Amidst the discussion going on, among fans and in the halls of power, regarding the future of Eddie Lacy in Green Bay, there is an underlying factor left out. That factor is the vision for the Packers running back position within the framework of the offense.
Packers Running Back Identity Problem
Too much conversation around roster constructions in the NFL ignore the scheme they were built to support. For example, while people like to point out that the Patriots seem to have small wide receivers without big names, they forget that the Patriots did that on purpose. Tom Brady is not very mobile and he is very accurate. He does not have the deep arm as much anymore. The Patriots built a roster full of slot receivers and pass-catching running backs to help get the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly. In this line, the Patriots are part of a collection of teams with this same versatile understanding of running backs. This is something the Packers should consider.
Packers and Patriots
Beginning with the comparison between two contending teams with championship quarterbacks. The Patriots featured a smaller pass catching running back in the Super Bowl victory. James White scored three touchdowns, including the game-winning in overtime. He also set the Super Bowl records for points (20) and receptions (14). It was a clear plan on the part of the Patriots to feature the smaller back.
The Packers started the 2016 season featuring Eddie Lacy and James Starks. It should be pointed out, Lacy did very well when given the ball. Lacy was averaging 5.1 yards per carry. While he only played in five games before a season-ending injury, he managed greater than 4.0 yards per carry in four of those five games. However, Lacy only saw 15+ carries in two of those games. He was not consistently given the chance to carry the ball. Behind Lacy was James Starks. Beginning the year, Starks was the pass catching option. Still, at 6’2″ and 220 pounds, Starks was hardly a shifty back and more a big back with very good hands.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have a big basher in LaGarrette Blount. Still, the Patriots supplement the rest of their backfield with guys like Dion Lewis and James White. White was among the top receiving running backs in football. He was targeted 86 times this year. That was good for second most on the team (partly due to injuries with Rob Gronkowski). The Patriots use their running backs as a crutch for their quarterback and it has worked.
Running Backs With Other Top Offenses
The Patriots are often seen as leaders in shifting trends. Many teams have looked to use running backs in this same manner (whether as a copycat or through a similar independent philosophical switch). New Orleans had the top offense this year (in terms of yards). Mark Ingram was not just a runner, he had 58 targets. Now, that number is similar to Ty Montgomery‘s 56 targets, but there are two key caveats. One, Montgomery lined up as a wide receiver on quite a few of those targets. Two, Travaris Cadet also has 54 targets on that Saints team. That shows a very different dedication to the passing attack.
Right behind New Orleans was the dynamic Atlanta Falcons offense. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were very key figures in the passing game. Freeman ended the season with 65 targets on a team with Julio Jones. Even Washington had Chris Thompson, a part time starter, get 62 targets. The Cowboys may have only targeted Ezekiel Elliott 40 times, but they used Lance Dunbar frequently in passing situations and even lined him out wide sometimes. Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard shared 82 targets in Oakland. Finally, Le’Veon Bell had 94 targets in 2016, and D’Angelo Williams was also involved in the passing game.
Back to the Future
Looking back at the Packers 2010 championship season, we see Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson and James Starks. Grant stayed around through the 2012 season. In the interim, the Packers had players like DuJuan Harris and Brandon Saine. None of the bruisers, decent size and pass catchers all.
The 2013 draft saw the Packers add Eddie Lacy. The backfield became a tandem of Lacy and Starks. Packers started adding guys like Alonzo Harris and John Crockett. It became more of a power running game based on the idea of using the running game as a threat to open up the downfield passing game. This is not to say the Packers have not had success in this system, but it has not generated the results the team wants.
Where the Packers Should Go
Eddie Lacy has decent hands and is a nice dump off target. His shiftiness is inconsistent and depends greatly on his motivation and weight. The Packers released James Starks this offseason. Ty Montgomery is now the future of the Packers backfield. What else needs to happen here?
The Packers should fully embrace the Patriots line of thinking on this topic. They can likely retain Eddie Lacy on a reasonable deal. He should work as the LaGarrette Blount type. He can do short yardage and he can be the battering ram depending on the defense the Packers face. Blount has big games, but he is only the feature back when the situation calls for it. Ty Montgomery needs to be on the field more and needs to be used more for his ability catching than running. Yes, he still needs to get his carries, but his value is going to be in getting him in space. It will draw linebackers, make blitzing harder, open up space elsewhere, and create more options for Aaron Rodgers. Furthermore, the Packers could make better use of guys like Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison if they use them the way the Patriots use their bevy of slot receivers.
Moving forward this also means the Packers need to add another James White/Dion Lewis player. With the draft coming up, some have mentioned Christian McCaffrey as a possible match. There will be plenty of other pass catchers available in later rounds too. As far as making the offense the dynamic weapon it once was, this should be a key target.