A quick overview of the Packers' offensive backfield heading into training camp. (July 21, 2017)
Fourth in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - Unless their paths intersect in the future, Eddie Lacy’s final run for the Green Bay Packers will be forever forgettable – except for one detail.
It was midway through the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys, a game headed toward blowout territory. The Packers' shotgun misdirection to the left was stuffed in the backfield. No gain. Nothing like the high-stepping, tackle-breaking, spinning highlights that filled Lacy’s first three seasons.
You wouldn’t remember it if not for Lacy jogging off to the sideline, wearing his Packers jersey for the last time, soon to be placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury that would require surgery.
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But Lacy’s shredded ankle isn’t why the play is noteworthy. It’s the number. In his final game with the Packers, Lacy exhibited the toughness that matched his downhill style.
With his ankle barking even before the game, Lacy had his 17th carry with more than eight minutes left in the third quarter. It’s a workload Ty Montgomery didn’t reach all season, no matter how healthy.
Coach Mike McCarthy follows a two-back philosophy, but he always had a workhorse at his disposal – if he wanted – in Lacy. The workhorse runner has become more luxury than necessity in today’s quarterback-driven game, but it’s something teams still covet.
“You’re a different team with a great running back,” senior executive Alonzo Highsmith said during the draft this spring, shortly before the Packers selected a trio of tailbacks on the 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.”
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In McCarthy’s system, the Packers don’t need a running back to carry the football on 33 percent of their snaps, as Ezekiel Elliott did for the Cowboys last season. The offense runs through Aaron Rodgers. Yet if Lacy proved anything since 2013 when the Packers drafted him in the second round, it’s that a reliable run game only enhances their MVP quarterback.
In training camp, the competition to fill that void will kick into high gear.
RUNNING BACKS (6)
Ty Montgomery (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 216; Age: 24; Acquired: D3-’15; College: Stanford)
It really isn’t much competition. Shortly after the draft, McCarthy gave Montgomery his blessing. He’s the starting running back.
With Montgomery having spent a full offseason at his new position, the Packers believe he has a lot of upside. His best value is in the passing game, where he’s a natural receiver. Montgomery's smooth routes and soft hands present matchup problems for opposing defenses, something Rodgers didn’t hesitate to exploit last year. In 10 games as a full-time running back, Montgomery had 34 catches for 250 yards.
The biggest difference this fall should be in the run game, where Montgomery will see his role expand. A midseason move didn’t provide Montgomery any time to prepare his body for the position change. He was muscularly wired to play receiver, forced to limit his work in the weight room to stay lean.
“Now I lift like a running back,” Montgomery said this spring.
That means more muscle, a stronger core, nothing prohibiting Montgomery from carrying the football 15 times each week – if McCarthy’s game plan calls for it.
Jamaal Williams (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 213; Age: 22; Acquired: D4-’17; College: BYU)
With good feet and vision, Williams is expected to bring the thunder in the Packers' backfield.
A direct, downhill runner, he might not get to the edge as quick as his fellow rookies, but Williams profiles more as a power runner than any tailback on the roster. The Packers believe Williams showed enough at BYU to indicate he’s more than a short-yardage running back. He rushed for 3,901 yards on 726 carries in four seasons, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Williams’ 4.59-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL combine wasn’t blazing. Nor was it much slower than Montgomery’s 4.55-second combine dash.
“I feel I’m an old-style-type of running back,” Williams said. “I like to bruise. I like to pound into people a lot. I feel like I’m a grinder, a workhorse and as the game keeps going – fourth quarter, third quarter – I’m just getting stronger and stronger and trying to wear the defenses down. So, that’s what I like to do, and that’s how I like to play.
“But at the same time I feel like I have the ability to make big runs and go to the end zone at any time, too.”
Aaron Jones (Ht.: 5-10; Wt.: 208; Age: 22; Acquired: D5-’17; College: UTEP)
Jones’ 4.56-second dash at the combine was effectively identical to Williams, but his college film indicates he’s the biggest home-run hitter in the Packers' draft class.
