The Green Bay Packers had a vision for Eddie Lacy last season.
They wanted the NFL’s reigning offensive rookie of the year to take another step and develop into an every-down back who could be counted on in any situation in the team’s no-huddle offense.
To get there, the Packers needed to keep Lacy healthy. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back was critical in helping the offense keep its head above water in Aaron Rodgers’ absence in 2013, but a badly sprained ankle hampered him once the MVP quarterback finally did return.
The Packers’ plan for Lacy was met with some skepticism at first. Many pundits wondered what was wrong with Lacy during a slow September when he averaged only 3.0 yards per carry, but Packers coach Mike McCarthy implored everyone to wait for the big picture to develop.
After the bye week, Lacy kicked things into another gear. He rushed for 711 yards and five touchdowns in his final eight games. His yards per carry jumped from 4.1 his rookie year to 4.6. Lacy also developed into a legitimate threat on screen passes, registering 42 receptions for 427 yards and four touchdowns.
“I thought he became more of a complete back in terms of the way Coach (McCarthy) wanted him coached,” running backs coach Sam Gash said. “I think he continues to make strides in a positive way. Every day, he’s there. He works hard. He’s finishing runs. He’s working himself into the back he knows he has to be.”
In two years, Lacy already has developed into the Packers’ best running back since Ahman Green and settled what was a revolving door at the position since 2010. Another strong campaign could go a long way in a potential extension, which he’ll be eligible for after this season.
The only goal Lacy is fixed on right now is finishing runs. He admits he sometimes danced too much in the open field or as Gash puts it, “hit the air brakes.” One of the hardest-hitting backs in the NFL, it’s a supreme challenge for 195-pound defensive backs to get Lacy down, so why make their job any easier?
A hard-hitting mentality must be balanced with a smart approach. He’s touched the ball 607 times in his first two seasons at a position widely recognized for having the shortest careers. Still, delivering an impact is his greatest attribute.
“Oh no, not at all,” said Gash when asked about Lacy changing his style. “I’m coaching him to be a three-down back, and they’re all different. However they need to be to be productive, that’s all I care about.”
The Packers expected 2013 fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin to work alongside Lacy, but a career-ending neck injury forced him to retire after his rookie year. Fortunately for Green Bay, James Starks has had a career revival since Lacy’s arrival.
His yards per carry dipped from a career-high 5.5 in 2013 to 3.9 last season, but the Packers still believe he’s the perfect complement to Lacy with his own aggressive style. A high-effort player, inconsistent pass-blocking and dropped passes still create occasional headaches.The sixth-year veteran has been Lacy’s running mate in Green Bay and it’s been a productive partnership for both. Riddled by injuries early on, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Starks didn’t miss a game last season for the first time in his career.
“I think they’re both competitors,” Gash said. “I think if one guy is doing well, the other guy wants to continue to do well. If one guy isn’t doing well, the other guy wants to come in and be that guy. I think they work hard in practice. They’re great people, which is a big part of it, too, is that you know what you’re going to get every day.”
The Packers didn’t have much use last year for No. 3 running back DuJuan Harris, the once-popular scat back who was in line for a starting job in 2013 before a season-ending injury to his patellar tendon. They Packers didn’t even tender him a contract after only playing 51 offensive snaps last season.
They might be well advised to keep a third option this year with Starks now 29 years old and an unrestricted free agent after the season. All three options are former undrafted free agents: Rajion Neal, John Crockett and Alonzo Harris.
Neal impressed early in camp last year before tearing his medial collateral ligament in the Packers’ first preseason game against Tennessee. He reached an injury settlement before returning midseason on the practice squad.
Crockett was seen as one of the Packers’ top undrafted free-agent signings. He was invited to the NFL scouting combine after fashioning three straight 1,000-yard seasons at FCS-power North Dakota State. He sprained his left ankle at the end of the offseason program, but expected to be ready by training camp.
Harris (6-1, 237) was a four-year starter at Louisiana-Lafayette and mirrors Lacy with his bulldozing build.
“They’re all working hard,” Gash said. “They’re trying to make sure they’re where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there. That’s the toughest thing for a rookie to do and a young guy. They’re all continuing to develop and we’ll see how it shakes out.”
The fullback battle should be the most competitive it’s been since John Kuhn beat out Quinn Johnson for the job in 2011. The 10th-year veteran looks to turn back a challenge from Oklahoma rookie Aaron Ripkowski, who was taken in the sixth round of this year’s draft.
Kuhn, who’ll turn 33 by the start of the season, still found tough sledding in free agency and ultimately returned on a one-year, veteran-minimum deal worth $870,000 in addition to a $25,000 workout bonus.In his first season working with Gash, Kuhn made strides in his lead-blocking that you typically don’t see in older fullbacks. Although he played only 18.3 percent of offensive snaps, Kuhn punched his second ticket to the Pro Bowl and earned an all-pro nod for his effort.
“I think as he’s getting older, he’s better,” Gash said. “I don’t think there’s been a big drop-off in my eyes from what I’ve seen from one year to the next. I think for a young guy like Ripkowski having Kuhn is definitely a plus because Kuhn brings things not only on the field but outside the game making guys good professionals.”
Ripkowski made a pre-draft visit with the Packers and struck Gash as a no-nonsense player. General manager Ted Thompson and his scouting department thought enough of Ripkowski to make him the first fullback the Packers have drafted since Johnson six years ago.
It’s expected the 6-foot-1, 246-pound rookie could provide a lift on the team’s remade special teams. Ripkowski didn’t have a lot of opportunities to touch the ball for the Sooners, but he was a suitable pass-catcher and short-yardage ball carrier.
The Packers haven’t kept more than one fullback on the roster since the Super Bowl season in 2010, but it’s possible they’d have room for both if they like what they see. Kuhn has proven capable at filling in at running back in a pinch.
“Oh they’re pushing each other,” Gash said. “That’s what you always wanted. I think John has proven to be a true professional and continues to elevate his game. Just having those guys in there and pushing each other every day is going to be fun.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.