Open competition in Packers' backfield
The calls came for John Crockett and Alonzo Harris during the sixth round of the NFL draft.
No, it wasn't to tell either running back they'd been selected. Instead, it was the Green Bay Packers calling to show interest in signing them as free agents should they go undrafted.
The draft ended and neither was picked, but both had significant interest from NFL teams about signing as college free agents. Crockett, the North Dakota State standout, estimated that 20 teams called. Harris, the Lousiana-Lafayette bulldozer, said he had six or eight.
Both agreed to sign with the Packers, who are seeking a developmental third-string running back after not offering a contract to DuJuan Harris this offseason.
"Other teams had several (running backs) in the mix," said Alonzo Harris, who received a $3,500 signing bonus. "Dallas had about three or four as well as Green Bay. So that's what it really came down to. I really felt this was the best position.
"Being behind Eddie Lacy and James Starks, that's a great tutoring opportunity, a great chance for me to learn from two guys like that. I'm ready to compete."
Harris actually was on the phone with the Packers when they selected his Ragin' Cajuns teammate, Christian Ringo, an undersized but incredibly productive pass-rusher during his time at Lafayette.
The 6-foot-1, 298-pound defensive end ranked seventh in the country with 20 tackles for a loss and 12th with 111/2 sacks last season. Harris didn't come with Ringo's acclaim, but he had a distinguished career at Lafayette, as well.
Harris was a steady contributor during his four years with the Ragin' Cajuns. He had at least 163 carries in all four seasons, amassing 3,330 rushing yards on 704 attempts and 44 touchdowns as well as 29 receptions for 234 yards and one touchdown.
His 6-1, 237-pound frame fits the prototype for what the Packers have looked for in their zone-blocking scheme, which parallels Lafayette's system.
"They ran it a little bit different with the fullback and the tights. Zone is zone," Harris said. "It's nothing new to me. It's just change of footwork, change of alignment. The game is so much quicker, you have to square up, you have to adjust, you have to read blocks a lot quicker than usual. That's about it."
Crockett is slightly smaller at 6-foot, 217 pounds but possesses an equally impressive resume at North Dakota State, where he recorded three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons despite not being a starter until his senior year.
Coaches and teammates gave Crockett the nickname "Taz" for his tenacious running style, a reputation many scouts agreed was fitting. He earned an invite to the NFL scouting combine after setting a school record for all-purpose yards (2,419), rushing yards (1,994) and rushing attempts (368) as a senior.
Crockett still went undrafted, but was one of 10 such rookies to receive a $5,000 bonus to sign with the Packers.
The 23-year-old understands things are different for Football Championship Subdivision players who didn't attend an Alabama or Ole Miss. At the same time, he points to Villanova alumnus and former All-Pro running back Brian Westbrook as evidence the jump from the FCS to the NFL can be done.
"It's definitely fun to be amongst these guys and be able to say I think these FCS guys can play," Crockett said. "That's one of my biggest goals is to show that FCS guys can play at this level and play amongst these boys. There are some good players out there, but we have some good guys, too."
While the bonuses help, Harris and Crockett were most attracted to the opportunity in Green Bay. The Packers didn't draft a running back, leaving the two rookies to compete with practice-squad holdover Rajion Neal for the third spot behind Lacy and Starks.
The Packers also planned to bring in Southern Illinois running back Malcolm Agnew (son of former New England defensive tackle Ray Agnew) to compete for a spot, but he failed his physical.
Neal made an early bid for a roster spot last year as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee before injuring his knee in the preseason opener against the Titans. After reaching an injury settlement, the 5-11, 220-pounder returned in November on the practice squad.
As Neal looks to pick up where he left off, Crockett and Harris are vying to become the first undrafted rookie running back to make the Packers' 53-man roster since Kregg Lumpkin in 2008.
The Packers don't overpay for undrafted free agents like some other teams. Instead, they choose to draw players in with their track record of undrafted free agents making the roster.
One study they developed showed that undrafted free agents have played 77,079 total snaps since general manager Ted Thompson took over in 2005. The next closest team had 54,105 snaps, and you can bet players and agents have taken notice.
Crockett and Harris will get the chance to show what they can do next week with the start of organized team activities.
"There's some guys in the league who are backups who could be great all-stars and great Pro Bowlers," Crockett said. "Aaron Rodgers had to sit behind a Hall of Famer (in Brett Favre).
"You just wait for that opportunity and wait for that chance and Green Bay is one of those places that actually gives you a legitimate shot. That's all you can ask for."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.
Packers running backs
• John Crockett: 6-foot, 217 pounds, rookie
• Alonzo Harris: 6-1, 237, rookie
• Eddie Lacy: 5-11, 230, 3rd year
• Rajion Neal: 5-11, 220, 1st year
• James Starks: 6-2, 218, 6th year