Packers preparing Lacy for workhorse role

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy runs through drills during minicamp practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Thursday, June 19, 2014.

The Green Bay Packers weren't particularly concerned with limiting Eddie Lacy's carries as a rookie despite his history of short-term injuries in college at Alabama.

All signs suggest they're even less concerned this year.

In Lacy, they finally have the top-10-type back they badly needed to threaten defenses in the run game — something they'd been missing for a decade — and they're going to ride him while he's young (24) and able.

"This is the NFL, you're not going to play this game until you're 45 or 50," said Sam Gash, the former two-time Pro Bowl fullback who is the Packers' new running backs coach. "A lot of people, especially the media, try to make it out, 'He's got to last.' He'll last as long as he's meant to last.

"If he gets 40 (carries in a game), I'm OK with that. If he gets 10 carries, 20 carries, as long as we're productive and winning, I don't really care. I tell all the guys, be ready for 50 carries, that's the way you should train in the offseason, as if you're getting 50 carries a game. You're going to beat your body down and beat yourself up, so it's going to harden you mentally and physically. You're not going to wear yourself down. God made a machine, he's not going to let you down when you need him the most."

Upgrading the run game clearly was high on Ted Thompson's agenda last year, because after selecting Lacy at No. 61 overall in the second round, the Packers' general manager traded up for running back Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round as a hedge against Lacy's college injury issues (toe, pectoral muscle and hamstring). The Packers badly need a viable run game to punish defenses for the two-deep safety look that had taken some of the explosiveness out of their passing game the previous two years.

Lacy's impact on their offense was immediate and profound: Going into the game in which Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone against Chicago on Nov. 4, the Packers ranked No. 2 in the NFL in total yards, No. 3 in points and No. 2 in rushing yards.

Lacy finished the year ranked No. 8 in the NFL in rushing (1,178 yards, 4.4-yard average per carry). That includes 666 yards in the seven-plus games Aaron Rodgers missed, when teams loaded up against the run with backups Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn at quarterback.

That effort won him the NFL offensive rookie of the year award. The Packers think that with Lacy to complement a healthy Rodgers all season, they should have an elite offense despite losing key players in the passing game (Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jermichael Finley) the last two years.

"Here's a guy that has natural gifts," Gash said of Lacy. "He's a big guy that moves like a little guy. Quick feet in the hole. He's got real good balance, good body lean. He has a huge upside."

The weak link in Lacy's game last season was pass protection. But the Packers want him to be a three-down-type back and expect significant improvement in that area this season.

"He's fine (in protection)," Gash said. "I haven't noticed any deficiencies at all. They're every-down backs, so if he can't be in the passing game — yeah, he's been great. There's been no lapses in anything this year. He's actually a very sharp individual."

The news at the end of offseason practices that Franklin's neck injury was career-ending had to be a big blow to the Packers. He didn't play much as a rookie but flashed big-play talent while rushing for 103 yards when Lacy missed the Week 3 game at Cincinnati because of a concussion. With the high attrition rate at running back in the NFL, Franklin might have become an important player somewhere down the road.

Green Bay Packers running back DuJuan Harris during minicamp practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Tuesday, June 17, 2014.

But it's also a blow the Packers appear capable of absorbing, at least for this season, with James Starks and DuJuan Harris as Lacy's backups.

Starks doesn't have the durability to be a primary back — he missed 26 of 48 games his first three NFL seasons because of injuries — but last year appeared to have found his niche as a backup. Playing mostly as a five- to 10-touch-a-game player, he averaged a career-high 5.5 yards a carry.

Starks' market in free agency in the offseason was relatively soft, so the Packers were able to re-sign him to a more-than-palatable two-year contract that included a $725,000 signing bonus and averages $1.625 million a season.

"He's here and understands what his role is, that's the great thing about him," Gash said. "He's going to come out and be the same guy every day. He's going to work hard, he's going to give everything he's got. All I ask for is an honest day's work every single day you come in the building."

Harris, 25, will provide a change-of-pace, scat-back-type runner to the bigger Lacy and Starks (6-2, 218) if he returns to form after missing all last season because of surgery on his patellar tendon. In 2012, the Packers didn't sign Harris off the street to their practice squad until October, yet he finished the season as their No. 1 back and averaged 4.1 yards a carry in the final six games, including two playoff games.

He's short — 5-71/8 at his campus workout coming out of college — but isn't small (203 pounds). He can run between the tackles and has the speed to get outside (4.44-second 40 at his campus workout).

"You can tell he was out of football a little bit last year," Gash said. "He's keying in and locking in. If he makes a mistake it's going to be 100 mph, and that's what I appreciate about him. He's a little guy — I shouldn't say a little guy, he's a shorter guy, but he's compact and as strong as any I've been around. I've seen him actually toss D-linemen around. I think the sky's the limit for the guy. He's got to lock in and realize what's at hand."

The Packers also re-signed fullback John Kuhn to a one-year deal at a cost of $1.03 million for what will be his ninth NFL season. He's the backfield's best pass protector, so even at age 31, it appears likely he'll make the team at a position that could be on its way to extinction in the NFL.

"Kuhn's a smart player," Gash said. "He's an all-around running back. He's played tailback here, he's played fullback here. Kuhn is a guy, you can use him as a utility, but he's a solid ball player."

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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