Green Bay Packers running back Johnathan Franklin reaches for the ball during the first padded practice of training camp practice Sunday at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
There are plenty of caveats for judging this early in training camp whether the Green Bay Packers significantly upgraded their running game in this year’s NFL draft.
The team has practiced only once in pads, and even in that setting there’s no tackling, which eliminates the crucial tackle-breaking element of running back play.
Still, it was hard not to notice Johnathan Franklin in the Packers’ first padded workout Sunday. The rookie stood out most at a position that general manager Ted Thompson augmented with two of his first five draft picks this year.
“From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like (Franklin) is going to be a pretty decent player,” said Josh Sitton, the Packers’ left guard. “Haven’t seen a whole lot yet, but he’s a shifty little son of a gun.”
Coach Mike McCarthy has vowed that the Packers will run the ball better this year than they have under his stewardship, and Franklin and Eddie Lacy are a huge part of that plan.
Lacy, a second-round pick, had an uneventful first day in pads, in large part because he had little running room on his three carries during 11-on-11 periods. His strengths as a runner also don’t show up as much as Franklin’s on the practice field. At 5-feet-11 and 230 pounds, Lacy is a power back who, if his abilities translate well to the NFL, will push piles and either run through or spin off tackles, which he can’t do because there’s no tackling.
Franklin, on the other hand, has been one of the Packers’ most impressive rookies since their first minicamp in part because nonpadded practices play to his strengths as a quick, instinctive, change-of-direction back.
Moving to padded practices can neutralize those skills for many backs, but on the first day in pads, Franklin’s abilities carried over.
During team periods, he had two carries that probably would have gone for explosive runs, which most teams define as 12 yards or more. On one, he went through a hole up the middle, hesitated and then bounced hard to his left for probably at least a 20-yard carry. On the other, he shot through a hole in the middle of the line and made it cleanly past the linebacker level of the defense.
Also, Franklin had a kickoff return that looked like it would have been a legitimately big play, not just a product of the cover team being forbidden from hitting the return man.
“Today he showed some burst,” left guard T.J. Lang said. “He can outrun people and he can make some people miss. He’s shown that throughout the offseason, and today was the first day in pads. He’s definitely a guy that looks like he has all it takes.”
One of the reasons Franklin was available in the fourth round (No. 124 overall) was his size. Teams were leery that at 205 pounds he won’t hold up to the punishment as a primary halfback, and that he was only a backup prospect. Many scouts also didn’t consider him a breakaway runner either — his 40 time of 4.49 seconds was fourth best among running backs who ran at the NFL scouting combine this year, but the best long threats generally run 4.40 seconds or lower.
Any teams suspect of his power and explosiveness also could point to Franklin’s relatively poor vertical jump, which was 31½ inches at the combine and only 30 inches three weeks later at his campus workout. By comparison, seven halfbacks at the combine jumped 35 inches or higher, with Texas A&M’s Christine Michael leading the way at 43 inches and Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead second at 39 inches.
But Franklin finished as UCLA’s all-time leading rusher and averaged 5.6 yards on 788 carries in his career. One scout Press-Gazette Media consulted before the draft graded Franklin a sleeper second round-type prospect and said he liked Franklin’s ability to square his shoulders and pick up extra yards at the end of a run even though he’s not a big back.
“He’s a very shifty guy, very fast, everyone knows that,” left tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “But he has good power as well. You see it in the way he pass blocks. When he has to pick up linebackers off the edge you can tell a running back’s power when he sticks his nose in there and can stop a linebacker on the spot. You just know the type of power and aggression right there.”
Lacy and Franklin are working behind veterans Alex Green and James Starks in the running back rotation — the rookies also probably would be behind DuJuan Harris if he weren’t out because of a knee injury. But that might not last long, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the two finish the season with the most touches among the running backs.
“I don’t know, we’ll see,” Sitton said. “That’s why they got drafted. (But) that’s why none of this really means anything until we get in a game. Obviously you see things in practice, but we’ll really be able to tell more when live bullets are flying in preseason games.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.