Nine games into the 2017 season, we still don’t know who’s best of the three running backs Ted Thompson drafted this year.
But two things have changed since training camp: They’ve taken on critical roles in the Green Bay Packers’ offense with Aaron Rodgers down and so far have left reason to think the team’s general manager had a good Day 3 of the draft with his picks at that position.
Two of the backs (Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams) already have shown NFL ability after injuries forced them onto the field. The third (Devante Mays) hasn’t played a snap on offense yet, but there’s still reason to wonder whether he might be the best of the three when his chance comes.
It’s still early to make definitive calls on the three – plenty of promising rookies fizzle over time. But if Thompson deserves criticism for failing to hit on enough defensive picks over the last six years, he also deserves credit when he comes through. And the early signs at running back are promising after he took an idea from his mentor, Ron Wolf, and drafted three players at one position because of big problems the year before.
You might remember that Wolf drafted cornerbacks with his first three picks in 1999. That was his response after Randy Moss tilted the balance of power in the NFC North as a rookie in 1998.
Thompson, on the other hand, was making amends for the disaster that was the Packers’ running backs in 2016. He’d left coach Mike McCarthy with a ragtag corps after injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks wiped out a position that was too thin from the start.
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He wasn’t going to put McCarthy through that again. I don’t know that he planned on selecting three backs, but when Mays was still on the board in the seventh round, Thompson liked him enough to add a third. With the attrition at that position and the strong odds of missing on at least one of the others, why not? Take three shots and hope something hits.
Through training camp, though, there wasn’t much to tell. They don’t tackle in practice, so you don’t learn much about running backs there. Then the preseason games didn’t reveal much more. In one, the fourth-rounder (Williams) looked best. The next, the fifth-rounder (Jones). And the next, the seventh-rounder (Mays). But none of them stood out with play calling that showcased Brett Hundley at quarterback.
“It wasn’t like, in my opinion, one of these guys was head and shoulders above the other guy,” said Ben Sirmans, the Packers’ running backs coach, this week.
It took Ty Montgomery’s rib injury early in the season to reveal just what Thompson had landed. And Rodgers’ injury has elevated them into primary players for a transformed offense that’s now oriented to run.
Here’s a quick look at where each is now and how he got there:
Based on only 70 carries, I still have to rank Jones as the Packers’ third-best back since the turn of the century, behind Ahman Green and the Eddie Lacy of his first two years, before weight issues ruined his career.
Jones’ decisive cuts and quickness to the edge have made him look like a true NFL starter since his first carries against Chicago on Nov. 12, after injuries knocked Montgomery and Williams out of the game. It’s not unusual for a lower pick (Jones is a fifth-rounder) to be better than a higher pick in the same draft (Williams is a fourth), but Jones was drafted later because of durability concerns and a mediocre pro day, not his college play.
As for his durability, he’s a smallish (208 pounds) back who missed 14 games in four seasons of college because of ribs, knee and ankle injuries before playing every game as a senior. The concerns aren’t unfounded: He’s expected to miss the next three to six games because of the sprained MCL he sustained against the Bears last Sunday.
As for his campus pro day, he reportedly twice ran the 40 in the 4.58-second range, which is blasé for a back his size. The strange thing is, at the NFL scouting combine his fastest electronic time was 4.49 seconds, though hand held it was 4.56. That made it tough for scouts to know his real speed.
Either way, they expected him to run faster. One personnel executive with an NFL team said that based solely on college game video, he’d have guessed Jones would have run 4.43 to 4.45.
Another high-ranking scout who has seen Jones on video with the Packers said his team got too hung up on the pro-day 40.
“It was like, his play speed is good, he looks good off the tape, then he didn’t run that well, just kinda OK,” the scout said. “So it was like, ehhhh. His testing numbers weren’t so good. It was one of those deals. We talked ourselves out of liking the guy, but the tape was pretty good.”
He was the top backup (to Montgomery) coming out of camp because he was the most advanced of the rookies in the passing game. But through the first half of the season, he showed little as a runner.
Then last week at Chicago, after Jones and Montgomery went down, Williams looked like a different player. He broke tackles (seven by the Packers’ count) and picked up tough yards even though the Bears were looking for the run.
With Jones and Montgomery out this week, Williams is the starter. He’s not as explosive as Jones but at 213 pounds and with a physical running style he has the makings of a good bad-weather back.
So what changed? In the first half of the season he seemed tentative – on his 11 carries in the first eight games he looked like he was just covering up the ball, putting his head down and plowing ahead. But in his 20 carries against Chicago last week, he made decisive one-cut runs and on one run even showed some change of direction with a jump-cut move.
The question with Williams will be durability, because even at his best he’s not a shifty runner, and he seeks out contact. That’s what kept one of the aforementioned scout's team from drafting him.
“At BYU he was so physical trying to run over everybody, and he was taking so many shots in college,” the scout said. “It was like, ‘He’s not going to hold up at the NFL level.”
There were times in camp when I thought he was the best of the three. At 230 pounds he’s by far the biggest, and he’s more explosive than the 213-pound Williams. But we won’t know where Mays fits in the pecking order until he gets some carries.
“Maybe Mays had the most talent (of the three),” said one of the scouts based on what he’d seen of the Packers in the preseason.
The 30 backs drafted this year were the most since 1998, and Mays was No. 25. He was still on the board in the seventh round because he was a junior-college transfer who split time at running back as a junior at Utah State and then as a senior sustained a knee injury in his second game that limited him to 37 carries for the season.
But he averaged 5.9 yards a carry as a junior and 7.0 yards as a senior. He wasn’t invited to the combine but at his pro day he put up impressive numbers for a 230-pound back: the 4.52 40 and 40 ½-inch vertical.
That topped Williams’ 4.59 and 30 inches.
“A big, fast kid like that, it gives you a chance,” Sirmans said.
Mays will be the backup for at least this week and perhaps longer, depending on whether Montgomery misses more than one game.
But if he gets the chance to play, watch closely. Just because he’s a seventh-rounder doesn’t mean he won’t be the best of the bunch.