Countdown to Camp: New vision, veteran backs lead run game into 2019

RB Aaron Jones
RB Aaron Jones

This is the second in a series of stories examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to training camp. The series continues with the running backs.

GREEN BAY – With Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams both entering their prime, there’s renewed optimism for the Packers’ run game under new Head Coach Matt LaFleur.

Wherever LaFleur travels, ground production tends to follow. He helped fashion top 10 rushing offenses as both offensive play-caller last year in Tennessee and during his stint as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator in 2017.

Enthusiastic about how they fit in LaFleur’s scheme, both Jones and Williams returned noticeably leaner for the offseason program. Jones cut out cookies, chips and candy to halve his body fat from 11 percent to 5.3, while Williams aims to play at 220 pounds this year after adding more muscle to his 6-foot frame.

The following is the second installment in a series of photos examining the Packers' roster position by position. This installment examines the running backs.

The third-year running backs have been Green Bay’s one-two backfield punch for the better part of two seasons, amassing 2,896 total yards and 22 touchdowns since entering the league together as Day 3 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Jones, a fifth-rounder that year out of the University of Texas-El Paso, has quickly developed a reputation as one of the NFL’s most explosive runners.

The 5-foot-9, 208-pound running back has averaged 5.5 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons, leading all qualifying NFL running backs (at least 100 carries) in the category in 2018.

The only thing that’s held Jones back so far has been injuries. He’s missed six games over two years due to knee injuries, both of which were sustained in Chicago. Jones had his first 1,000-yard campaign in sight last year before spraining his knee in Week 15 at Soldier Field.

The ying to Jones’ yang, Williams started the final two weeks of the season in place of his friend, with whom he shares an agent. The former fourth-round pick tallied a season-high 156 total yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ come-from-behind win over the New York Jets.

Dependability has been Williams’ calling card in Green Bay. The former BYU standout has yet to miss a game in his pro career, amassing 1,020 rushing yards, 472 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 32 games (15 starts).

While the rushing offense is expected to run through the two veteran backs, the Packers added another prospect to the mix in April when they drafted Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams in the sixth round (194th overall).

In his only season as a starter, the 5-foot-11, 212-pound running back flashed every-down potential when he rushed for 995 yards and 12 TDs on 158 carries (6.3-yard average) as a senior.

Williams’ light college workload (257 carries in four years) was appealing to potential NFL suitors in the pre-draft process, while his past experience in an outside-zone scheme figures to make his transition to LaFleur’s offense a seamless one.

The release of Kapri Bibbs after minicamp leaves only one other running back on the offseason roster in third-year veteran Tra Carson, who missed most of the offseason program with a hamstring injury

Carson, 26, played in six games during a 2018 season split between Cincinnati and Green Bay. He made two coverage tackles on special teams before being placed on the Packers’ IR with a rib injury.

If recent history is any indication, Dexter Williams and Carson should be in line for plenty of opportunities this preseason. Jones and Jamaal Williams each played in only two games last summer, carrying the ball 14 and seven times, respectively.

After the Packers didn’t keep a fullback on last year’s initial 53-man roster, the position appears to have new life under LaFleur with Danny Vitale and Malcolm Johnson competing for the job.

A former sixth-round pick of Tampa Bay in 2016, Vitale played his first two seasons with the Cleveland Browns before being waived injured at the end of training camp last summer. Signed to the Packers’ practice squad on Oct. 22, the 6-foot, 239-pound fullback played in five games after a Dec. 1 activation to Green Bay’s 53.

Vitale, possessor of eight NFL catches, feels he’ll benefit from the switch to LaFleur’s offense. More than just a run blocker, the former Northwestern “Super back” had 135 catches for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns in four years for the Wildcats.

Johnson, a sixth-round pick by the Browns in 2015, played one season with Vitale in Cleveland before being waived in October 2016. The third-year veteran spent time in Seattle (2016 practice squad) and San Francisco (2018 offseason roster) before finishing last year on the Packers’ practice squad.

COUNTDOWN TO CAMP SERIES

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