The Green Bay Packers know full well how much an effective rushing attack will help the team have success. In the 2010 postseason, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was brilliant, as he threw nine touchdown passes, compared to just two interceptions, for 1.094 yards in four games. That added up to a 109.8 quarterback rating.
That also led to a victory in Super Bowl XLV, where Rodgers was also the game's MVP. Rodgers' success was certainly helped by a strong running attack. Running back James Starks, who had only gained 101 yards in the regular season, became a force in the postseason. Starks led all NFL running backs with 315 yards rushing in the 2010 postseason.
Defensive opponents were always on their heels because of that development. Teams couldn't scheme to just stop Green Bay's potent passing game. Because of the running game threat, Rodgers was able to use a number of play-action pass plays to help freeze the linebackers and the secondary for just a moment, and that certainly helped his success.
In the 2011 regular season, even though the team went 15-1, the rushing attack sputtered as the Packers finished 27th in the NFL in rushing. The result? A shocking playoff loss to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field, as the G-Men were solely focused on stopping the Green Bay passing attack.
In the 2012 regular season, the Packers improved the running game, as Green Bay ended up 20th in the league in rushing. The Packers rushed for 1,702 yards in 2012, which included a 3.9 yard average.
The Packers achieved that with five running backs whom they used during the course of the season. This group included Cedric Benson, Alex Green, James Starks, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris.
Green Bay did win a playoff game in the 2012 postseason (versus the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field), but then suffered a 45-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. In that game, the Packers abandoned the running game in the second half of the contest and became one dimensional.
That's why it's so important that the Packers establish a strong running game in 2013, so it can help the Packers' passing game have the success it has had in the past, most notably in the 2010 postseason.
Because of that, I expect the Packers to select a running back fairly early in the 2013 NFL draft.
The Packers really liked the dimension that Harris brought the team late in the 2012 regular season and in the postseason. The team isn't ready to write off Green and Starks yet either, as both have flashed some real ability, but both need to stay healthy in 2013.
Still, the Packers need to find a back who will make the safeties play up near the line of scrimmage because of the threat of the run. That rarely happened in 2012, when most times the safeties played extremely deep. That scenario definitely affected the Packers' deep passing game.
There are a number of viable candidates in the upcoming draft who can help the Packers. Here are five of them.
Weight: 220 pounds
In the 2013 NFL Draft, there are some who believe a running back won't be taken in the first round of the draft. However, if any running back should be selected in round one, it's Eddie Lacy of Alabama, who ended his collegiate career with a brilliant performance in the BCS National Championship Game.
Lacy rushed for 140 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown, plus caught two passes for 17 yards and had another score, as the Crimson Tide whipped the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame 42-14.
Previous to that, Lacy ran for 181 yards in the SEC Championship Game against the Georgia Bulldogs.
For the 2012 season, Lacy rushed for 1,322 yards (6.4 average) and had 17 touchdowns for the Tide.
The Packers have all sorts of questions at running back right now. Veterans Cedric Benson and Ryan Grant most likely won't be back. James Starks has been injured way too often in his three years in the NFL, although he has some good ability. Alex Green also has ability, but his ACL injury from 2011 set him back late this past season due to some scarring issues with the knee.
The Packers were excited with the emergence of DuJuan Harris late this past season and also in the playoffs, but because of the size of Harris (5'7", 208 lbs), the Packers aren't completely sure he could handle the role of being a three-down running back.
Lacy would be an excellent addition to pair with Harris, as he is an inside-the-tackles running back, who runs with power. Lacy also catches the ball pretty well.
Would Ted Thompson draft someone like Lacy in the first round? It's a possibility. Why? Because in the 2011 NFL draft, Thompson strongly considered drafting Mark Ingram out of Alabama in the first round, before the New Orleans Saints selected him first.
Lacy didn't win the Heisman Trophy like Ingram did, but most scouts believe he would be a better NFL running back.
Weight: 215 pounds
Montee Ball finished his last season at Wisconsin strong, as he was named the Grange-Griffin Big Ten Championship Game MVP, as he rushed for 202 yards and three touchdowns against Nebraska. Then in the the Rose Bowl, Ball rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown versus Stanford.
That was the third straight Rose Bowl that Ball participated in. Ball became the first player in the history of the Rose Bowl to rush for over 100 yards in three consecutive games, plus score a touchdown in three straight games.
