The Green Bay Packers running back situation appears to be gaining more and more clarity as the once talent-starved position prepares to take on the St. Louis Rams in the second game of the 2013 preseason Saturday night.
In fact, defined roles might soon start to take shape.
By the time the final whistle blows in St. Louis and the Packers begin their preparation for the all-important dress rehearsal week of the exhibition schedule, the running backs should have a good idea about how each will be used in the regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 8.
As expected, second-round pick Eddie Lacy is starting to distinguishing himself from the rest of his fellow backs.
Despite missing roughly a week of practice due to a minor hamstring injury, Lacy has consistently displayed the kind of natural feel and instincts that the Packers haven't seen at the position since the days of Ryan Grant or even Ahman Green.
Lacy made a big impression on the Packers coaching staff almost immediately.
At the Family Night scrimmage, the 230-pound back carried eight times for 65 yards, including runs of seven, eight, 16 and 19 yards.
On both of his longer gallops, Lacy flashed not only patience and vision in his initial read, but also the one-cut-and-go explosion needed in the Packers zone-based running game. Once at the second level, an area the Packers running backs saw very little of last season, he proved hard to get to the ground.
The latter came as no surprise.
Throughout camp, head coach Mike McCarthy has praised his new back's ability to challenge the "free hat," or the unaccounted for defender on nearly every running play, in an attempt to reach the second level. Winning that matchup is what typically creates big plays in the running game. Last season, the Packers had just four runs over 20 yards from running backs.
A minor flareup in his hamstring eventually caused Lacy to miss Green Bay's first preseason contest against the Arizona Cardinals, and he might only play a few snaps against the Rams Saturday. But there's no question he's started to separate himself in the race to be the Packers' primary ball-carrier to open 2013.
Running backs coach Alex Van Pelt explained to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel what has made Lacy such an impressive fit early on.
"He's a patient runner," Van Pelt said. "But once that decision has been made, it's north and south. That's the strong point of him. You rarely see him make a bad read in the running game. It's just a natural thing as a runner."
Lacy's ability to quickly grasp pass-protection concepts has also contributed to his grasp on the lead-back role.
Upon his return to the practice field Wednesday, Lacy stonewalled each of his pass-blocking assignments in the positional drills. The performance earned more praise from Van Pelt, via Paul Imig of Fox Sports Wisconsin.
Here is one of those blocking reps, courtesy of ESPN's Rob Demovsky:
Winning over the trust of McCarthy and Van Pelt in the passing game—especially as a blocker—will only ensure more opportunities for Lacy, even if the Packers do feel strongly about DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin on third down. A young running back can't play in the Packers offense without the staff's trust in keeping Aaron Rodgers clean.
At least so far, Lacy has progressed nicely in the pass-protection phase.
In fact, Lacy's entire package has seemed to translate nicely from Alabama to Green Bay.
A big back with power and vision, plus underrated acceleration and change of direction skill, Lacy has displayed all the traits of a starting running back in the NFL. Seeing those attributes against live competition in the preseason is Lacy's last hurdle, but the Packers have to be pleased with the way their second-round pick has looked through three weeks of camp.
With Lacy running away with the starter's job, here's what the rest of the Packers running backs need to do to carve out specific roles within the offense:
If James Starks continues to be available (he missed Wednesday's practice with an illness, not an injury, but returned Thursday), the fourth-year back should have a spot on the final 53-man roster. Health for Starks remains the key, as he's missed 26 of a possible 48 games in his NFL career.
In both the intrasquad scrimmage and preseason opener, the Packers gave an able-bodied Starks the first crack at touches. He was sharp during each appearance. And overall, Starks has been the better of the two veteran backs in camp.
Without an injury occurring over the next 2-3 weeks, Starks should get his chance to see regular-season touches. He can't afford to miss any time and re-open the door.
As recent as last week, McCarthy told Tom Pelissero of USA Today that the Packers still view Harris as the "starter." That comment was likely more about McCarthy giving lip service to the strong finish Harris provided the Packers offense to close last season than anything tangible regarding the running back depth chart moving forward.
But even if Lacy does continue on his current path and secure the lead-back duties, Harris could easily evolve into McCarthy's go-to third-down back.
Despite standing just 5'7", Harris was strong in pass protection last season and has an ideal skill set for being a playmaker in obvious passing situations. He allowed no pressures while catching nine passes for 81 yards over Green Bay's final three games, including the postseason.
Johnathan Franklin certainly hasn't been as impressive through three weeks of camp as Lacy, or even as many predicted he would be upon landing in Green Bay.
It appears he's still learning how to adapt to the Packers style of running the football, especially inside. In space, however, Franklin has been occasionally electric, and he might turn out to be a real asset on screen-type passing plays.
The Packers will probably have to generate ways to get him the football on the perimeter to truly maximize his skill set, especially early on. There's still a lot of talent here to mold.
If we assume Franklin, a fourth-round pick, is a near-lock to make the team and can also agree Starks is having the better camp, then Alex Green's place on the Packers roster is in serious jeopardy.
While it appeared early on that some of his explosion was back, soreness in his surgically repaired knee has flared up at times and limited the third-year back. It's worth wondering if the knee is always going to give him troubles.
A strong three-game finish could always change his fortunes, or at least increase his chances of being dealt to a running back-needy team on cut-down day. If the Packers were trimming their roster to 53 players today, Green would probably be gone.
All along, Angelo Pease has been fighting a losing battle. While he has shown flashes at times, the opportunities have been scarce with so much competition at the top of the depth chart.
Still, Pease has probably done enough to warrant serious consideration for the practice squad. He runs hard and is a willing receiver, despite limited collegiate experience doing either.
Lacy hasn't played a preseason game yet, but the Packers likely know what they have at the top of their running back depth chart. The rest of the position group needs to use Saturday night and the final two preseason games to carve out roles and secure roster spots.
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