Fourth in a nine-part series of Packers position previews.
GREEN BAY - Eddie Lacy already has done some, if not irreparable, damage to his market value by not staying in shape.
After having to play his way into condition during Green Bay Packers training camp in 2014, Lacy reported at 260 pounds last July, cheating himself and the organization, before going on to have one of the more disappointing seasons of any player in the NFL.
Lacy took the first step in January, reaching out to P90X founder Tony Horton. Under Horton’s personal guidance, estimates in June were that Lacy had dropped 15 to 20 pounds.
Presently, Lacy ranks 63rd among running backs in average salary per year at $848,103. With a return to form, he would be in position to cash in either through a new contract with the Packers (his four-year rookie deal expires in March) or with another team as an unrestricted free agent.
On the first day of free agency in March, Doug Martin went back to Tampa Bay for $7.15 million per year ($15M guaranteed). On the same day, the Dolphins’ Lamar Miller left for Houston ($6.5M average, $14M guaranteed) and the Jets’ Chris Ivory departed for Jacksonville ($6.4M average, $10M guaranteed).
Before he got fat, Lacy was more highly regarded than those three players that now rank Nos. 5 to 7 on the pay scale at running back.
For Lacy, whose family lost almost everything during Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, the prospect of achieving financial security for years to come should be intoxicating. But Lacy marches to a beat of his own, and the Packers can only hope his mind will be right and last year turns out to have been an aberration.
“He looks good and he’s practiced well,” associate head coach Tom Clements said in late May. “We’re doing some things a little different, and he’s responded. I think he’ll have a good year.”
After being named offensive rookie of the year in 2013, Lacy established himself as an exceptional power runner in his second season and the Packers’ best back since Ahman Green.
Lacy’s attacking, spinning, ferocious style of running almost single-handedly brought an element of toughness that Mike McCarthy’s offenses hadn’t often displayed.
With his playing weight last year in the mid-250s, Lacy at times was slow pressing the hole, ineffective in short-yardage situations and careless with the ball. Seldom was he able to cut it loose and hurt people for 60 minutes.
Lacy still averaged 4.31 yards per carry in 17 games, didn’t drop a pass and showed improvement as a pass blocker. If he wants it badly enough, a return to prosperity shouldn’t be that far away.
“Shoot, even last year, as much as people complained about his weight and all that stuff, you watch the tape of all his runs and you still see a back that does some elite things,” said Ben Sirmans, the first-year position coach. “Even at that weight.”
The Packers protected themselves, re-signing James Starks to a two-year deal worth $6 million ($1.5M guaranteed).
“We have a really good combination of guys,” Sirmans said. “When you combine those two I think you’ve got guys you can definitely win a Super Bowl with.”
Lacy deserves his share of the blame for the Packers’ 31st-place ranking in average gain on first down. Their 28.6 percent rate of “bad” runs was the highest in Green Bay since 2007.
Several personnel people over the years have made the point that more than a few Alabama players have struggled in the NFL once they leave the ultra-disciplined, cocoon-like environment created by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
“They get away from the preacher, you know?” an NFC personnel director said. “It takes that commitment to doing it. Some of those Alabama backs kind of concern you with having the tread worn off the tires.
“Trent Richardson was like 20 pounds heavier when he reported (to Indianapolis) than when he came out of there. He lost all his quickness. Lacy’s got a little bit of a knucklehead in him, too.”
Another scout blamed the Packers in part for not laying down the law with Lacy much sooner even it meant prolonged benching.
“It’s not his fault,” the personnel man said. “You set the standards. You’ve got to handle him like Nick Saban did.”
Sirmans intends to push Lacy in the passing game. He saw occasional dominance as a pass blocker and soft hands as a receiver.
“Now the biggest thing with him is going to be that we can depend on him beating man coverage,” said Sirmans. “Because so many people played us in man coverage last year where he was matched up against linebackers and strong safeties. Those are the wars we’re going to have to win.”
Depending on the game, there were times Starks was the better back than Lacy, according to Sirman’s review of tapes since being named in January to succeed Sam Gash.
Not only did Starks play more snaps (600 to 532) than Lacy, he caught more than twice as many passes (49 to 22) and was more efficient in short yardage.