Ball also won the Doak Walker Award (nation's top running back) this past season, and was also named first-team All-Big Ten at running back, too. Ball was named Big Ten Running Back of the Year this season as well.
Ball won those same Big Ten awards in 2011 as well.
Also, just like in 2011, Ball was also named to the first-team Associated Press All-American team at running back.
This past season, Ball rushed for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Last year, when Ball was a Heisman finalist, the Badger running back rushed for 1,923 yards, had 33 rushing touchdowns and added six receiving touchdowns.
Ball holds the Division I FBS all-time touchdown record with 82 scores. Ball also holds the all-time FBS mark with 76 touchdowns rushing the football.
Overall in his storied career, Ball has 5,040 yards rushing, plus 58 receptions for 591 more yards.
Ball would fit a need for Green Bay at running back, plus he would adapt to Mike McCarthy's offensive scheme very well. The Packers need a back that will bring the safeties up near the line of scrimmage, as opposed to playing strictly deep, like they did in 2012.
Ball is a natural cut-back runner who hits the hole hard, and who obviously knows how to find the end zone. He has excellent vision to go along with a nice blend of speed and power. Ball is also a very good receiver and a good blocker.
Ball looks to be drafted in either the second or third round of this year's draft.
Weight: 216 pounds
Stepfan Taylor finished his career at Stanford very strong, as he helped to lead the Stanford Cardinal to the Rose Bowl. In that game, Taylor ran for 88 yards, plus scored a touchdown in Stanford's 20-14 win against the Wisconsin Badgers. Taylor also had three receptions for 17 yards.
In addition, Taylor was named to the 2012 All-Pac-12 second-team at running back. Taylor had 1,442 yards rushing the ball this year, plus scored 12 touchdowns. Taylor also catches the ball well, as he had 38 receptions for 370 yards and two more touchdowns.
Taylor did it when it counted, too. In the last three regular season games of the Pac-12 season, Taylor had 114, 161 and 142 yards rushing versus ranked opponents Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA, respectively.
Plus, Taylor also had 78 yards rushing and one touchdown against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game. Additionally, Taylor had six receptions for 55 yards.
At the Senior Bowl, Taylor had an excellent week at practices. He ran for 53 yards on just nine carries in the game for the South. He also had two receptions for eight yards.
Taylor is an all-around running back, and he has the the ability to be a three-down back with the Packers.
The Packers need a back like Taylor, who can get the tough yards in a short-yardage situation.
Taylor is expected to be selected in the third or fourth round of the draft.
Weight: 207 pounds
Mike Gillislee had a fine senior campaign for the Florida Gators, as he had 1,104 yards rushing the football, plus had 10 touchdowns. He also caught 15 passes for 146 yards and another score.
Gillislee was also named to the All-SEC first-team at running back by both the coaches and the media this past season.
The Gator running back had a fabulous last game of the regular season, when he ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the arch-rival Florida State Seminoles.
Gillislee played an important role in the Gators finishing 11-2 this past season and moving on to the Sugar Bowl. In that game, Gillislee gained 48 yards on nine carries, plus caught a pass for 13 yards in the 33-23 loss to the Louisville Cardinals.
At the Senior Bowl, Gillislee was very solid during practice sessions, plus had 46 yards rushing on 10 attempts in the game for the South.
Gillislee also has three-down running back abilities, and is also an exceptional blocker picking up blitzes.
The former Gator is also expected to be selected in either the third or fourth round of the draft.
Weight: 220 pounds
As I watched an East-West Shrine game practice one day, I noticed that Ted Thompson was keeping a very close eye on Christine Michael, as Michael showed some real athletic ability during that particular practice session.
In the actual game, Michael ran for 42 yards and a touchdown in the West's 28-13 victory over the East. He also had a reception for seven yards.
Michael fits a mold for Thompson, as he has flown a bit under the radar due to injuries in college—very similar to James Starks' situation in college.
Michael had only 417 yards rushing his senior year at Texas A&M, but did manage to score 12 touchdowns. Injuries kept Michael from playing full seasons the two previous years (broken tibia in 2010 and a knee injury in 2011). Combined in those two years, Michael had 1,530 yards and 12 touchdowns.
As a freshman, Michael ran for 844 yards, and also scored 10 touchdowns.
Michael is very good in short-yardage situations.
Michael's performance during the week at the East-West Shrine game may have moved him up the draft board, where he now could be selected in either the third or fourth round of the draft.