.

Similarly, Thompson stuck too long with Grant. By last year, Grant was splitting time with Starks, but his 578 yards rushing and 4.3-yard average were a product of the Packers’ overwhelming passing game. At the youngest position in a young man’s game, Grant probably should have been out of the league rather than playing regularly. Free agency this year bore that out.

No team signed Grant in the offseason. He eventually signed with Washington but played just one game before getting cut. Just last week the Giants worked him out but bypassed him to sign not one but two halfbacks: Ryan Torian and, of all people, one of the undrafted halfbacks the Packers discarded several years ago, Kregg Lumpkin.

Since ‘09, Thompson’s primary additions at running back besides the draft have been Tyrell Sutton (undrafted ‘09), Dimitri Nance (signed off Atlanta’s practice squad in ‘10), Marc Tyler (undrafted ‘12) and Cedric Benson (signed off the street in August). Probably most startling was that Thompson didn’t draft a back this year.

Sutton, Nance and Tyler didn’t pan out as long shots. Starks has had his moments, provided a viable run game in the Packers’ Super Bowl run in ‘10 and has been the team’s best runner this season. But he can’t stay healthy enough to show whether he can be the guy.

Alex Green has some explosiveness but hasn’t shown the instincts for McCarthy’s zone-running scheme. Benson, though in decline at 29, might have been good enough, but his season ended with a Lisfranc injury.

Over these past several years, the Packers have passed on some good backs drafted late or signed after the draft. The king of them all is Houston’s Arian Foster, who went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2009 and now probably is the league’s second-best back, behind only Adrian Peterson.

Going back to 2007, Ahmad Bradshaw went to the New York Giants in the seventh round. The Packers saw first-hand last week the damage he can do. That year, Pierre Thomas signed with New Orleans after going undrafted.

In ‘08, Peyton Hillis was a seventh-round pick, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Mike Tolbert were signed undrafted.

In ‘10, Pittsburgh’s Jonathan Dwyer was a seventh-round pick, and New Orleans’ Chris Ivory was signed undrafted.

This year, Washington’s Alfred Morris, the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher, was a sixth-round pick, and St. Louis’ change-of-pace Daryl Richardson was a seventh-rounder.

Yes, you can go through past drafts and find later-round picks or undrafted rookies who ended up being good players at any position. And if Thompson had drafted more halfbacks, he would have passed on other positions that now might not be as strong.

But what stands out is the seeming mentality Thompson has had at running back. At almost all other positions, he’s had no compunction moving on from the older to the younger, with the notable exception of Donald Driver this year. Even Brett Favre got the heave-ho.

But at the position with the shortest life span of them all, running back, Thompson has settled rather than searched. And the Packers’ run game has paid the price. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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