Position analysis: The hard truth about the pass-first Packers’ approach to the running back position under general manager Ted Thompson is this: With the exception of taking Nebraska’s Brandon Jackson in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft, they’ve always tried to fill the position on the cheap. And in many cases, it’s worked out OK: Trading a sixth-round pick for Ryan Grant just before the 2007 opener was brilliant; sixth-round pick James Starks delivered in a big way during the 2010 playoff run to Super Bowl XLV; signing Cedric Benson for the league minimum last August was starting to look like a savvy move until he went down with a season-ending foot injury Oct. 7; and late last season, street free agent and former practice-squadder DuJuan Harris flashed serious potential.
After his promotion to the 53-man roster from the practice squad in December, the 5-foot-8 Harris carried 34 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, then added 28 carries for 100 yards and two more TDs in the playoffs. He also caught two passes for 17 yards in the regular season and seven passes for 64 yards in the playoffs.
At the NFL Meetings in Arizona last month, coach Mike McCarthy intimated that Harris will get every opportunity to be the team’s starting running back this summer in training camp, saying, “I wish we would have had DuJuan earlier. He was a young man that we were just getting ready to try to put in the game. Everybody’s like, ‘Just put him in there!’ Well, hell, you put him in there, there aren’t too many runs in our offense where we can’t go to a pass. (And if the play is changed), now he’s protecting for Aaron Rodgers. That’s why there’s a lot of stress schematically and responsibility-wise on our running backs, and that’s not going to change because of our quarterback. (But) once he got ready, I felt great about the way DuJuan finished the season. (I’m) looking forward to having him for an offseason and look for good things for him.”
The Packers could still bring back Benson, apparently haven’t given up on Starks, should get Green back at closer to 100 percent after his 2011 knee injury, and reportedly had expressed some interest in ex-New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw.
Draft strategy: In his eight drafts in Green Bay, Thompson has selected a not-so-grand total of six running backs or fullbacks: Jackson (second round), fullback Korey Hall (sixth round) and halfback DeShawn Wynn (seventh) in 2007; fullback Quinn Johnson (fifth) in 2009; Starks (sixth) in 2010; and Green (third) in 2011. That track record would seem to make drafting Alabama’s Lacy, a darling of a number of mock drafts, unlikely at No. 26 overall. Nevertheless, it seems safe to assume that Thompson will use one of his second- or third-day picks on the position. The Packers have eight overall picks, with one in every round except the fifth, where they have two. And while they feel good about Harris, the 30-year-old Benson may not be worth bringing back, even inexpensively; there’s no guarantee that Starks, plagued by injuries all throughout his career, will ever be able to stay healthy; and Green, whose surgically repaired knee started acting up on him late in the year, may not be the answer even when healthy. While the position may have been devalued on draft day, even a quarterback-driven offense like the Packers’ could benefit from an explosive player in the backfield, and if Thompson sees a difference maker, he may very well nab him.
NEXT: Wide receivers.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.