It really was not all that long ago that the Green Bay Packers had an imposing threat at running back. In both 2008 and 2009, Ryan Grant topped 1,200 yards on the ground, while averaging 6.4 and 7.9 yards per catch out of the backfield, respectively.
But an injury sidelined Grant for almost all of 2010, and the Packers have spent the past three seasons trying to replicate his success. They were closer last year than people may realize -- Green Bay finished as a middle-of-the-road rushing team (20th overall) and topped 100 yards on the ground in six of its final eight games, including a playoff loss to San Francisco.
Those numbers, and the Packers' recent run game in general, might have been even better were it not for repeated injury woes. Not only did the Packers lose Grant three seasons back, but also Alex Green tore his ACL in 2011, James Starks dealt with myriad problems and Cedric Benson was sidelined by a Lisfranc injury in 2012. Even incoming rookie Eddie Lacy is trying to prove that toe surgery in 2012 will not hinder him going forward.
The arrivals of rookies Lacy and Johnathan Franklin have Packers fans hoping their team's run game can crank up another notch this coming season. But can Lacy handle an every-down load? Is Franklin better than NFL teams gave him credit for in the draft? And are the incumbent backs (Green, Starks and DuJuan Harris) ready to cede playing time?
This will be one of the most intriguing position battles to watch come training camp. Let's take a look at what each guy brings to the table:
The 24-year-old Green showed some legitimate promise last season, a year removed from that aforementioned ACL tear. This run of his against the Colts last season provides a little taste of what he can do -- Green runs downhill, is pretty sharp in and out of his cuts and will bounce it outside when there's an opening. That run also highlights another aspect the Packers must consider here: Green does not have breakaway speed. There, he was caught by a pair of Colts defenders, one being linebacker Kavell Conner.
Green did, however, catch 18 passes out of the backfield last season and graded out as the best pass-blocking back on the Packers' roster in 2012, per Pro Football Focus.
He also might be even better in 2013. Green recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was "never really quite" 100 percent last season following his knee injury.
Green led the Packers in rushing during the 2012 regular season with 464 yards on 135 carries.
One of the Packers' playoff stars, Harris did not even crack the lineup until Week 13 (as Green struggled with a sore knee), but he led the way on the ground in postseason with 100 yards and two touchdowns. One of those scores came in the divisional round against San Francisco -- Harris took a handoff up the gut, accelerated between the 49ers' linebackers, then dropped safety Donte Whitner with an outstanding juke to find the end zone.
Had the Packers not picked up Lacy and Franklin, Harris would have been the odds-on favorite to take the No. 1 job out of camp. He's just 5-foot-9, though, and did minimal work as a pass catcher out of the backfield last year.
Harris seemed to get better the more snaps he received, which makes sense given his lack of experience.
If Starks could stay healthy, he might be a dynamite option in Green Bay's backfield. He was the Packers' playoff hero during their Super Bowl run at the end of the 2010 season, really coming out of nowhere to rush for 315 yards in four postseason games.
Starks probably has more downfield speed than Green, and he's shown the type of vision the Packers are hoping Harris can attain. But he simply has not been able to stay on the field.
What makes Lacy a fit for this Packers' offense? Well, he's powerful and aggressive between the tackles -- think what Green Bay likes in fullback John Kuhn but with exponentially more athleticism. Rotoworld's Evan Silva charted 59 of Lacy's Alabama carries before the draft and discovered that Lacy "fell forward" while being tackled on 52 of them. That's the type of extra effort that the Packers have been unable to find, part of why they often spread the field with empty backfields in short-yardage situations, relying on Aaron Rodgers to either deliver a quick strike or sneak it.
Lacy's go-to is a spin move (you can see it in action on the first snap of this tape), but he's shifty enough that defenders have to stay on their toes.
Aside from durability concerns, the questions following Lacy to the NFL are about his potential as a three-down back: Can he block? Will he catch enough passes? He shows promise both places, but those uncertainties may have led the Packers to draft ...
The UCLA star really is unique in Green Bay's backfield competition. He ran a 4.49 40 at the combine, while his 5-foot-10, 205-pound stature puts him close to Harris' 5-9, 208 listing -- but Franklin might be more solidly built.
Whereas the Packers may need to wait on Lacy as a third-down back possibility, Franklin is versatile enough to play whenever asked (talents that are on display here). If this winds up being a two-man situation with Lacy and Franklin seeing the bulk of the action, you can bet that Lacy will be used in traditional run situations, while Franklin earns more time when the Packers want to air it out.
Obviously, just loading up a position on the depth chart does not guarantee success -- look at the Jets' QB bumblings or Oakland's failures at receiver. So, just bringing in two rookies to pile on top of three veterans will not necessarily bring the Packers a better run game.
What may do that, however, is the healthy mix of abilities that Green Bay appears to have corralled. The trick for the Packers will be figuring out which guy to have on the field ... or when to turn to a rotation.
With camp a few weeks away, the safe money is on Lacy handling first- and second-down duties and Franklin spelling him on third downs or if the Packers find themselves behind late. Harris and Green, especially, could have a lot to say about that plan.BURKE: Each team's most pressing question