As a senior at UTEP, Jones had at least one 40-yard run in eight of his 12 games. Despite playing on a four-year team, he obliterated small-college defenses. Jones racked up 301 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries in his final game against North Texas. In all, he exceeded 225 yards in a game four times in his final season.
But Jones didn’t only take advantage of lesser competition. While UTEP lost 41-7 at Texas in September, Jones had 123 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, averaging 6.8 yards per run.
Jones also offers something in the passing game, finishing with 71 catches for 646 yards and seven touchdowns in his college career.
Devante Mays (Ht.: 5-10; Wt.: 230; Age: 23; Acquired: D7-’17; College: Utah State)
For a seventh-round pick, Mays gave the Packers a low-risk, high-upside prospect in their backfield.
A college teammate of 2016 third-round linebacker Kyler Fackrell, Mays entered the draft as a wild card. He’s the biggest of the three drafted rookies, and his 4.51-second dash was the fastest. But Mays only had one full season of Division I football after transferring from Blinn (Texas) Junior College, the same school Cam Newton attended.
That full season came in 2015, when Mays rushed for 966 yards and nine touchdowns on 13 carries. Mays’ highlight reel consisted of eye-popping runs, the kind of strength and athleticism NFL teams seek. In 2016, ankle and knee injuries forced him to miss all but five games.
So Mays is a powerful runner with good acceleration, but he’s also an unknown. In camp, the Packers will try to further develop his talent.
Kalif Phillips (Ht.: 5-9; Wt.: 218; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-’17; College: UNC-Charlotte)
Good size, but a slower 40-yard dash (4.65 seconds) limits his big-play ability. Can break tackles. In two seasons at Charlotte, the junior-college transfer finished with 1,874 yards and nine touchdowns on 379 carries.
William Stanback (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 231; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-’17; College: Virginia Union)
Signed with Packers after rookie tryout one week after draft. Earned all-American Athletic Conference honors at Central Florida, rushing for 1,140 yards on 294 carries with 16 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Arrived at Virginia Union after being dismissed from Central Florida for reportedly failing multiple marijuana tests.
Aaron Ripkowski (Ht.: 6-1 1/2; Wt.: 246; Age: 24; Acquired: D6-’16; College: Oklahoma)
His name isn’t as easy to chant in a stadium full of 80,000 fans, but Ripkowski otherwise found no trouble replacing longtime Packers fullback John Kuhn last season.
As a first-time starter, Ripkowski finished with 150 yards on 34 carries. He had three touchdowns, each followed by a Rob Gronkowski-like end zone spike.
Even more, Ripkowski duplicated what Kuhn handled whenever asked, carrying the Packers' running game at times. With 61 yards on nine carries, Ripkowski was the lead rusher when the Packers clinched their NFC North title with a win at the Detroit Lions. That Ripkowski was so effective with the football was a surprise. He wasn’t asked to be anything other than a blocker in college, finishing with six carries and eight receptions in two seasons at Oklahoma.
As a rookie, Ripkowski filled the primary job of a fullback, showing he could provide quality snaps on special teams. His game grew in his second season, with Ripkowski playing a quarter of the Packers' snaps from scrimmage (288). With more growth, it isn’t a stretch to see a Pro Bowl trip in Ripkowski’s future – just like Kuhn.
Joe Kerridge (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 245; Age: 24; Acquired: D6-’16; College: Oklahoma)
It may be a dying position, but McCarthy always has preferred two fullbacks on his team’s 53-man roster. First signed to the practice squad in October, Kerridge was elevated to the active roster as the second fullback in November. Kerridge played only 20 offensive snaps in eight games last season, carrying the football once. His special teams load wasn’t much more, just 55 snaps. Yet given McCarthy’s preference, Kerridge can’t be counted out of securing another spot on the roster this fall.