Lacy Looks Way Thinner
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Eddie Lacy looks great.

In a photo posted on Facebook in early March by one of his new workout partners and another more recently sent by a fan to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lacy appears much slimmer than he did last season.

Both shots are basically from the waist up, and the difference from 2015 is staggering. After working with P90X trainer Tony Horton this offseason, Lacy clearly is slimmer through the torso and face. In a brief video posted by TMZ in mid-March that appears to have been shot at an airport, Lacy claimed not to know how much weight he’d lost. But it’s safe to say it’s a lot.

His listed weight last season was 234 pounds but at his heaviest he was about 20 pounds more. Judging by the recent pictures, I’d bet he’s under 230. That bodes well for his 2016 season.

But still, if I’m Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, I’m selecting a running back in this year’s draft — for those keeping track, six of his 11 drafts with the Packers have bypassed the position — and I’d start at least thinking about it as high as the second or third round.

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The Packers have to protect themselves, if not for 2016 than for ’17. Even if Lacy comes back in great shape and plays like he did in his first two NFL seasons, the Packers have to be wary about investing big money in him. And they don’t have a potential replacement on their current roster.

Not that they shouldn’t re-sign Lacy in ’17, when he’ll have finished his rookie contract and hit the free-agent market. But they have to prepare for the possibility that the cost won’t be worth the risk that he’ll let his conditioning slide after a big pay day. As we saw last season, that kind of slip can damage their offense profoundly.

So let’s say Lacy plays as well as he looks and comes back with a strong 2016. Maybe he rushes for the 1,158 yards he averaged his first two seasons, when he was a key piece of the Packers’ offense. Maybe it’s even more.

He’ll then have the leverage of free agency next offseason. He probably would be in line for a deal at least on par with Chris Ivory, who this spring signed with Jacksonville for $10 million guaranteed and an average of $6.4 million over five years. It could be more, depending on just how good Lacy is.

Still, the Packers or any other team considering signing Lacy would have reason to question whether they could count on him to stay in top shape after guaranteeing him $10 million or more. Maybe he’s hooked, feels great and is committed to keeping his weight down. Maybe not. All they’ll know for sure is he’d gotten his act together for a contract year after letting things get out of hand the season before.

In that case, there still are ways for the Packers to partially protect themselves on a big contract. I spoke with an agent recently about such scenarios, and here’s what he has seen teams do:

The Packers could offer a deal that includes take backs based on Lacy’s participation in their offseason workout program and for failing to make weight during the season. For instance, each year he didn’t attend at least 90 percent of the Packers’ offseason workout program, he’d have to give back $250,000 from his signing bonus. And during the season, if he ever failed to make an agreed-upon weight, he’d have to give back $250,000 of his base salary.

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That take-back system works better than an incentives bonus program. Giving back money is more painful psychologically than not getting paid the bonus, even if the totals are the same.

But it takes two. Lacy would have to agree to that kind of offer. He and his agent might think, or know, they can get equal or better deals without the give-back clauses. The agent I spoke with said he’d be OK with that kind of structure, because he likes it when a player bets on himself. But Lacy might have better options from other teams.

With that in mind, the Packers would be in a much better position to negotiate, and let Lacy walk if they don’t like the risk, if they already had a potential replacement on their roster. James Starks isn’t that because he’s a complementary back and will be 31 by this time next year. Their only other running back for now is John Crockett, who played all of 16 snaps on offense as an undrafted rookie last season.

So running back in fact is one of the Packers’ many draft needs this year. The highest priorities are inside linebacker, outside linebacker, defensive line and tight end. The order doesn’t matter much except that they have to find an inside linebacker who can play right away. Regardless, I’d argue running back isn’t that far behind.

Drafting one in the first round is out of the Packers’ equation. Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott appears to be the only first rounder, and he’s probably gone by the middle of the round, well before the Packers pick at No. 27. But after that, I wouldn’t rule out anything.

Yes, the NFL is a passing game, and only becoming more of one each year. But even in today’s NFL the Packers have seen first-hand the difference a real running back can make. Lacy in his first two seasons helped protect Aaron Rodgers better than adding any offensive lineman could have. Likewise, Lacy’s weight problems were one of several reasons the Packers’ offense tanked last year.

After Thompson selected Lacy in the second round in 2013, he hedged his bets against Lacy’s worrisome injury history by picking Johnathan Franklin two rounds later. Franklin’s career was cut short by a neck injury. But Thompson needs to hedge his bets on Lacy again this year.

— pdougher@pressgazettemedia.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

PACKERS DRAFT PICKS

DAY 1 (THURSDAY, APRIL 28)

First round:  Pick No. 27

DAY 2 (FRIDAY, APRIL 29)

Second round:  Pick No. 57

Third round:  Pick No. 88

DAY 3 (SATURDAY, APRIL 30)

Fourth round:  Pick No. 125

Fourth round:  Pick No. 131*

Fourth round:  Pick No. 137*

Fifth round:  Pick No. 163

Sixth round:  Pick No. 200

Seventh round:  Pick No. 248

*Compensatory pick; cannot be traded.

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