This is the second in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, heading into training camp. The series continues with the running backs.
GREEN BAY – Running-back-by-committee wasn’t necessarily the Packers’ plan for 2017, but it worked out that way, and pretty well, too.
Amidst injuries and shifting roles, the trio of Ty Montgomery, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams combined for 1,277 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season. They added 457 receiving yards and three more scores through the air.
The Packers would certainly take that level of production from their backfield again, if not more, and the top three backs are capable of delivering.
The question is who will lead the way, now that Montgomery is back from a wrist injury that landed him on injured reserve late last year, while Jones and Williams are no longer rookies but experienced pros.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy has stated he expects to begin 2018 with the by-committee approach and see where things go from there.
The Packers actually will start the season without Jones, who’s suspended for the first two games. That makes the pecking order in the early weeks less significant, because it’s practically a given both Montgomery and Williams will play, provided they’re healthy.
Last year, Jones was the big-play guy, with touchdown runs of 46 and 20 yards and a 5.5-yard average; Williams was the grinder, leading the group with 153 carries for 556 yards; and Montgomery was the veteran showing them the way, particularly with pass-protection duties.
Heading into the new year, Montgomery is the wild card offensively, so to speak, because of his background as a receiver. The Packers would like to make him a matchup issue for defenses, adjusting on the fly whether he lines up in the backfield or split wide. He wasn’t used as much in that way last year as expected after rib injuries limited his playing time even before the wrist problem.
In that vein, it’s not assumed there’s room for only one running back on the field at a time, but those decisions could be opponent-driven and game-plan based, depending on the week.
More specific to Jones’ early absence, though, is the potential opportunity for last year’s seventh-round pick, Devante Mays, and first-year back Joel Bouagnon to make an impression.
Mays will be looking to bounce back from a couple of fumbles that limited his chances in 2017, but the 5-10, 230-pounder from Utah State possesses compact power that makes him a little different from his backfield mates.
Bouagnon was signed right after the season ended, having not caught on last summer as a rookie free agent with the Bears following a 2,900-yard, 31-touchdown rushing career at Northern Illinois.
The Packers also have two fullbacks vying for roles in veterans Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Kerridge. Ripkowski’s touches from scrimmage dwindled in 2017, but he was still a mainstay on special teams. Kerridge has been on and off the Packers’ practice squad and active roster each of the last two years.
How many total backs make the final roster will depend, in part, on how things shake out at tight end as well, because McCarthy has often used tight ends and fullbacks interchangeably. There will be an extra roster spot available for the first two weeks with Jones out as well.
But most attention will be on how the carries and playing time for the primary running backs get divvied up.
The Packers went by-committee last year out of necessity. It’s how they’re starting this year, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t eventually become the featured guy.