Deep running backs class gives Packers options in draft
Third in a 10-part Packers draft position-preview series: Running backs.
GREEN BAY - If his season didn’t end with a sprained MCL in Chicago last December, Aaron Jones had the chance to do something truly ludicrous.
No running back in the NFL last season produced more with fewer chances than Jones. Entering Week 15, Jones had 720 rushing yards on 129 carries. He needed 94 per game in the final three weeks to reach 1,000. If he had, Jones would have become the first tailback to reach the 1,000-yard mark on fewer than 200 carries since Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles in 2009, and the first Packers running back to have done it.
Instead, Jones sprained his MCL for a second straight season at Soldier Field. Therein lies the balance the Packers must consider this offseason.
Jones is a dynamic runner with the football in his hands, an ideal complement for teammate Jamaal Williams’ downhill running. He’s also been something of a ticking time bomb in his first two seasons. At some point, as the carries mounted, Jones’ fuse blew and his season ended with injury. He missed four games as a rookie, then four more last year.
Williams provides a presence in the power run game. Between the tackles, he can bowl over defenders and pick up extra yards. He’s good in short-yardage situations and can move the chains. Every offense needs a runner like Williams, even one predicated on new coach Matt LaFleur’s outside-zone blocking scheme.
Still, the Packers' new ground game will be built on speed, on reaching the corner fast and cutting upfield even faster. It’ll also be built on more than just two running backs.
Priority level: High.
Since the day LaFleur was hired, he has made his intention to run the football clear. It’s a message quarterback Aaron Rodgers has already received.
“I know we want to run the ball,” Rodgers said on the third day of the team’s offseason workouts last week. “That’s important. Everything comes off of a positive run game. They ran the ball really well last year with their guys (in Tennessee). But the action comes off of that, the boot comes off of that, so we’re going to have to run the ball.”
The problem for the Packers is, as their backfield is constructed, they’ll have a hard time running the football as planned. The speed and power combination of Jones and Williams is a good starting point. On their own, having just the two running backs leaves the Packers incomplete.
It’s almost certain the Packers will draft at least one running back. Three would provide a healthy rotation, and necessary security to protect against injuries. The question isn’t if, but where? On that front, the Packers will have options.
Josh Jacobs, Alabama
The good: Physical runner, plays bigger than his size behind good pad level. Versatile playmaker in the backfield. “He has great ball skills and runs routes like crazy,” one scout said. Early entrant in NFL draft, had 14 touchdowns last season, 11 rushing.
The bad: Shared backfield with teammate Damien Harries, and was the lesser productive of the two. Never showed he could carry a large load of the offense. Averaged fewer than 10 touches per game (9.3) last season. Not a home-run hitter. “I have a hard time understanding how he’s going to go in the first round,” another scout said.
David Montgomery, Iowa State
The good: Good balance and terrific feet combined with his size lead to yards after contact. Able to shed tacklers and stay upright. Ultra-productive in college, rushed for 1,146 yards as a sophomore and 1,216 yards last season as a junior. Rushed for 24 touchdowns in past two seasons.
The bad: Ran a 4.63 40 at the combine. “He can do everything,” a scout said, “just not fast.” Lack of speed isn’t an ideal fit in outside-zone scheme. “Overrated,” another scout said. “He’s just a guy.”
Darrell Henderson, Memphis
The good: Home-run hitter who ran a 4.49 40 at the combine. After 1,154 yards in sophomore season, exploded with 1,909 yards on 214 carries last year. Averaged 8.9 yards per carry each of the past two seasons. “He can run outside zone all day,” a scout said. Added 25 touchdowns as a junior, with 22 on the round.
The bad: Undersized. More speed than power, could limit him on early downs. Runs more upright, lacking great pad level. Not a pass blocker. Didn’t play elite competition.
Miles Sanders, Penn State
The good: Built for outside-zone running with good patience to set up blocks. Adequate speed, ran a 4.49 40. Can be elusive. Spent two seasons behind Saquon Barkley, then rushed for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a junior. Good versatility in the backfield, caught 24 passes for 134 yards in 2018.
The bad: Too indecisive as a runner, lacking a consistent burst when making cuts upfield. Doesn’t possess breakaway speed. Needs to finish runs better.
Mike Weber, Ohio State
The good: Ran well (4.47) at the combine with adequate size at 5-10, 211 pounds. Fits in outside-zone scheme with good vision and burst when making a cut.
The bad: Best season was his freshman year. Hamstring injury limited his sophomore year. Lacked big-play ability; just one run of at least 40 yards last season. Not dynamic in the open field.
The Packers haven’t drafted a running back in the first round since Darrell Thompson in 1990. This probably isn’t the spring to break their 29-year streak, even with running back one of their most pressing needs and a late first-round pick. “There’s not a first-round guy this year,” one scout said. “Someone may go up there, but rounds two to five are really, really deep.” That would suit the Packers just fine. Over the past three decades, they’ve consistently found value at the running back position in the middle rounds: Edgar Bennett (fourth round, 1992), Dorsey Levens (fifth round, 1994), James Starks (sixth round, 2010) and Aaron Jones (fifth round, 2017). They could pick a running back before the draft’s third day, as they did in 2013 when they traded up in the second round to select Eddie Lacy. But if history serves any indication, chances are the Packers won’t use one of their first two picks on a running back. “All the running backs in this draft are third-round picks,” another scout said.
Recent draft history
Year, Round, Overall: Player, School
2017, 7, 238 overall: Devante Mays, Utah State
2017, 5, 182 overall: Aaron Jones, Texas-El Paso
2017, 4, 134 overall: Jamaal Williams, Brigham Young
2015, 6, 206 overall: Aaron Ripkowski, Oklahoma
2013, 2, 61 overall: Eddie Lacy, Alabama
2013, 4, 125 overall: Johnathan Franklin, UCLA
A glance at what year the players at the position are signed through and their age on opening day:
Aaron Jones (24)
Jamaal Williams (24)
Kapri Bibbs (26)
Tra Carson (26)
Lavon Coleman (24)
Malcolm Johnson (27)
Danny Vitale (24)