Rare draft move leaves Packers with full house in backfield

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams (30) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second quarter at Lambeau Field on Sunday, December 3, 2017 in Green Bay, Wis.

Second in a 10-part NFL draft position-preview series looking at prospects who might be of interest to the Packers. Today: Running backs.

GREEN BAY - When it comes to Green Bay Packers draft rarities, former general manager Ted Thompson sprung one by selecting three running backs in 2017.

Thompson dedicated Day 3 of the draft to addressing a position left barren by the departures of Eddie Lacy and James Starks, the team’s primary duo from 2013-16. He used a fourth-round pick on Jamaal Williams from Brigham Young, a fifth-round pick on Aaron Jones from Texas-El Paso and a seventh-round pick on Devante Mays from Utah State. In total, 30 percent of the draft class was running backs.

“It just worked out that way,” Thompson said at the conclusion of the draft. “I say this all the time: It wasn't intentional. It wasn't a deal where we were saying, ‘Let's go do this. Let's go do this.’ It's just the way it worked out. We felt like it was a strong year at that position and I think that was probably more the reason why it worked out that way.

“The more the merrier. This is a tough business and that’s an awful tough position to play.”

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It was just the second time in Thompson’s tenure that he selected three players from the same position in a given year, joining the 2014 class that featured a trio of wide receivers: second-round pick Davante Adams from Fresno State; fifth-round pick Jared Abbrederis from Wisconsin; and seventh-round pick Jeff Janis from Saginaw Valley State.

The trend was more popular under Ron Wolf, another former general manager who oversaw 10 Packers drafts between 1992 and 2001. Wolf tripled up at one position or another five times during his tenure, while his successor, coach/general manager Mike Sherman, did it once in three years.

Here’s a look at the Packers’ history of using three draft picks at the same position since Wolf took over:

  • 1992 — Wide receiver: Robert Brooks, South Carolina, third round; Orlando McKay, Washington, fifth round; Chris Holder, Tuskegee, seventh round.
  • 1992 — Linebacker: Mark D’Onofrio, Penn State, second round; Gabe Mokwuah, American International, seventh round; Brett Collins, Washington, seventh round.
  • 1994 — Wide receiver: Terry Mickens, Florida A&M, fifth round; Jay Kearney, West Virginia, sixth round; Bill Schroeder, Wisconsin-La Crosse, sixth round.
  • 1999 — Cornerback: Antuan Edwards, Clemson, first round; Fred Vinson, Vanderbilt, second round; Mike McKenzie, Memphis, third round.
  • 2000 — Wide Receiver: Anthony Lucas, Arkansas, fourth round; Joey Jamison, Texas Southern, fifth round; Charles Lee, Central Florida, seventh round.
  • 2003 — Linebacker: Nick Barnett, Oregon State, first round; Hunter Hillenmeyer, Vanderbilt, fifth round; Steve Josue, Carson-Newman, seventh round.
  • 2014 — Wide receiver: Davante Adams, Fresno State, second round; Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin, fifth round; Jeff Janis, Saginaw Valley State, seventh round.
  • 2017 — Running back: Jamaal Williams, Brigham Young, fourth round; Aaron Jones, Texas-El Paso, fifth round; Devante Mays, Utah State, seventh round.

The Packers had not selected three running backs in the same year since 1974, when the draft had 17 rounds. That winter — the draft was held Jan. 29-30 — head coach/general manager Dan Devine used a first-round pick on Barty Smith of Richmond, a sixth-round pick on Don Woods of New Mexico and an 11th-round pick on Eric Torkelson from Connecticut.

A year ago, all three rookie running backs made the 53-man roster behind starter Ty Montgomery. Injuries limited Montgomery to eight games before the Packers placed him on injured reserve with a wrist issue, and significant playing snaps were awarded to Williams and Jones, both of whom dominated the offense at different points in time.

“That was tough,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the annual league meeting last month. “When you have one position, being so much one back, and you have three rookies and a first-year starter, that was a challenge. You just don’t have enough reps to get those guys ready. I thought Ty Montgomery did a heck of a job coming out of training camp and going into the season and gave us a real bell cow there. Then he went through his injury battles. … Jamaal was ahead of Aaron, so we went with Jamaal, then he got hurt. Then Aaron went in there. That was a real challenge. I thought (running backs coach) Ben Sirmans did a heck of a job. I think the fact now that they’ll have a whole offseason (means) it will be one of our more competitive positions.”

The playing time wound up fairly even between Montgomery (26.3 percent of snaps), Williams (42.2 percent) and Jones (22.5 percent), but it was the two rookies who accounted for most of the production. Williams carried 153 times for 556 yards and four touchdowns, while Jones carried 81 times for 448 yards and also had four touchdowns. Together they combined for 79 percent of the output from traditional running backs.

A confluence of factors points toward Williams and Jones monopolizing the offense again next season, with everything from durability to burst to pass protection to overall potential tipping in their direction. But McCarthy again spoke to the importance of Montgomery during the coaches breakfast at the league meetings and dismissed the idea of converting him back to wide receiver.

“Ty Montgomery is a running back,” McCarthy said. “He’s a damn good one. He gives us a lot of ability to play schematically any way we want to play because of being able to displace. He’s been there every day too, he’s in there working out. Looks great. I know (strength and conditioning coordinator) Mark Lovat is excited about where he is. I think you’ll see a bigger, stronger Ty Montgomery this year.”

Together with Mays, who needs a redemptive spring and summer after fumbling on his first two carries of the season, the Packers are plenty deep at tailback as general manager Brian Gutekunst works toward filling the 90-man roster. And because of that, there’s a chance he won’t select a single running back in this year’s draft.


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