Green Bay Packers: Full Position Breakdown, Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2014

Green Bay Packers: Full Position Breakdown, Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back

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    After selecting two running backs, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, in the 2013 draft, re-signing James Starks this offseason and DuJuan Harris returning as well, the Green Bay Packers certainly didn't need to add any depth at the position this offseason.

    With Rookie of the Year winner Lacy having emerged as an explosive, game-changing starter and Starks having proven he can effectively spell him while finding the end zone, the Packers have a solid starting rotation heading into the 2014 season.

    But will Green Bay carry four running backs on the 53-man roster? How will they use Franklin, the fourth-round selection who was so promising last offseason, only to be benched in 2013 for multiple drops and then landing on the injured reserve list for the rest of the season. 

    And despite his high draft selection, is there a situation in which Franklin doesn't make the final 53?

    Harris, who was at one point slotted in as Green Bay's starter ahead of the 2013 season, is extremely talented and is valuable on any team's bench. Will the Packers find a role for him?

    Additionally, the Packers currently have three additional backs on the 90-man roster in 5'7", 195-pound LaDarius Perkins from Mississippi State, 5'10", 210-pound Michael Hill out of Missouri Western and 5'11", 220-pound Rajion Neal out of Tennessee.

    But with the other four system-tested players vying to make the roster, it's unlikely Perkins, Hill or Neal earns a spot. 

    In the following overview, we'll break down the running back position in its entirety and predict how the 53-man roster will shape up.

Fourth-String: Johnathan Franklin

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    No general manager hopes to draft a running back in the fourth round one year and slot him in as a fourth-stringer the next, but that could be the reality for Franklin in 2014.

    Franklin was unable to participate in Packers OTAs in late May, "likely," per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, "still recovering from the neck injury that ended his rookie season." That has hurt his ability not only to prove that he deserves the No. 3 spot over Harris, but also to even prove that he deserves to be the fourth halfback the Packers carry into the 2014 season.

    Demovsky doesn't think that scenario is out of the question, noting that each of Green Bay's four front-runners has struggled with injuries at one time or another. Depth will therefore be important at this position.

    Harris and Franklin are both coming off injured reserve, Starks has spent nearly half his career battling injuries and Lacy missed almost two full games with a concussion in 2013 and experienced a nagging ankle injury during the late games. 

    Franklin didn't have the breakout rookie season some expected due partly to fumbling the ball two weeks in a row, which earned him some bench time, and suffering a concussion in late November. 

    And while new running backs coach Sam Gash can see how Lacy, Starks and Harris' styles could complement one another enough to earn each of them spots on the team, per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Franklin was left off that list.

    Gash and the Packers want each of their running backs to be able to stay on the field for all three downs, per Dunne. Lacy, Starks and Harris certainly have that ability, but Franklin may not.

    Perhaps the Packers will discover that Franklin has developed and improved his hands enough to be used as a receiver out of the backfield, which could add another dimension to the run game.

    If he can't bring something to the field the other three backs don't, a combination of some poor ball control and unfortunately timed injuries could turn Franklin into a draft bust.

Third-String: DuJuan Harris

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    As things stand in early June and during OTAs, Harris—who went undrafted—could very well surpass fourth-rounder Johnathan Franklin on the Packers' depth chart. 

    Harris has been faced with setbacks multiple times throughout his career, so earning the No. 3 spot among Green Bay's running backs would be a long-overdue achievement for him. After going undrafted in 2011, Harris was cut by both the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Pittsburgh Steelers and was a used-car salesman for a time before landing with the Packers. 

    After a breakout 2012 season, which led Mike McCarthy to name Harris the starter for 2013, Harris had a cyst removed near his lungs and then "damaged his patellar tendon" during OTAs, landing him on injured reserve for the year. 

    But Harris has been able to operate at full speed during this month's OTAs, impressing McCarthy and running backs coach Sam Gash.

    "DuJuan's shifty," Gash said during the first round of OTAs, per Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He's got real good balance, good explosion. He could be a good draw runner, an inside zone runner. He's got good control steps. He's a guy who's definitely doing well, and I'm still learning these guys, too."

    The feeling in Green Bay currently is that Harris has jumped ahead of Franklin, who was unable to participate in the first round of OTAs. 

    Harris isn't in a position to compete for the starting job anymore in Green Bay, but if McCarthy was high enough on him to award it to him once before, it's unlikely he'd cut him this offseason.

2nd-String: James Starks

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    Starks was such a valuable one-two punch with Lacy in 2013 that there was almost no question Green Bay would re-sign him this offseason. He helped move the ball down the field, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and found the end zone three times for a total of 493 yards.

    Starks also ran for 27 first downs for Green Bay, by far the most of his career, and helped keep drives alive in 2013. 

    Lacy, who had 284 carries, compared to Starks' 89, will be Green Bay's No. 1 back in 2014 but expect them to get Starks involved more often next season to protect Lacy's long-term futureperhaps as much as on alternating drives in some games. 

    At 6'2", Starks is the tallest back on the Packers roster. He has much of the same power to run through arm tackles as Lacy, but he offers something a little different physically. And his speed, having run a 4.50 40-yard dash time, has been an asset to the Packers on multiple occasions. If opponents allow Starks to get to the open field, he's as good as gone. 

Starter: Eddie Lacy

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    Lacy is the Packers' clear consensus No. 1 back. Even with Rodgers healthy and the fact that the Packers spent a good amount to re-sign Starks this offseason, Lacy's explosiveness and reliability will put him at the top of the depth chart.

    The 11 touchdowns Lacy scored in 2013 were the second-most among all NFL running backs, and he was the only rookie to land among the top 10 in scoring. 

    And he was just getting started. Rodgers' return actually helps lacy, who faced boxes of seven-plus men with Green Bay's starting quarterback on the sideline. Lacy could very well have even bigger numbers than his 1,178-yard, 11-touchdown 2013 season.

    To keep Lacy fresh and healthy, Green Bay might try to decrease the 284 carries he had last season (the fifth-most in the league). 

    But Lacy should still have an easy time hitting the 1,000-yard mark in 2014, even with Starks and Harris taking over a few drives a game. If the Packers want Lacy, Starks and Harris to be three-down backs, it's likely they keep each on the field for full drives at a time. Keeping Lacy healthy is a surefire way to increase his productivity even more next season.