Packers’ rookie RBs expected to carry the load in 2013
By Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
~GREEN BAY — Can Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin balance a Green Bay Packers offense that slumped to 13th in total yards last season, easily the poorest finish in the Mike McCarthy administration?
The Packers drafted two running backs in the first four rounds for the first time in 34 years, intending to do exactly that.
“Lacy was an excellent pick,” said a personnel director for an AFC team. “He and Franklin have a chance to be a great combination.
“Lacy can’t be the guy all by himself. He was always spelled at Alabama. But it’s a really nice mix with Franklin. Really good value there in Franklin. He can eventually be your starter.”
Twelve months ago, James Starks was atop this depth chart. When Starks was injured again, Alex Green finished as the leading rusher.
Today, Lacy, Franklin and late-season find DuJuan Harris would all appear ahead of both Starks and Green in the pecking order. Barring injury, the Packers might be able to deal Green at the end of camp because his injury history isn’t as long as Starks’.
“They have trade material,” another personnel chief said. “Green, not Starks.”
Of course, no one knows how the youngsters will fare, at least based on what happened the last three times the Packers had two highly touted rookie backs in camp.
In 1966, Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski debuted as little-used reserves for a Super Bowl team. Anderson’s six-year rushing total of 3,165 yards ranks 11th in club annals, whereas Grabowski battled knee injuries to finish with 1,582 in five seasons.
In 1971, coach Dan Devine drafted John Brockington in the first round and Virgil Robinson in the second round.
Brockington powered for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, making the Pro Bowl every time. When he started dancing rather than steamrolling, his career quickly fizzled out.
Cut by the Packers before his first season, Robinson played briefly for New Orleans in 1971-’72.
And, in 1979, coach Bart Starr used his first- and second-round picks on Eddie Lee Ivery and Steve Atkins.
Ivery still ranks 12th on the Packers’ rushing charts with 2,933 yards, testimony of his unflagging determination. He looked like a star in the making before blowing out his left knee in both the 1979 and ’81 openers at Soldier Field.
Atkins, a strapping 6 feet 1 and 220 pounds with fine speed, was described by backfield coach Zeke Bratkowski before his second season as “a freight train with shoes on… I think he’s going to be one of the great running backs in pro football.”
After averaging 5.7 yards per carry in the first half of his rookie season, Atkins suffered a season-ending knee injury before being KO’d by a bum ankle the next year. Starr released Atkins three games into ’81, and after one carry for the Eagles his career was kaput.
Brockington and Anderson are in the Packers Hall of Fame. Ivery could be. Grabowski never measured up, and Robinson and Atkins will go down as busts.
In 1966, ’71 and ’79, the Packers expected the top back to carry their offense. That’s no longer the case, but it was obvious from their draft that McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson want their run game to be respected this year.
“I always go back to what I know, and that was the ‘K-Gun’ with Jim Kelly,” said running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, a quarterback and assistant coach in Buffalo. “You think that was a throwing offense, but they were always in the top five in rushing every year.
“That’s what gives you chances to win a Super Bowl.”
Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas was the perfect counterpoint to Kelly. From 1990-’93, when the Bills reached four straight Super Bowls, they ranked seventh, first, first and eighth rushing and 10th, fourth, sixth and 11th passing.
Last year, the Packers ranked 20th in rushing (106.4) and 22nd in yards per rush (3.9), par for the course during the McCarthy years. Just once in the last 25 years (2003, 159.9) have the Packers finished a season ranked in single digits in rushing.
St. Louis tried trading running back Steven Jackson to the Packers last year for a seventh-round draft choice, but Thompson didn’t want to assume his contract.
Harris, diminutive but tough, offered spark down the stretch, but when the oft-injured Lacy dropped late into the second round Thompson decided that he had put off acquiring a real ball carrier long enough.
“He’s more of a powerful, pounding back,” said Van Pelt. “But he can make you miss and run away from as well.”
Lacy will have to watch his weight; he was an ill-defined 238 this spring. He needs work in every phase of the passing game, too.
“It’s snowing and cold up there, and he’s banging it inside,” the AFC scout said. “Man. He can wear you down pretty quick.
“He may be a four- or five-year guy. But you know what? They drafted Franklin to protect themselves. They did a good job getting the extra guy.”
Franklin, according to Van Pelt, isn’t the prototypical big back the Packers have played with for 20 years.
“But he runs hard and he’s tough to tackle,” said Van Pelt. “He’s always cutting and moving forward. What he lacks in size he makes up for in quickness.”
Van Pelt appears to value the ability to pass protect as highly as the ability to run and catch. That’s why fullback John Kuhn was the third-down back almost all of last season.
Would the Packers prefer a better athlete on third downs than Kuhn?
“If you can get a guy you can trust and protect as good as John Kuhn,” replied Van Pelt. “He’s a safety blanket out there at times for Aaron (Rodgers). He knows if John’s in the game he’ll be protected.”
Whereas Green and Starks were spotty as pass blockers, Franklin was solid at UCLA.
“He was probably the best in pass pro of any running back that I saw in the draft,” said the AFC scout. “He’s got the knack to pass pro. Does everything. Catches the ball well. His speed is decent enough. Not great.”
After failed stints in Jacksonville and Pittsburgh, Harris got the most of what was there from his 71 touches. Counting playoffs, his 4.15 average per carry was well above the 3.59 of the second-place Starks.
“He’s short, but for a little guy he knocked guys back,” another personnel director said. “He has that short-area acceleration to the hole. Things happen when he gets in the game. Little guys like that, it’s hard (for tacklers) to find them.”
Van Pelt said Harris stepped up aggressively in protection, too.
Green didn’t smash into holes as recklessly as Harris, but a balky post-surgical knee was a limiting factor. If Green runs with more violence, he’ll be back in contention.
“It will be important for him to show his explosiveness,” said Van Pelt. “I think he’s regained that. We’re excited to see him coming off a year where he wasn’t quite 100%.”
Unless Starks can find a way to stay on the field, he’ll be categorized in club lore with someone like Chuck Mercein as a back whose only moment of glory came in the playoffs. He averaged 20 carries and 79 yards as a rookie in the four-game march to the Super Bowl.
“This is a big year for him,” Van Pelt said. “He’s got some talented guys pushing him. He is explosive, powerful.”
Meanwhile, Cedric Benson, the Packers’ featured back for the first month a season ago, sits home, a 30-year-old with a presumably rehabilitated foot but no job.
“Very good player, but we’re in good shape right now,” said Van Pelt. “With the people we have here there’s a lot of depth, a lot of good runners. There will be good battles through camp. It will be fun.”
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