If and when training camp begins, the stage will be set for a high-profile battle between Ryan Grant and James Starks for the starting running back job. Grant’s recovery from last year’s season-ending ankle injury and Starks’ late-season emergence as a featured runner give the Packers a feeling of security at the running back position, but overall numbers would seem to be lacking.
Behind Grant and Starks are Brandon Jackson, an accomplished pass-blocker who contributes in the run and pass games, utility back John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance, who was signed off the Falcons’ practice squad last Sept. following Grant’s injury.
Quality? Yes. Depth. Not exactly, and that’s why the Packers can be expected to add to their stable of running backs in either the draft, undrafted free agency or both.
Let’s start with the quality.
Grant was coming off his best season as a pro when he was lost for the season in the opener in Philadelphia last year. Grant had put together consecutive 1,200-yard rushing seasons and was the perfect complement to an Aaron Rodgers-led offense that clearly wants to lean on the pass and use the run to establish balance.
Will he have made a full recovery from ankle surgery? Can he hold off Starks? Those are the two questions Grant will have to answer in 2011.
Starks came out of nowhere late in the season to emerge as a force in the offense. He had a breakout game in the playoff win in Philadelphia.
A sixth-round pick out of Buffalo last year, Starks has the size and speed to suggest he has a future as a featured runner. He’s a player to watch in the Packers’ future.
Jackson is an offensive-minded coach’s dream. You can trust him to make all of the blitz pickups and find a way to drift into the flat and offer the quarterback a safety valve.
Kuhn became somewhat of a Mike McCarthy invention and developed a cult following last season. Kuhn can play running back or fullback. He’s a block-a-lot, run-and-catch-a-little player who fits into a specific role. He’s one of the brushes with which McCarthy “paints.”
Korey Hall and Quinn Johnson are pure fullbacks and are being groomed for their roles as blockers. Hall is also one of the Packers’ top special teams players. Johnson is pure power. He’s a road-grading blocker who offers the same type of power as a short-yardage and goal-line runner.
Jackson and Kuhn are scheduled to become free agents; under the old rules they would become unrestricted free agents and that’s where the guessing game begins. What are the Packers’ plans for retaining one or both of those players? Will those plans depend on what the Packers do in the draft?
The latter question is what makes running back an intriguing position in this year’s draft. The crop of running backs in this draft isn’t star-studded, but it has some depth to it and the top of the class seems to fit nicely with where the Packers are picking in the first two rounds.
Vic Ketchman is a veteran of 39 NFL seasons and has covered the Steelers and Jaguars prior to coming to Green Bay.