John Crockett searching for backfield niche

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - There are certain players for the Green Bay Packers whose off-field demeanors mirror their disposition in pads and a jersey. They carry themselves between the sidelines the same way they act in real life.

Consider defensive end Mike Daniels, whose booming voice and unyielding desire run wild from dawn till dusk. Consider cornerback Damarious Randall, whose cocksureness knows no bounds. Consider tailback James Starks, whose boyish smile is ever-present.

The newest member of their crew is second-year running back John Crockett, who was promoted to the active roster in Week 13 last season. Crockett, who first signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent from North Dakota State, is third on the depth chart but large in personality: He talks fast and his feet are faster; they pitter-patter through cracks along the line of scrimmage.

After playing on the periphery last season — two appearances, nine carries, 21 yards — Crockett entered camp with the goal of building a more defined role. Instead of trying to supplant Starks or Eddie Lacy, who have been atop the depth chart since 2013, Crockett hopes to supplement their skill sets in whatever way he can.

“It’s not about stealing somebody’s job, it’s about creating a job for myself,” Crockett said. “And that’s the biggest thing. Those two guys are great running backs. They’re one of the best one-two punches in the league. And if I can be able to put myself in there where I can become a contributor and add a third element to that, I think that’s something that could be very helpful.”

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With an extended training camp, Crockett finds himself among a group of inexperienced players whose reps will soar as coach Mike McCarthy preserves the health of his veterans. It means that Crockett, who led the team in carries (26) and yards (97) during last year’s exhibition season, is likely to be atop the stat sheet again in 2016. When the Packers held their first padded practice last week, it was Crockett who took the majority of snaps.

To prepare for camp, Crockett spent a portion of his summer break in Miami, where he trained at Bommarito Performance. Named for its owner, Pete Bommarito, the facility boasts an impressive list of current and former clients across all major sports: Eli Manning, LeSean McCoy and Antonio Brown from the National Football League; Miguel Cabrera, Manny Ramirez and Miguel Tejada from Major League Baseball; Sloane Stephens from the Women’s Tennis Association. Just to name a few.

Crockett said his workouts targeted acceleration, cardiovascular endurance and hand-eye coordination, the last of which he stressed the most in hopes of catching more passes out of the backfield. It’s an area he thinks might lead to regular playing time this season.

And when he was done at Bommarito, Crockett went alone to the beach for additional training in the sand.

“That (expletive) is hard,” Crockett said with a laugh. “That should be probably the hardest thing I would do in the offseason. It helps with your balance a lot, just overall acceleration.”

By the time he arrived at camp, Crockett weighed 217 pounds, the lightest he’s been in the last six months after experimenting with a heavier playing weight during OTAs and minicamp. It’s within a few pounds of where he played last season, and during the first few days of camp he looked nimble, spry and twitchy, especially in the milliseconds needed to find a hole.

Crockett’s running style reflects the effervescence of his personality. He takes the handoff and launches forward toward the line of scrimmage — feet tapping, legs bending, shoulders dekeing — and moves with a kind of full-body vibration that, at times, appears almost frantic.

“He’s always going,” fullback Aaron Ripkowski said. “He’s like an energizer bunny.”

It’s this fidgety element that makes Crockett’s runs so intriguing. He’s as likely to break free for a sizable gain as he is to juke himself into trouble. As you might expect, the five carries in his debut against the Detroit Lions last season produced sporadic results: zero yards, 4 yards, 12 yards, 10 yards, -4 yards.

Interspersed with the inconsistency are moments of greatness, and such is the potential the Packers hope to bottle. On the second day of camp, Crockett lined up in the backfield as part of the half-line drill, which pits a few offensive linemen against a few defensive players and typically favors the latter. Surrounded by bodies, Crockett chopped his feet behind the line of scrimmage and spun into the flat for what would have been a significant gain.

“Me and Eddie were joshing around talking about this,” Crockett said last week. “(Eddie) said he brought the spin back, brought the spin move back. But I told him I’ve been doing the spin move too for a long time. He ain’t the only one out here that knows how. I’ve been doing my spin move for a while, since high school.

“We’ve been having fun joshing around about it, who’s got the better spin move right now. I told him he’s going to see it in preseason. I’ll give a couple of those guys one of these moves.”

Though Crockett made his case for a spot atop the spinning pantheon, his teammates in the running back room side (wisely) with Lacy. Said James Starks: “That’s Eddie’s spin move, really.” Added Ripkowski: “His spin move is not up to Eddie’s yet.”

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If Crockett succeeds in creating a role as the third running back, he will buck a trend that began when Lacy entered the league in 2013. Since then, the Packers have relied exclusively on Lacy and Starks as a one-two punch, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has finished third in rushing each of the past three years.

Crockett’s path to the field — and more importantly a spot on the 46-man active roster — is likely to be multi-faceted, just as it was for Alonzo Harris prior to his curfew violation last season. Harris, who like Crockett was a rookie in 2015, needed to contribute on special teams to compensate for a measly offensive workload: He carried the ball just four times for 19 yards.

The same special teams requirements have been applied to Crockett, and again like Harris he’s performed to varying degrees.

Still more difficult is carving out a legitimate role on offense, where the Packers reliance on the same tandem suggests a disinclination to apply a three-headed attack. Crockett must differentiate himself from Lacy and Starks if he wants the coaches to reconsider.

“Each guy has to play to their strengths, and when that happens, are you displaying more ability than another person,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said. “Like if it’s a third-down back, if it’s a guy that runs better routes or has better hands or is quicker versus man coverage — in that situation, that might be his role. But if not, if the guys that are one and two, if they display a skill set that’s beyond the other guys, then those are going to be the guys that go out there on the football field.

“I think in what I’ve seen so far with Crockett, I mean, he’s shown some ability that he could be definitely capable of helping us.”

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