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Five things learned at the NFL Scouting Combine – Day 1

Matt LaFleur explains his preference for a backfield committee


INDIANAPOLIS – Here's a handful of highlights from the media sessions of Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur and General Manager Brian Gutekunst on Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine.

1. The Packers have big plans for both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.

LaFleur worked with dozens of running backs during his five previous NFL stops as an assistant coach, each with his own unique skill set.

He served on staffs featuring a single back such as Todd Gurley in Los Angeles and Alfred Morris in Washington, and coached in systems where committee approaches have reigned supreme like Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

When LaFleur finally started calling plays last year in Tennessee, it was his preference to utilize more than one running back and the strategy paid dividends with Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis powering the Titans to the NFL's seventh-best rushing offense.

Now the head coach and offensive play-caller in Green Bay, LaFleur plans on following a similar script with third-year running backs Jones and Williams.

"You'd better have two guys that can go, because I think it's the most violent position, the hits those guys can end up taking," LaFleur said.

"We fed Dion quite a bit early in the season, and it's just, there's only so much a guy can take, and I thought he kind of wore down maybe a little bit. Then we fed Derrick and he was rolling at the end of the season. It's trying to find that healthy balance throughout the entire season so you're not just leaning on one guy."

Jones and Williams have each had their moments in Green Bay. Jones has rushed for 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns on 214 carries (5.5-yard average), but missed eight games through his first two NFL seasons due to knee injuries.

Williams, who has played in all 32 games thus far, has rushed for 1,020 yards and seven TDs on 274 attempts (3.7-yard average) in addition to catching 52 passes for 472 yards and two TDs.

Williams started the first five games this past season before Jones caught fire at the midseason mark. He'd started eight of nine games before spraining his knee against Chicago.

As the Packers begin building their blueprint for 2019, Gutekunst believes both running backs will flourish in LaFleur's offense.

"I think it's tough for one back to kind of carry the whole load," Gutekunst said. "Aaron is capable. He obviously has to continue to condition his body so he can be available all the time. But when he's on the field, he's a difference-maker for us. We want him out there as much as we can."

2. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan considered allowing LaFleur to interview his brother Mike, a 49ers assistant, for a job in Green Bay.

LaFleur, his younger brother, Mike, and Shanahan have grown close over the years, having all worked together on the Falcons' coaching staff in 2015-16.

Still, that didn't make it any less awkward when Matt sought Shanahan's permission last month to interview Mike, the 49ers' pass-game coordinator, for a position in Green Bay.

Asked how that conversation went, LaFleur couldn't help but chuckle.

"Obviously it didn't go very well," joked LaFleur to a roar of laughter. "I've got a lot of respect for my brother, and I know he does a great job, and that's the reason they didn't want to let him out of San Francisco. In the end it's probably going to work out for the best for both of us."

Shanahan, who spoke shortly after Matt inside the Indiana Convention Center on Wednesday, said he considered allowing Mike to interview with his brother, but timing was an issue.

Conversely, Shanahan and the 49ers did allow LaFleur to interview assistant Adam Stenavich, who was then hired as Green Bay's new offensive line coach.

"I'd been hoping for a long time to get the opportunity to be a head coach," Shanahan said. "There's been guys that I've worked with from a young age to train them for this role to help me in this spot. … Mike LaFleur is a great coach. He's going to be a great coach. He's done great things for me. If he wants to work with his brother, that opportunity will come for him soon."

3. LaFleur likes what he sees in the Packers' young receivers.

The Packers made a significant investment in the receiver position last spring when they took Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J'Mon Moore on the third and final day of the 2018 NFL Draft, and LaFleur is grateful they did.

Valdes-Scantling lived up to his 4.37-second time in the 40-yard dash and became a big-play target on his way to averaging 15.3 yards per catch. The fifth-round pick out of South Florida finished third on the team with 38 catches for 581 yards.

"I'm really excited about those guys," LaFleur said. "All three of those guys, there's a reason they were drafted. They're big guys that can all run. That's something we're looking for in our scheme, guys that can stretch the field vertically. Just really excited about how those guys will be able to progress throughout their career."

4. The fullback position is still a part of the Packers' plans.

In quite possibly an unprecedented move in team history, the Packers didn't carry a fullback on their initial 2018 roster.

That didn't last long, though. The Packers signed Danny Vitale to the practice squad at the end of October and promoted the former sixth-round pick to the active roster on Dec. 1. They also added Malcolm Johnson to the practice squad in November.

"With Danny, we really liked him in the draft process," Gutekunst said. "We thought he had a skillset that we could use. Thought he could be good on (special) teams as well. I think if you can have one you'd always like to have one because it allows you to do things that you can't do if you don't have one. He's got to be good enough. I think Dan has a chance."

LaFleur remains a proponent for the position. He noted how a fullback could have made a difference for the Rams after New England sold out to stop LA's run game in Super Bowl LIII.

"New England was not going to allow the Rams to run their outside zone to the weak side. It was not going to happen the way they were structurally," LaFleur said. "That's where you could have used a fullback to get some of those strong side pull-flow runs and what not. But again, if we have the right guy."

5. Gutekunst is excited about adding Milt Hendrickson to the personnel department.

Gutekunst first met the Packers' new director-football operations, Milt Hendrickson, when the two were coaching at UW-La Crosse back in the mid-'90s.

Gutekunst was the Eagles' head JV coach at the time. With a background in defense, Gutekunst tabbed then-graduate assistant Hendrickson to run the offense.

A native of De Soto (Wis.), Hendrickson became reacquainted with Gutekunst when the Packers brought him in as a training-camp intern in 2004. The following year, Hendrickson was hired as a regional scout in Baltimore's personnel department.

"Everything he's ever touched he's been successful at," Gutekunst said. "I just thought bringing him into our group … was really comforting for me because we're going to win, and when we win guys are going to get opportunities, and I wanted to make sure I had enough guys in our pipeline that we can keep moving forward."

Photos of Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy, General Manager Brian Gutekunst, and Head Coach Matt LaFleur at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

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