McGinn: Packers may rely on small college RB

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - A year ago the Green Bay Packers split their third berth at running back between Louisiana Lafayette’s Alonzo Harris from the Sun Belt Conference and North Dakota State’s John Crockett from the Missouri Valley Conference.

Don’t be surprised if the job this season falls to another rookie free agent from the Sun Belt, Troy’s Brandon Burks.

Green Bay Packers' Brandon Burks (34) tries to avoid a tackle Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Burks and yet another undrafted rookie from a second-tier conference, safety Kentrell Brice of Louisiana Tech (Conference USA), were as impressive as any of the team’s 24 rookies that played Friday night in the 17-11 exhibition victory over the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field.

The Packers have seen flashes from Burks and Brice since May. Still, there was little evidence just how serious they were about them until the opener, when Burks’ 30 snaps led the five running backs and Brice’s 36 snaps (plus 11 more on special teams) were the most of any player on defense.

Because the Browns are an awful team and first games can be misleading, the Packers will be cautious in their evaluations. At the same time, with the Packers scheduling fewer one-on-one competitive periods in practice and never going fully live, each exhibition game must play a critical part in roster decisions.

Burks, who received a signing bonus of $1,000, and Brice, whose signing bonus was $2,000, showed the skills that will attract the attention of almost every scout that watches this tape.

The contrast between Burks and Crockett (25 snaps) was considerable. Whereas Crockett is a meat-and-potatoes runner, Burks demonstrated that he is much more of a threat as both a runner and receiver.

Burks might be short (5 feet 8 ½ inches) but he isn’t small (208 pounds). In his 11 touches for 48 yards (two for 12 were wiped out by penalty), he showed burst to the corner, shiftiness, the ability to create on his own, make-you-miss, toughness, hands and body lean.

Just as significant was Burks’ outstanding work in pass protection. Three times he found himself manned up with blitzing linebackers Justin Tuggle (6-3, 245), Cam Johnson (6-3 ½, 268) and Dominique Alexander (6-0 1/2, 235). Three times he bowed his neck, maintained leverage, absorbed a punishing blow and won the down.

Crockett performed well, too. He adjusted nicely on a flat pass thrown behind him by Joe Callahan for a 2-yard touchdown and picked up the blitz twice.

Crockett’s mediocre burst was apparent on a screen pass when defensive end Carl Nassib came out of the box to nab him from the side on a 7-yard gain that could have been more.

Burks’ advantage is that he’s different than Eddie Lacy and James Starks. He brings a third-down, change-of-pace dimension. Crockett, as was Harris (6-1, 235), is a workhorse.

Obviously, Burks will have to prove he’s not a one-game wonder and show he can contribute on special teams. He didn’t play a snap in the kicking game while Crockett played 10.

Of the 10 defensive backs that played more than 12 snaps, Brice (5-11 ½, 201) was the most impressive. For the first time, at least from my vantage point, you could see his phenomenal testing numbers transfer to the field.

Brice’s range leaped out. On one pass to the boundary, he came from somewhere near the middle of the field to contest a receiver who already was out of bounds. When a running back caught a pass in the flat, Brice closed in a heartbeat and made it a negligible gain.

He was able to turn and go off the hashmark with ease. There also was a time or two in which he looked comfortable covering a wide receiver from the slot, something that he said was a commonplace for him at Louisiana Tech.

His pro-day numbers? A 40-yard dash of 4.43 seconds, a vertical jump of 42 inches, a broad jump of 11-1 and 21 reps on the bench press. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, the fifth pick in the draft, might have been the only defensive back at the combine to test better than Brice.

According to one personnel man, Brice wasn’t overly physical in college. “I thought bigger backs were able to step out of his tackles a little bit,” he said. “Solid tackler. He’s not a thumper.”

Brice did deliver a hard hit on special teams and has more than aggressive enough in the “thud” work of camp.

Micah Hyde made a fabulous interception. Speedy, smart Chris Banjo was the first man down on the free kick and recovered the Browns’ fumble.

It won’t be easy for Brice to make the team, but he has the tools to do it.


>> Nose tackle Kenny Clark (19 snaps) probably saved his best moment for last when he recognized a third-and-23 running play, beat veteran guard Ed Alvin Bailey and made the tackle for a short gain.

Based on this snapshot, Clark was getting off the ball quickly, playing with effort and holding his own.

Most of his snaps were as a 3-technique in sub defenses. There were a few occasions in which he was rushing one-on-one, including one time against Joel Bitonio, one of the NFL’s leading guards.

Clark showed little or nothing to suggest that right now he’s a threat as a pass rusher.

>> Tackle Jason Spriggs was the most impressive of the six draft choices that played. He played 73 snaps, all on the left side, and gave fans hope for a promising future.

I couldn’t give Spriggs a minus until his 36th play when defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah stuffed him at the point of attack on a rush for no gain. Play after play he used his athleticism to protect the quarterback and prevent his man from tackling the ball carrier. His movement in the run game was respectable, too.

His opposition included Ogbah, the 32nd pick in April; linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the sixth pick in 2013; capable veteran Armonty Bryant, and Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert, a fourth-round pick.

It’s possible Spriggs got tired because there were three or four minuses in the fourth quarter. But the takeaway has to be that this is exactly the player the Packers hoped for after trading up into the second round to draft him.

>> Linebacker Kyler Fackrell was limited to special teams until a 13-play stint in the fourth quarter. His highlight came when left tackle Erle Ladson (6-6, 350) opened the gate and almost didn’t get a glove on before he sacked Cody Kessler from the blind side.

>> Linebacker Blake Martinez (11) started and was done after two series. He played in every defense, and even as the lone behind-the-line player in field-goal block. Famously, another No. 50, A.J. Hawk, had that job at Seattle in the NFC Championship Game 18 months ago.

Clearly, the Packers already have a keen appreciation for Martinez’ football acumen and want to utilize it as much as possible.

His best play came when he dipped under center Cam Erving and ruined a screen pass. His worst was the inability to tackle Duke Johnson with a clean shot on a carry that ruptured for 11 yards.

>> Defensive end Dean Lowry (16) played both 5- and 3-technique in the base defense and inside in sub defenses.

For his size (6-5 ½, 296) and strength (30 reps on the bench), Lowry was knocked around and caved in too much. Bitonio got him twice, and at least Lowry will be able to learn from one of the best.

Lowry played hard. He got his hands up on the rush. The Packers will need him to be stouter at the point.

>> Wide receiver Trevor Davis (43) caught a curl for 11 yards and a slant for seven with free agent Eric Patterson in coverage.

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