Eighth in a series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ unrestricted, restricted and exclusive-rights free agents in advance of the start of the 2017 league year and NFL free agency March 9.
GREEN BAY – For two years, Eddie Lacy was on track to join a rare class of running backs.
Not just because he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers. Not just the consecutive 1,100-yard seasons to start his career.
There was a time Lacy was a good bet to get what many running backs don’t: a lucrative, second NFL contract.
Then weight and conditioning problems derailed his 2015 season. Lacy worked with P90X founder Tony Horton last offseason, trimming his extra pounds. He was fitter when camp started in July, and though some of the extra pounds returned as the season approached, Lacy’s conditioning clearly was sharper.
Through five games, he was averaging a career-best 5.1 yards per game. His 103 yards Week 3 against the Detroit Lions were his first time reaching the century mark in 12 career September games. He was on pace to rush for 1,180 yards through the season’s quarter pole, another 1,100-yard season.
Lacy’s attempt to rehabilitate his career in a contract year ended after five games when the Packers placed him on injured reserve with an ankle injury. In an interview aired Tuesday with ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Lacy said his season-ending surgery was to insert two screws, two wires and a plate in his ankle, where he “messed up my deltoid (ligament) and widened the bone.”
Now, Lacy, who turns 27 in June, faces a murky future as his four-year, $3.39 million rookie contract expires. It’s not enough to prove his conditioning matches the standards for a professional running back. Recovering from surgery, Lacy also has to show he’s healthy enough to be the same dependable workhorse the Packers counted on through his first two seasons.
“I’d love to see Eddie back,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the onset of his team’s offseason. “Eddie is going through a medical situation. I clearly understand his contract situation. So that’s really something we’ll continue to work through.
“Until Eddie clears the medical threshold, we’ll have to see where we are.”
Lacy told ESPN the Packers’ interest remains high a week before free agency.
“Talking to my agent,” he said, “the Packers have been very vocal about having me back there.”
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The question is at what price. Given his “medical situation,” Lacy’s market likely is still developing. Add his conditioning history, and it’s certain Lacy will get something significantly less than the deals Lamar Miller (four years, $26 million, $14 million guaranteed) and Chris Ivory (five years, $32 million, $10 million guaranteed) signed last season.
Lacy’s market value is projected at two years, $5.7 million, an average of $2.8 million annually, according to Spotrac. It would be a small surprise if the Packers signed Lacy to a contract longer than a year. The running back market will be crowded this spring after the Minnesota Vikings released Adrian Peterson and Kansas City Chiefs released Jamaal Charles on Tuesday.
The way Lacy’s 2016 season unfolded might have provided the best chance for the Packers to retain their starting running back, who they selected in the second round of the 2013 draft.
Had Lacy returned to Pro Bowl form last fall, his market might have been too rich for the Packers. Had he failed to recommit during the offseason and return as a better player in 2016, it wouldn’t have been surprising for the Packers to wash their hands of him.
Instead, Lacy showed he can still be a spinning, downhill-running, tackler-hurdling force. And then his season ended in October. Perhaps it will keep Lacy’s market at a reasonable level, where the Packers’ desire for him to return meets common sense.
Lacy, training at his alma mater on the University of Alabama campus, originally injured his ankle against the New York Giants in October. Initially, Lacy told ESPN, he thought it was a high-ankle sprain. After resting the next week, Lacy played against the Dallas Cowboys. He said his 17 carries against the Cowboys made his ankle worse.
Doctors projected Lacy’s recovery from surgery to be four to six months, he said. The four-month mark came Sunday, and Lacy posted video of him running in a rehab pool last week. Lacy said he might be able to run on the ground in about three weeks, potentially in time for free-agent visits.
“I’m hoping to be able to run whenever I do have to visit these teams,” Lacy said.
The Packers enter their offseason with only one tailback under contract. That’s Ty Montgomery, a third-round draft pick in 2015. Montgomery was drafted as a receiver before converting to running back out of necessity after Lacy’s season-ending injury.
Though Montgomery plans to continue on his tailback track, even switching numbers from his receiver-oriented No. 88 this offseason, Montgomery’s versatility likely means he’ll continue moving around the field.
One of the Packers' top needs is to secure a long-term solution at running back. Lacy might not fill that need, but could at least offer a 2017 stop gap at the right price. If he shows good health and proves his weight and conditioning issues are behind him, Lacy’s role in the franchise could increase down the road.
Lacy said he’s trying to avoid thinking about the possibility of his time in Green Bay running out.
“I’m just trying to make sure,” Lacy said, “whether I end up in Green Bay or somewhere else, I’m in the best shape, or I’m in the best position I can be in personally. So when it’s time for me to contribute to whatever team that it is, that they’re getting 100 percent of me.”
Eddie Lacy, fifth-year running back
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: After playing 46 of 48 games in his first three seasons, Lacy missed all but five games in 2016 because of ankle surgery that placed him on injured reserve.
The stats: 71 carries, 360 rushing yards, no touchdowns in 2016; 788 carries, 3,435 rushing yards, 23 touchdowns in career.
2016 salary: $867,602.