“James was definitely a weapon in the red zone on the screen passes,” Sirmans said. “He was really, really adept at those. He does give you some explosiveness, even at his age (30).”
Starks isn’t the most aware player in pass protection, and through trial and error finally has attained a level of adequacy as a receiver.
What stained his season were five fumbles (three lost) after having had five (one lost) in his first five seasons.
“I underestimated how good he is,” one personnel man said. “Good change of pace back. Good catcher. He does dance a bit too much.”
John Crockett, the third holdover, replaced Alonzo Harris on the roster for the final seven games but was limited to two games and 16 snaps.
“He has a lot of quickness and explosiveness,” Sirmans said. “I look forward to seeing him perform in preseason.”
Nevada’s Don Jackson might be the best of three rookie free agents signed to challenge Crockett.
“Kind of a tough, between-the-tackles runner,” an AFC college scout said of Jackson in April. “He has a shot. He’s a top free agent.”
John Kuhn, who along with Mason Crosby ranked second to Aaron Rodgers in years of service, remains in free-agent limbo. Aaron Ripkowski played just 17 snaps as a rookie but the decision was made months ago to install him as the fullback.
“He carries himself mentally as a guy that can start,” Sirmans said. “He has the ability to understand the schemes and the protections. I think his hands will be good enough.”
Kuhn, a waiver pickup in September 2007 from the Steelers, possessed encyclopedic knowledge of the offense. However, Ripkowski scored 31 on the Wonderlic intelligence test and, with 10 years less wear and tear on his body, should offer more thump as a run blocker.
“Hard to believe that’s the best they can do,” one personnel man said of Kuhn in January. “He can’t run. Misses a lot of blocks. No threat anywhere with the ball.”
Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett oozed with confidence over Ripkowski’s ability to root out linebackers in the hole and function cleanly as a receiver.
“‘Rip’ is a tough guy, no doubt about that,” Bennett said.
PACKERS BY POSITION: RUNNING BACKS/FULLBACKS
RUNNING BACKS (6)
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Eddie Lacy 5-11 242 26 D2-’13 Alabama
Total yards from scrimmage tumbled to 1,100 in 2015, down from 1,750 in ’14 and 1,435 in ’13. Also fumbled five times, losing three. Didn’t drop any of 29 targeted passes.
James Starks 6-2 222 30 D6-’10 Buffalo
Averaged career-best 33.3 snaps per game after averaging career-low 16.1 in 2014. Also averaged 16.8 in 2013, 20.7 in ’12, 32.7 in ’11 and 29.4 in ’10 as a Super Bowl hero.
John Crockett 6-0 217 24 FA-’15 North Dakota State
Played 16 snaps in two games after being promoted from practice squad Dec. 3. Minneapolis product (Totino-Grace High) led Bison to three straight FCS national titles.
Don Jackson 5-10 212 22 FA-’16 Nevada
Prides himself on “running angry.” Two-year starter with 528 carries for 2,371 yards (4.5) and 19 TDs. Just 23 receptions. Ran 4.49, vertical jump of 38½. Signing bonus was $5,000.
Brandon Burks 5-8 ½ 210 22 FA-’16 Troy
Hails from same college as another squatty ex-Packer, RB DuJuan Harris. Finished with 431 carries for 2,264 (5.3) and 12 TDs plus 88 receptions. Ran 4.56, vertical jump of 37.
Brandon Ross 5-10 203 23 FA-’16 Maryland
Led Big Ten in yards per rush (6.4) last season after gaining career-best 958 yards. Had career marks of 5.2, 2,543. Cut by Vikings May 24 after three-week stint ($3,000 signing bonus). Ran 4.43, vertical jump of 37 1/2.
Aaron Ripkowski 6-1 ½ 246 23 D6-’15 Oklahoma
Former walk-on (17 starts in 46 games) ran 4.74 and scored 31 on the Wonderlic intelligence test. Just six rushes, eight receptions for Sooners.
Alstevis Squirewell 6-0 265 23 FA-’16 Newberry
Signed from post-draft rookie tryout. Played D-line for Division II Wolves, had 15 ½ sacks and 41 tackles for loss. Played FB on some short-yardage plays. Ran just 4.98.
Acquisition categories: D2 means second-round draft choice, FA means free agent.