GREEN BAY - Brandon Burks ran to daylight, and John Crockett ran to contact.
It was the critical difference between the two players who emerged as the only viable candidates for a potential spot as the third running back for the Green Bay Packers.
“Burks can change direction and make something happen,” one personnel man said. “Crockett cannot. There isn’t anything there with Crockett. Burks is a threat.”
As Burks separated himself from Brandon Ross, another undrafted free agent on the 90-man roster, he found himself in the same position that Crockett experienced last summer. Crockett lost out to Alonzo Harris during training camp and was released as part of the final cuts. When Harris ran afoul of team rules, Crockett was elevated off the practice squad Dec. 3 to replace him.
This year it was Burks attempting to unseat Crockett. Until an injury changed the landscape of their competition.
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Crockett suffered what turned out to be a significant shoulder injury in the exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers. A league source told the Journal Sentinel he would miss at least a month and possibly two. The Packers decided to move forward without Crockett and placed him on injured reserve Tuesday as they trimmed their roster to 75 players.
“We might get the report that someone is going to be two to three weeks and then we’ll be OK,” general manager Ted Thompson said Tuesday. “And then you get out two or three weeks and they’re not ready until two or three weeks later and it keeps going. So it’s not an exact science.”
As the less experienced of the two players, Burks understood why Crockett entered the lineup before him in three exhibition games and why Crockett’s snap counts from scrimmage (84-51) and on special teams (14 to none) exceeded his own.
But what Burks has done is come up with at least one impressive run between 15 and 19 yards in each of the three games. If the Packers were seeking both flash and consistency, the edge might have gone to Burks entering the exhibition finale Thursday night in Kansas City.
With Crockett’s injury, Burks likely will start and could get 20 to 25 carries.
“There’s always the thought that you could be cut,” Burks said. “But I feel like I’ve put myself in a position where I made plays. I follow the rules and try to do everything they wish of a player.”
Crockett, 6 feet and 217 pounds, was an extremely hard worker who handled himself well in practice and games. He demonstrated some of the workhorse capability he had for the juggernaut that is North Dakota State, carrying 25 times for 89 yards and leading all NFL running backs in receptions with 10.
However, his pedestrian 3.6-yard average was low among the NFL’s top 28 rushers, and his average per catch of 4.8 was unimpressive as well.
Burks has gained the same 89 yards but in six fewer attempts, making his average 4.7.
“Crockett is one-speed, no burst, straight-liner, no threat,” said the scout. “What I like about Burks is he has a burst, he has a gear, he can make something happen on his own. He’s shifty, he can run a sweep, he can make people miss, he sticks his neck in there on blocks and he’s a threat as a receiver.”
Burks (5-8½, 211) had studied NFL depth charts before the draft, envisioning himself as a change-of-pace, third-down complement to Lacy/Starks, and thus didn’t hesitate selecting Green Bay ($1,000 signing bonus) over offers from Indianapolis and Oakland.
What he probably didn’t know was that the Packers haven’t had much use for small backs for more than a generation.
“I don’t care,” said Burks. “In my head I don’t feel like I’m 5-8. I feel like I’m about 6-2.”
Out of Daleville, Ala., Burks stayed in state at Troy, where he received the No. 32 jersey worn with distinction at Troy by DuJuan Harris (5-7, 206) from 2007-’10.
Scouts compared Burks to Harris, the Packers’ starter down the stretch in 2012. Each played four years at Troy, with Harris having the edge in rushing yards (2,635-2,253) and touchdowns (32-15) but trailing Burks in yards per carry (5.2-4.9) and receptions (88-79).
Burks’ first three years included what he regards as a “wasted” freshman season. His sophomore and junior years were so dissatisfying that he almost quit.
He renewed his fervor for football when new coach Neal Brown anointed him the featured back in 2015. He posted a career-best 1,005 yards but the Trojans went 4-8 (18-30 for his career) and his potential was lost in the shuffle.
Burks’ ran a pedestrian 4.56-second 40 at pro day in March. His 37-inch vertical jump, 10-1 broad jump and 24 reps on the bench press were excellent.
“The 40 doesn’t matter for running backs,” another personnel man said. “It’s burst and acceleration between the tackles. His speed is OK. He’s a better pure running back than Crockett.”
Burks’ second carry against Cleveland went for 17 yards. There was a huge hole, and he hit it hard and fast before plowing over the safety.
In the Raiders game, Burks got the call on an inside zone to the left. Nose tackle Dan Williams worked across the face of center Don Barclay, and because it was third and 1 the preference among coaches isn’t to change direction.
“I could have pressed it and it probably would have been no gain,” he said. “I saw the D-end and the corner crash with my peripheral (vision). OK, I decided to use my speed to try to beat them.”
The Raiders were selling out in short yardage and Burks made them pay with an exquisite piece of running wide to the right around the entire defense for a gain of 15.
In San Francisco, Burks was handed the ball in another short-yardage try (fourth and 1). The lead blocker was blown up but Burks, refusing to panic, waited for a defender to slam inside before he patiently cut back for 6.
Three plays later came the coup de grace with the Packers leading, 14-10. On an outside zone, left tackle Jason Spriggs was pushed back right where Burks was headed.
He stopped on a dime, jump cut left, accelerated past an onrushing defensive end, skipped out of a diving inside linebacker and, with his eyes up, spotted two defensive backs being blocked as they over-pursued.
Zip-zip, Burks was out the back door to the right and into the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown.
“I always had vision,” said Burks. “I did that in high school a lot of times, and I did it in college. But the NFL’s a different game so I would say that was one of my best runs.”
Burks sees himself becoming one of those undersized, overlooked collegiate backs who flourishes in pro football. Three days before final cuts, he has established why the Packers need him.
Michael Cohen of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.