The Green Bay Packers know that Aaron Rodgers will be behind center for another season in 2017.
They just don’t know who he’ll be handing the ball to on a regular basis.
For a team that has gone to the postseason in each of the last eight seasons, Green Bay is heading into training camp with one of the strangest running back situations in recent memory. The Packers’ No. 1 tailback is a wide receiver by trade, and the rest of the depth chart is made up of rookies. There are two fullbacks who have a little experience, but both are blocking specialists and at least one won’t survive the cutdown to 53 players.
Ty Montgomery was a wide receiver at Stanford, catching 172 passes in his four years, and that was his position during his rookie year with the Packers in 2015. He’s always been a threat to run the jet sweep — a play where the wide receiver in motion takes a quick handoff — and he finished his college career with 39 carries for 334 yards and four touchdowns. However, until injuries wiped out Green Bay’s running backs last season, he was never considered a candidate to play running back on a regular basis.
That’s what happened last year, though, as he became the No. 1 runner in the second half of the season. He didn’t carry a heavy workload, only averaging seven carries in the final 10 games, but he averaged 6.3 yards per rush and scored three touchdowns. This season, though, he’s expected to play more regularly after an offseason spent learning pass protection from former Packers blocking back Brandon Jackson.
However, the Packers aren’t planning on using him as a heavy-duty back, rushing the ball 25 times a game. With his receiving ability, he will play better with a strong No. 2 tailback, especially in two-back formations where he can shift into the slot or outside as a flanker. That’s something the Detroit Lions have used successfully with Theo Riddick, who is probably the best pass-catching running back in the league, and coach Mike McCarthy knows quite well how much value that can bring an offense.
The tricky part will be finding that second back. James Stark and Eddie Lacy are gone, and the Packers drafted three running backs and added two more as undrafted free agents.
Jamaal Williams was the first pick, coming off the board from BYU in the fourth round. With a 4.59 40-yard dash, he’s not going to be a big-play threat, but at 6-foot and 212 pounds, he’s an obvious choice to fill a role as the power tailback, running behind fullback Aaron Ripkowski. Williams scored 12 times last season for the Cougars despite missing three games, and has 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013. His junior season was disrupted by suspensions for violations of the school’s honor code, and he sat out 2015 entirely, but the fact that he was able to return to a conservative school like BYU and finish his career is a good sign.
One round later, the Packers took Aaron Jones out of Texas-El Paso. He doesn’t have blazing speed — he ran a 4.56 at the combine — but he rushed for 1,773 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a senior. He had at least one 40-yard run in eight games last season, and caught 28 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns, which makes him an intriguing candidate for the two-back sets with Montgomery. Having a pair of backs who are threats in the passing game will provide extra frustration for defensive coordinators.
The third draftee is Devante Mays from Utah State. Like Williams, Mays is a power back, but an extreme example of the genre. He’s an inch shorter than Williams at 5-11, but makes up for it with a 230-pound frame, and none of it is fat. He’s got a 40-inch vertical leap, a 420-pound bench press and a 4.5 time in the 40. He lasted until the seventh round due to recurring leg injuries and bad hands — he caught two passes in his college career — but the strength coaches in Green Bay are going to be drooling over what they can do with his potential.
William Stanback was the first undrafted free agent signed, and he’s another monster out of the Williams/Mays mode. He became an internet legend after destroying Rutgers cornerback Anthony Cioffi while playing for Central Florida, but failed drug tests meant he ended his career at Virginia Union. At 6-0 and 233 pounds, he’s built like Mays, but a wee bit faster at 4.48.
The longest shot is Kalif Phillips, who is undersized at 5-8, but is a solid 218 pounds and rushed for over 4,000 yards and 41 touchdowns in his career at Charlotte. If he makes the team in 2017, it probably will be as a special teams ace, but that would give him a chance to develop the skills he needs to compete for snaps and carries in the backfield.
If the Packers don’t grab a running back off another team’s cut list, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett will have a fascinating choice to make at the end of training camp. Few teams try to fill their running back group with a wide receiver, five rookies — none drafted in the first three rounds — and two fullbacks, but that’s where Green Bay is headed. All five rookies have flaws, but Jones seems to be a strong contender for one spot, with Williams having an advantage over Mays and Stanback on the goal line. Any of the three would be an uncomfortable sight lined up behind Ripkowski or second-year fullback Joe Kerridge.
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