This is the second in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to training camp. The series continues with the running backs.
GREEN BAY – On the first day of OTAs in late May, the big story was how Eddie Lacy looked.
Word was he made progress with his conditioning, but there was more work to be done.
How much more got done will be determined when training camp arrives, and it could play a big role in the Packers’ running game in 2016.
Ideally, Lacy will arrive for camp in tip-top shape. The Packers don’t want to use camp to get him in shape, because that could be counterproductive with the long grind of 16 regular-season games ahead.
What can’t happen is for Lacy to revert to his 2015 form. That version of Lacy wasn’t the same as previous ones, and it hurt Green Bay’s offense.
Lacy’s workload was down almost 100 carries from his rookie season, and his average per rush dropped a half yard (from 4.6 to 4.1) from 2014. His rushing touchdowns also fell from a combined 20 in his first two seasons to just three last year.
The Packers need the old Lacy back, and the former second-round draft pick from Alabama referred to it as a “wake-up call” when Head Coach Mike McCarthy called him out at the end of the 2015 season. Lacy is also in the final year of his rookie contract, so he has every motivation to get back on track.
If he does, it’ll go a long way toward getting the Packers’ offense rolling again as well. For the past three years, Lacy and James Starks have formed a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield, but that combination has been at its best when Lacy has been leading the way.
Starks had three strong games running the ball a year ago (95 yards vs. Seattle, 112 vs. San Diego, 71 vs. Dallas), but like Green Bay’s offense as a whole, production wasn’t consistent or sustainable.
Where Starks brought another dimension last year was in the passing game, blowing away his previous career highs with 43 receptions for 392 yards and three scores. Those numbers mirrored what Lacy put up as a pass-catcher (42-427-4) the previous year.
With Lacy and Starks equally capable in the screen game, defenses will need to be ready for anything when either back is in the game. That’s how McCarthy wants it.
As for a third option, John Crockett enters 2016 as the favorite but will be seriously challenged by a pair of newcomers for a roster spot.
Undrafted from North Dakota State a year ago, Crockett eventually made his way from the practice squad to the active roster and showed a glimpse of his ability in Week 13 at Detroit (five carries, 22 yards).
He must make a bigger impact on special teams, though, to hold onto his job. A workhorse running back in college, Crockett spent his rookie season learning how to play on special teams, but his “redshirt year is over” now.
The Packers didn’t draft a running back in 2016 but are throwing two undrafted rookies in Nevada’s Don Jackson and Troy’s Brandon Burks into the competition.
Compact but by no means small at 5-10, 208, Jackson was sidelined during OTAs with an injury. He rushed for a combined 2,039 yards and 15 TDs over his last two seasons for the Wolf Pack. Similarly built at 5-9, 208, Burks also is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season in 2015.
At fullback, John Kuhn remains unsigned, so the No. 1 job is in the hands of second-year man Aaron Ripkowski. The former sixth-round pick from Oklahoma is a player to watch when the pads go on in training camp. He’ll be taking a lot more snaps with the first-string offense while continuing to establish himself as a reliable special-teamer.
Undrafted rookie Alstevis Squirewell is the other fullback in camp. A former defensive lineman at 6-0, 265, Squirewell not only is making a position switch but is also transitioning from small Division II Newberry College to the NFL.
(Update: The Packers also signed undrafted rookie RB Brandon Ross from Maryland. The announcement was made on Wednesday.)
Countdown to Camp series
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