The following is the second installment in a series of stories that’ll examine the Packers’ roster position by position. The series continues with the running backs.
GREEN BAY – For the third straight year, the Packers enter the season knowing who their top two running backs are.
Training camp and the preseason will be used to figure out a new third option.
Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for 1,472 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014. That’s a slight drop from their collective production the prior year (1,671 yards and 14 TDs) when they were relied on more during quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ injury absence.
It’s not about the statistics, though, as much as being a reliable, legitimate offensive threat, and Lacy and Starks have the Packers’ ground game in the best shape it’s been with Rodgers under center.
With DuJuan Harris now gone, the No. 3 back will be a fresh face, and he’ll be young. The candidates are practice-squad holdover Rajion Neal (pictured) and undrafted rookies John Crockett and Alonzo Harris.
Neal was making a bid for a roster spot last summer as an undrafted rookie from Tennessee, returning to his college state to rush five times for 39 yards and a TD against the Titans in last year’s preseason opener, only to be sidelined the rest of camp with a knee injury.
He was placed on injured reserve at the first roster reduction and was eventually brought back to the practice squad right after last season’s bye week.
Spending the rest of his rookie season in Green Bay appeared to pay dividends for Neal this past spring, as he got a lot of work during OTAs and showed trustworthy hands catching passes out of the backfield.
Neal’s knowledge of the offense is clearly ahead and will benefit him in the competition, but don’t count out Crockett or Harris.
Highly sought after following the draft, Crockett chose to sign with Green Bay for the obvious opportunity available. The record-setting North Dakota State star seems undaunted by the prospect of jumping from the FCS to the NFL, and if he starts making waves, he’ll be unfazed by the spotlight.
During the pre-draft process, he was the subject of an ESPN “Draft Academy” series, and he had a camera in his home on the final day of the draft when he ultimately wasn’t selected.
Harris arrived in Green Bay with much less fanfare, but at 237 pounds he could be the most powerful of the young backs. He rushed for double-digit touchdowns in each of his final three seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette.
The fullback position looks a little different this year, too.
The Packers brought back veteran John Kuhn for a ninth season in Green Bay, but they also drafted a fullback for the first time since 2009.
Oklahoma’s Aaron Ripkowski was chosen with the first of three sixth-round picks, and he would appear to be the heir apparent to Kuhn as a lead blocker, pass protector and potential goal-line threat, given his work in college.
Keeping two fullbacks on the 53-man roster would be unusual, but not out of the question. The Packers’ depth at tight end isn’t overly experienced, and in several offensive formations, Mike McCarthy uses tight ends and fullbacks interchangeably.
Countdown to Camp: Position-by-position roster series