GREEN BAY – Judging by the last few days of training camp, the battle for the Packers’ No. 3 running back spot could last awhile.
Last Thursday at New England, undrafted rookies Alonzo Harris and John Crockett each scored touchdowns, with Harris rambling 25 yards down the sideline and Crockett hauling in a 10-yard pass in the flat.
Then on Saturday in practice, Rajion Neal – who was quiet but still productive in the preseason opener, with four rushes for 15 yards plus two receptions – hauled in a deep pass over his shoulder from Matt Blanchard, showing off the hands that seemingly catch everything thrown his way.
Nothing much happened in the competition Monday in a practice that was shortened by a rainstorm and saw the injury list change at two position groups on defense. At cornerback, rookie Damarious Randall (groin) returned and Casey Hayward (quad) sat out, while on the defensive line Josh Boyd (knee) was back but Bruce Gaston (illness) was absent.
At running back, the group has been healthy since Crockett returned a few days into camp from an ankle injury, and the race has no clear front-runner, though it’s not for a lack of noteworthy action.
“Everybody is being productive. It’s a toss-up,” Harris said. “I don’t feel like any of us has an edge right now.”
Neal came into training camp with the advantage of having been in Green Bay as an undrafted rookie last year. Making an early bid for a roster spot, he hurt his knee in the preseason opener, was placed on injured reserve, and came back to the practice squad at midseason.
Simply continuing his camp after the first preseason game was a hurdle for Neal, a former University of Tennessee runner.
“It felt awesome to be able to say I contributed in the game and I was able to walk off the field and come to practice the following week,” he said.
Neal hasn’t done anything to slide down the depth chart, but Harris and Crockett – who are small-school products from Louisiana-Lafayette and North Dakota St., respectively, as well as auxiliary locker-room neighbors and training-camp dorm roommates – have begun closing any gap that might have existed.
“I just want to be consistent, and show them I can be a complete back,” said Crockett, in essence speaking for all three. “Catch the ball and see the reads in pass protection. If there’s anything they need to be done, special teams or whatever, I’m willing to do that. That’s something you have to pride yourself with.”
Crockett’s words suggest the competition could be decided by the action that isn’t as outwardly visible as running for touchdowns and catching passes. Special teams play will factor into it, as will pass blocking.
Defenses are more complicated in the NFL and, as a result, so are blitz packages, which running backs must decipher on the fly to block the right guy.
“You can ask any rookie running back that’s ever been in the NFL, that’s the most difficult process,” Harris said. “We know a running back can run the football or he wouldn’t be on this level, but the different things defenses throw at you, you have to be able to pick them up, keep (number) 12 on his feet.”
That’s why Head Coach Mike McCarthy is placing no less value on the No. 3 RB spot despite DuJuan Harris compiling just 16 rushes and one reception behind Eddie Lacy and James Starks last year.
“I think the third runner is critical,” McCarthy said. “You look at the games in the past when that person wasn’t available. It changes the whole direction of the football game.”
McCarthy went on to recall the Packers’ loss at Kansas City in 2011, when Green Bay went into the game with only two healthy running backs. Ryan Grant got hurt, along with two offensive linemen, and the Chiefs’ pass rush was the element that decided the game.
A decision on this year’s third running back won’t likely be coming anytime soon, but that’s OK with the competitors. Three preseason games remain, and all three backs will be looking to make the most of every snap they can.
“There’s just no way of telling,” Harris said. “We just continue to grind daily, and may the best man win.”
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