A quick look at the Packers starting running back heading into 2017, third year veteran Ty Montgomery. (May 16, 2017)
First in a series looking at the Packers’ key issues entering organized team activities next week.
GREEN BAY - It was one year ago, during the onset of the Green Bay Packers' organized team activities, when reporters crowded the rubber sideline between the Don Hutson Center and Ray Nitschke Field, sizing up the starting running back.
The pads weren’t on yet. These practices were non-contact. It didn’t matter.
Everyone wanted a glimpse of Eddie Lacy.
Attention won’t be as intense when the Packers reconvene for their spring OTAs next week, but once again a running back will attract some of the keenest interest. Lacy is gone now, signing as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks, and Ty Montgomery will be relied on to replace much of the missing production this fall.
“He's our starting running back,” coach Mike McCarthy said minutes after the Packers concluded a 2017 draft that included three new running backs, the most ever drafted in one class under general manager Ted Thompson.
Question is, what will “starting running back” mean this fall?
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It seems clear Montgomery will enter the final portion of the Packers' offseason program getting a starter’s share of reps at running back. It also seems clear he’ll have to compete and win that job for the fall. The Packers did not draft three running backs to have them be wallflowers on the depth chart.
Call it whatever you want — lead running back, featured running back, a workhorse — it’s clear the Packers prefer to have a starter who can thrive with a large majority of the carries.
“You’re a different team with a great running back,” senior executive Alonzo Highsmith said early on the draft’s third day. “Teams that say they want a running back by committee, it’s because they don’t have one (great) running back. Of course we would love to have a guy that can come in and be a horse, but they’re hard to get. It’s a tough position.”
Which is why it will be interesting to see whether Montgomery’s starting role is much different than last season after he moved from receiver to tailback.
In 10 regular-season games at running back, Montgomery got double-digit carries only once. That isn’t a starting running back’s share of weekly carries. For context, Lacy had at least 11 carries in each of the five games he was healthy enough to play before landing on injured reserve in 2016.
Another way to look at it is percentage of carries on designed runs. In seven games as the Packers' true starter at running back, Montgomery carried on 46.3 percent of the Packers' designed runs. Lacy consistently hovered at 65 percent during his time with the Packers except 2015, when conditioning issues limited his effectiveness.
For context, running back LeGarrette Blount, who led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns last season and had 1,161 yards, carried on 65 percent of the New England Patriots’ designed runs.
That isn’t to say Montgomery can’t play a more prominent role in the Packers' running game this fall. McCarthy made it clear at the NFL meetings in March he believes Montgomery — listed at 6-foot, 216 pounds on the Packers' roster — is big and strong enough to withstand the weekly wear and tear that goes with being a primary ball carrier. For comparison, the Packers list fourth-round rookie Jamaal Williams at 6-foot, 213 pounds, and Williams is considered a power runner between the tackles.
After taking a few weeks to get comfortable in the backfield, Montgomery provided increased production in the running game late last season. Only twice in his first six games at running back did he lead the Packers in rushing. He was the Packers' leading rusher in four of their final five regular-season games.
It’s also worth noting the one time Montgomery got double-digit carries — his season-high 16 at Chicago in December — was his best game of the season (162 yards).
Montgomery’s workload also grew late in the season. He had double-digit carries three times in his final six games counting the playoffs. In postseason wins against the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, Montgomery had 11 carries in each.
His percentage of carries on designed runs increased to 55 percent during this stretch, and was 60 percent excluding the Packers' 44-21 loss at Atlanta in the NFC championship game. Although Montgomery carried only three times against the Falcons — one fewer than Aaron Rodgers — the game was a rout that required the Packers to throw almost exclusively after their first couple possessions.
An increased role in the running game as last season progressed could mean more carries are in store in 2017. But Montgomery’s skill as a receiver out of the backfield is what separates him from other running backs. The Packers will want to continue using his versatility as a primary part of their offense, creating mismatches against linebackers and safeties.
Drafting three running backs makes it easier to move Montgomery around the field, as they did last season even after his transition to the backfield. Will that be their plan for him this season? Will he factor more as a ball carrier? That won’t fully be known until August at the earliest, but it will be interesting to see which spots on the field Montgomery gets his starter’s share of reps at this spring’s organized team activities.