GREEN BAY - In the case of Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy, optimists see a player whose denouncement by coach Mike McCarthy sparked an important reformation. They see a player with bruised pride and improved physique. Someone who, they believe, can recapture the 1,000-yard Lacy of old.
Pessimists see a different Lacy, a disappointing Lacy. They see the thickness that still padded his frame during organized team activities and minicamp. They see the differences between photos on social media and the flesh and bones on Ray Nitschke Field. They wonder how different this season will really be.
And then there are the pragmatists. They have a question of their own: What is the backup plan if Lacy stumbles?
The overlooked subtext to Lacywatch 2016 is the lack of depth behind him at the running back position. General manager Ted Thompson chose to re-sign veteran James Starks, who turned 30 shortly after the playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals, but addled little in the way of an insurance policy. His only other moves were to sign a pair of undrafted free agents, neither of whom played at a major program.
A potential weakness caused the minicamp spotlight to land temporarily on third-string tailback John Crockett, an undrafted free agent from 2015. Crockett was promoted to the active roster on Dec. 3, 2015, and played sparingly during the final seven games. But now, with Lacy suspect and Starks senescent, Crockett’s presence carries added importance.
“His redshirt year is over,” McCarthy said. “He needs to make an impact. He needs to show up on special teams. He’s kind of trying to find his way a little bit as far as where he needs to play at weight-wise and so forth.
“He’s done a lot of good things. But he’s going into his second training camp, so he needs the details work and take advantage of these opportunities because those two young guys behind him, I’m excited to see them run the ball when we get the pads on.”
The two players McCarthy alluded to are Brandon Burks of Troy and Don Jackson of Nevada, who round out the five-man running back battle. Jackson visited with the organization during the pre-draft process, while Burks told the Journal Sentinel in May that the Packers had been interested in him since his pro day. Both players signed contracts shortly after the conclusion of the 2016 draft.
But standing ahead of them, at least for the moment, is the 6-foot, 218-pound Crockett.
Crockett, who signed with the Packers after a sterling career at North Dakota State, spent training camp in Green Bay but did not make the 53-man roster. Both he and Rajion Neal, another tailback, were cut in favor of rookie Alonzo Harris, who carried four times for 19 yards in spot duty between stints on the inactive list.
Crockett’s opportunity arose in the hours before kickoff against the Detroit Lions in December, when Harris was released for missing curfew with Lacy the night before. Crockett, who had re-signed to the practice squad at the start of the year, was quickly promoted to the active roster.
Against the Lions, he carried five times for 22 yards, sapping reps normally ascribed to Lacy, who was benched, and flashed a nice ability to change directions in tight quarters.
His only other playing time came during mop-up duty against the Arizona Cardinals four weeks later. He saw only 16 snaps all season.
“You come back your second year and you want to contribute,” Crockett said in mid-June. “You want to contribute when you’re younger, but I think you’ve got to be realistic and understand you’re not ready yet. Now, you’re a little bit smarter and can stay in the scheme and just go out there and play freely. It is Year 2 and I feel like I should be ready to help this team.”
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The ability to contribute on special teams will be paramount for Crockett, just as it was for Harris last season. There were multiple games in which Harris’ presence on the game day roster, which carries 46 of the 53 players, was predicated on special teams reliability.
And the learning curve will be steep for Crockett, whose special teams experience was minuscule at North Dakota State, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) power. Crockett said he appeared on special teams during the first two games of his sophomore season, and that was it. He chipped in as a kick returner, not as a traditional member of the coverage or return units.
When asked about special teams in a group interview, Crockett smiled and said he is still “figuring things out.”
“I kind of make it very clear to them that if you’re going to be on the field I have to feel confident and comfortable that you’re ready,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said, his message applicable beyond the offense.
“And not just me — your teammates, some of the coaches. We feel like if we’re going to put you in the game, you have to give us a chance to win.”
It circles back to the pragmatists: If not Lacy, then who?
Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.