Packers lay foundation for future of running game
Third in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series.
GREEN BAY – In a 2017 draft stocked with running backs, the Green Bay Packers selected three, all on the third day, all different in height, weight and ability.
It might turn out to be the smartest thing they did all year.
When converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery proved fragile — as history suggested he would — Jamaal Williams (fourth round), Aaron Jones (sixth) and Devante Mays (seventh) were left to pick up the pieces.
In the end, Williams proved the most durable and complete, Jones the most explosive and Mays the most anonymous. In some form or fashion, they represent the future of the Packers' running game.
Here’s a look at the running back position in the early offseason:
In Williams, the Packers found a workhorse capable of succeeding at the many roles a running back is asked to perform in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. In Jones, they found a hard-cutting, lightning-footed zone runner capable of breaking off long runs even when holes weren’t there. He averaged a remarkable 5.5 yards per carry. Together, Williams and Jones allowed McCarthy to run the ball a dozen times more (386) than he did the previous season. Given teams were loading up against the run and daring backup quarterback Brett Hundley to beat them, the 4.3 average the pair produced was surprisingly good. Williams had too many drops (three), but he averaged 10.5 yards per reception and had gains of 54 and 27 yards on screen passes.
It took a long time for the 6-foot, 213-pound Williams to loosen up and play with some abandon, but by the end of the season he was carrying the entire backfield load on his shoulders. And to the Packers’ relief, he held up remarkably. But they sorely missed Jones’ breakaway ability. He tore his left MCL in Week 10 at Chicago and tore his right MCL in Week 16 vs. Minnesota, never finishing what he started with 100-yard games against Dallas and New Orleans at midseason. McCarthy kept praising Mays’ effort in practice and saying he wanted to get him on the field. But when he finally did against Baltimore, Mays fumbled twice and carried only two more times the entire season. Montgomery averaged 3.8 yards per carry and suffered rib and wrist injuries, limiting him to 71 carries.
It’s unclear what role Montgomery will play next season, but the offense could use a multi-tooled third-down back not unlike New England’s James White or Minnesota’s Jerrick McKinnon. Jones has the ability, but he needs to improve as a blocker or receiver and should face competition in training camp for that role. If Montgomery stays at running back, he could fill that position.
Jamaal Williams: Examine some of the NFL’s best running games and you will discover dual-manned operations employing one back with power and one back with speed. Williams is the power back. He deserved a medal for playing 79.3 percent of the offensive snaps over the final seven weeks, including 87.4 percent over the final two games. Even in the blowout loss to Detroit, he returned to the lineup after going to the locker room with a finger injury. He easily could have called it a day. Williams was so good at protecting the ball, he had to be told not to always cover it with two arms so he could get more out of each run. He had 178 touches without the ball coming out. He did not punish teams for making mistakes, managing just one rush of 20 or more yards. His 3.6-yard per carry average isn’t good enough. Grade: C+
Aaron Jones: Of all the backs in the NFL with 50 or more carries, none gained 20 or more yards at a better rate than Jones (every 13.5 carries). The next closest was Vikings first-round pick Dalvin Cook (18.5). The Saints’ Alvin Kamara (24.0), the Chiefs' Kareem Hunt (23.5) and the Rams' Todd Gurley (35.0) weren't even close. The 5-9, 208-pound Jones was inactive Week 1 because of poor special teams play. When he finally played against Chicago in Week 4, the coaches recognized what he could do for the offense and in Dallas the following week he carried 19 times for 125 yards and a touchdown. After the loss at Minnesota, he rushed 17 times for 131 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans. Then came the knee injuries. Jones also had suffered a torn MCL at UTEP. Running backs coach Ben Sirmans said Jones’ aim during the offseason will be strengthening his legs to help avoid the MCL tears, which don’t require surgery. Grade: C
Devante Mays: The 5-10½, 230-pound Mays was the slowest to pick up pass protection and trailed the other two rookies on the depth chart all season. Compact and powerful, Mays took out his frustration in the weight room and was so ripped by year’s end he looked like he could have played nose tackle. Mays’ two fumbles against the Ravens made it hard to trust him and even with Jones out, the coaches never gave him the ball. On special teams, he played 12 percent of the snaps and did not make a tackle. He vowed in the offseason to work on improving his speed and pass-catching ability and said he had gained a lot watching the others. The coaches think there’s something there; it will be on him to prove it. Grade: F
Ty Montgomery: After being anointed the No. 1 back, Montgomery was average at best and finished on injured reserve for the second time in three years. He averaged under 3 yards per carry in four of the eight games he played. He still has value as an athlete. The coaches need to find a role in which receiving is his primary function and running the ball is secondary. Grade: D
Aaron Ripkowski: The third-year fullback played 17.3 percent of the snaps, down from 18.2 percent in 2016. His carries dropped from 34 to 5 as McCarthy passed or went with Williams or Jones in short-yardage situations. Ripkowski did not get a single carry on third- or fourth-and-1. He’s better on the move than he is blocking on belly plays and needs to stay relevant on special teams. Grade: C
Joe Kerridge: He played only three snaps from scrimmage and was signed at midseason mostly for special-teams reasons (23 snaps). Grade: Incomplete