GREEN BAY – The Packers raised a few eyebrows earlier this year when they selected Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays on the third and final day of the 2017 NFL Draft.
It was the first time in more than 40 years the organization had taken three halfbacks in a single draft. It was a direct response to a topsy-turvy 2016 campaign in which 10 different running backs cycled in and out of position coach Ben Sirmans’ room from Week 1 until the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Soon after the draft, with all his rookies congregated, Sirmans pulled up a slide to make the young running backs aware of the opportunity before them.
“I showed them a graphic. The only running back coming back was Ty (Montgomery) and originally he wasn’t a running back,” Sirmans said. “We have all these other slots open, so if I’m you, I’m taking advantage of it. If we bring in anybody else outside of you right now, that’s your fault because that means you didn’t basically play up to the level to get the job done.”
Six months later, all three running backs are still on the roster. It’s a much different scenario than last year when injuries to Eddie Lacy, James Starks and John Crockett led to the Packers claiming two running backs off waivers (Christine Michael and Jhurrell Pressley), promoting two from the practice squad (Don Jackson and Joe Kerridge) and trading for another (Knile Davis).
Snaps may have been difficult for this year’s crop of rookies to come by last summer, but circumstances have dictated Williams, Jones and Mays seeing action this season.
Whereas the Packers were forced to shuffle the deck with their backfield multiple times last season, the six running backs currently on the roster are the same six Sirmans worked with throughout the offseason program and training camp, a group that includes fullbacks Aaron Ripkowski and Kerridge.
“Three rookies, that’s the first time we’ve ever done this,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s a challenge, but I think Ben’s personality is perfect for that room because he’s a steady guy. He’s the same personality, he definitely operates from the positive side of the fence all the time. He’s a very good teacher, he’s patient with those guys, and he spends all the extra time that they need.”
The Packers rode Montgomery early this season before he developed a rib injury that’s sidelined him for three games. In relief, Jones earned two NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors over a three-week span with 100-yard rushing performances against Dallas and New Orleans.
Montgomery and Jones appeared to be forming a solid combination in the backfield before the Packers lost both to injury in their 23-16 win over Chicago on Nov. 12.
Williams has carried the load for the backfield ever since. Over the last 10 quarters, the 6-foot, 213-pound running back has 74 touches for 294 total yards. He’s played 140 of the 165 offensive snaps during that span (84.8 percent).
He had perhaps his best showing against the Steelers with 135 total yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard score off a screen pass to get the offense rolling in the first quarter.
It was a shot in the arm for a screen game that’s had its ups and downs this season with an influx of different offensive linemen and running backs moving in and out of the lineup.
“I think it’s definitely improving,” said offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett of the offense’s screen game. “Everyone has to be on the same page as far as what we’re trying to accomplish when we run a screen. Obviously it has to be a concept that the defense, they see it on tape as just a pass concept and then obviously the screen game is involved in that.”
The Packers are hopeful help could soon be on the way for the backfield. On Monday, McCarthy told reporters Jones may get a “possible trial return” to practice Wednesday. Neither he nor Montgomery has practiced the past two weeks.
Jones told reporters last week he “definitely” expects to play again this season. He has previous experience returning from knee sprains dating back to his sophomore year at UTEP.
In the interim, the rookie running back has been impressed with what he’s seen from Williams, his roommate over the summer with whom he shares an agency.
“Jamaal has played very well,” Jones said. “That’s what the NFL is about – making the most of your opportunities. We all cheer for each other. We want to see each other succeed. Whatever helps the team win, that’s what we want.”
Sirmans, who worked with 13 different running backs during his first season with the Packers, has enjoyed getting the chance to concentrate on developing a core of young players.
It’s given the former teacher a chance to “mold” each rookie in accordance with his talent. While he still spends extra time with each player, Sirmans hasn’t needed to dedicate time to getting new additions up to speed on the playbook like he did with Michael and Davis last season.
As the Packers head down the final stretch of this season, they’re confident in the group they’ve been developing for the past six months.
“When you draft that many running backs, you know it’s going to speed up the competition because all those guys are going to want to get the opportunity to play,” Sirmans said.
“They understand the system. You don’t have to start fresh and reteach somebody what they’re doing because they have a feel for it.”