GREEN BAY—With a draft-and-develop team, the following scenario often unfolds, and it’s inherent in the philosophy.
The “drafted” begin competing with young players who are still “developing.” It’s precisely what is occurring in the Packers’ offensive backfield, and it’s why Mike McCarthy was confident in proclaiming to the media in “big letters” as OTAs wrapped up that Green Bay’s ground game would improve in 2013.
Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin are the drafted, with Angelo Pease an undrafted rookie. DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks are still developing. There aren’t enough handoffs, or roster spots to go around, and every player involved knows it.
“It’s going to be very competitive,” Green said of the upcoming training camp. “Every back on the roster is capable of being a contributor to the offense, from the drafted to free agents. It’s going to be good for everybody. It’s going to push everybody in the backfield to get better.”
Himself included, Green believes. Now that he’s another year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, the third-round pick in 2011 may be the biggest wildcard in this competition.
He got his chance to be the feature back last season when Cedric Benson was lost for the year in Week 5, and despite how he felt at the time, Green’s rebuilt knee wasn’t ready for the workload.
He had 20-plus carries in three straight games (Weeks 6-8, a stretch that coincided with the one-year anniversary of his torn ACL), and as the year wore on, the knee wore down. A late-season concussion led to a full week of inactivity, which only created more stiffness and soreness, and Green didn’t play in the regular-season finale or the two playoff games.
He finished with a team-high 464 yards but averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. Only two of 135 rushes went for longer than 15 yards. The numbers were disappointing, but Green didn’t consider it a lost year by any means.
“It was a great learning experience,” he said, before elaborating on what he learned. “My aiming point through the holes, the reads, watching the safety rotations. Just slowing the game down a little bit and letting the game come to me and being patient.
“They were little things I didn’t really learn before I got here.”
Green continued to apply those lessons during OTAs. He and Starks got their share of reps with the No. 1 offense, with Harris sidelined and the rookies still learning the system.
Whether the depth chart stays like that for the start of training camp isn’t known, but it’s also irrelevant. The competition starts in earnest then.
Now that he was healthy enough to participate in his first offseason program and, unlike last year, he won’t have his attentions in camp divided between football and rehab, Green can’t wait.
“I’ll still be the same guy, giving it my all. It just might be a little more this year now that I’m healthy,” he said. “You have to get better every day and put the pressure on the guys upstairs to make their decisions.”
Barring injury, Lacy and Franklin as second- and fourth-round draft picks, are roster locks. The spark Harris provided down the stretch last season excited the offensive coaches. Starks, the 2010 playoff hero as a rookie, is still trying to get through one season healthy, and, neither last nor least, there’s Green, promising more to offer than a year ago.
He’s not naïve. He knows what’s at stake. He can’t really be the “same guy” in 2013 or he won’t have a 2013, at least not in Green Bay.
The “developing” needs to take hold now, because the “drafted” have begun their development, too.
“It’s going to get down to the nitty and gritty, but we’re all tuned in, especially the older guys like me, Starks,” Green said. “We understand, but at the same time, we’re not going to lie down and roll over. We’re going to continue to fight and see how it turns out.”