GREEN BAY – The Packers’ rookie running backs were going to have a lot of eyes on them anyway.
But Ty Montgomery’s likely absence from Saturday night’s preseason game at Washington will put an even bigger spotlight on the depth-chart battle involving three of Green Bay’s third-day draft picks.
Montgomery has missed the last two days of practice with a lower-leg injury. He told reporters he’s not concerned about it and Head Coach Mike McCarthy on Wednesday labeled it something he’s “working through.”
No official announcement has been made on his availability for Saturday, but McCarthy’s history coupled with his general preseason precaution with starters all but rules out Montgomery for this game.
In his place, fourth-round pick Jamaal Williams from BYU has taken most of the reps with the No. 1 offensive unit this week in practice, with fifth-rounder Aaron Jones from UTEP and seventh-rounder Devante Mays from Utah State moving up the ladder as well.
This game is an opportunity none of them wants to squander, particularly with McCarthy pushing to get the running game on track after an unproductive preseason debut last Thursday against Philadelphia. All three draft picks have been able to shake the pro-debut nerves out of their system, too.
“You don’t have all those jitters,” Jones said. “You’ve already played your first game, so you can go out there and just play your game the way you know how to, and the game will slow down a little bit for you. I’m definitely excited.”
All three bring desirable attributes to the table.
Williams is the front-runner in part because he’s shown the best aptitude for pass protection in the backfield. His skill set might be the most well-rounded of the three, so far.
Jones has displayed a different gear in the open field that he’d love to show off in a game if he gets a crease. His track record for breakaway runs in college stood out.
Mays is the best example of compact power, at 5-10 and 230 pounds. He touched the ball only once against the Eagles, catching a fourth-down swing pass in the flat, but he made a tackler miss to pick up the first down and then absorbed a big hit along the sideline without going down.
“With more opportunities, I’ll be able to showcase more,” the soft-spoken Mays said. “I didn’t get to show much, but I think I showed what I can do with what I was given. Hopefully I get some more touches.”
All the backs feel the same way. Against Philadelphia, Williams had four carries for 14 yards and Jones had three touches (two rushes, one reception) for a net of zero. Undrafted rookies Kalif Phillips and William Stanback also combined for five carries.
The reps are spread rather thin, but McCarthy has harped on three things this week that apply to all offensive players but the running backs in particular – break more tackles, improve ball security, and reduce mental errors.
Those have to show up no matter how many snaps a player gets. Montgomery's fumble in the Eagles game did not sit well, and Jones put one on the ground in practice this week as well.
“Our emphasis for Washington is to win the tackle challenge,” McCarthy said, later adding, “our mental preparation needs to improve.”
The Packers intentionally cut back on the running game during non-padded OTAs in the spring, knowing there’d be more focus on it this month with the pads on.
Last Thursday’s rushing numbers – 14 carries for 18 yards, aside from QB scrambles – reflected somewhat the lack of work put in earlier, and running games can’t be built in the first two weeks of camp.
More emphasis was evident in practice this week, particularly in Wednesday’s long workout, with a 9-on-7 period plus a couple of lengthy 11-on-11 sessions featuring runs.
Three more preseason games is plenty of time for the cream to rise to the top, and this week at least, the rookies are the ones being relied upon to get the ground game established.
“You just have to have that warrior mentality that this is a job, it’s a long road and we’ve just started,” Williams said. “When you get those chances, make those chances count.”