What Do the Packers Do at Running Back?

The Power Sweep’s Jon Meerdink joined host Brian Carriveau on Cheesehead TV’s Railbird Central on Friday to discuss the Packers future at the running back position.

Brian Carriveau: We’ve got a Packers running back theme for this episode, Jon, and let me start with this: an article at ESPN recently speculated about the Packers signing Adrian Peterson of the Vikings if he gets released, which could happen. So I’ve got two questions for you: how would you feel about that, and what do you think the likelihood is of that actually happening?

Jon Meerdink: Well, to answer your second question first, I think there’s a low likelihood that the Packers are actually going to sign Adrian Peterson, and that is because he’s just a bad fit for the Packers.

The first thing you have to look at with Adrian Peterson is his recent criminal history. The child abuse allegations, indictment, and the fallout from that case is an enormous black mark on his record and something that has been largely glossed over both by Rob Demovsky in the article you mentioned and in the article by Bill Barnwell, the other article that mentioned Peterson possibly coming to the Packers.

Look, the Packers got raked over the coals for bringing Colt Lyerla to training camp, and Lyerla’s greatest offense was a drug-related thing, which is just a crime against himself, and speculating about conspiracy theories on the internet. Beat writer Bob McGinn criticized the Packers as sort of bottom feeders, as people who were willing to do anything and sign anybody when they brought him aboard, and bringing a guy who has an actual criminal history on board, who’s been indicted for a serious issue like child abuse, who’s faced that entire process, I think would be an enormous PR mistake for the Packers.

The other things you can’t ignore are first that he’s going to be 32 before the start of next season. He has a recent history of leg injuries. History shows us that 32-year old running backs generally just aren’t that productive. Outside of Frank Gore in Indianapolis, I don’t think you can name any 32-year old running backs that have had a high level of success in the NFL.

Finally, he’s just not that good at the things that the Packers need from their running backs. If you’re a running back with the Packers, you have to understand that the focus of the offense is Aaron Rodgers, and allowing Aaron Rodgers to do the things that he does best is going to be a big part of your job. That’s part of the job for anybody on offense.

So, for a running back, you’re going to have to pass protect, you have to be good at catching passes, and you have to be good at running out of shotgun. The Packers ran about 68% of their plays out of shotgun last year. If you’re not good at running out of shotgun, you’re not going to succeed in that offense. For his career, Adrian Peterson averages about 3.7 yards per carry out of shotgun. That’s lower than guys like Eddie Lacy, Ryan Grant, and Brandon Jackson. Ty Montgomery averages 6.4 yards per carry out of shotgun. The Packers don’t need a running back like Adrian Peterson, at least not at a high price. I just don’t think that’s going to happen, for a variety of reasons.

BC: Jon, in another article published at ESPN.com, Mel Kiper Jr. has the Packers picking Christian McCaffrey of Stanford in the first round of the NFL Draft, something he’s done twice now. I know some people think the Packers already have a similar versatile running back with Ty Montgomery, who’s also from Stanford. What do you think of this McCaffrey prediction?

Jon: I try to read charitably into things that people write about the Packers on the internet, so let’s try to look at Kiper’s prediction in a charitable light.

It’s true that the Packers need running backs and it’s true that McCaffrey does a lot of the things that would make him a good fit for what the Packers are trying to do on offense, so I understand what he’s saying, and that McCaffrey could be a good fit for the Packers.

But as much as I like McCaffrey as a player and as much as it might make sense on paper, running back is not a good value pick in the first round. I think we need to think about running backs a lot more like we think about wide receivers. It’s a lot better to have a lot of running backs that do a few things well than just one elite stud. Unless you’re going to get the equivalent of a Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson in the first round as a running back, I think you’re better off spending those resources elsewhere.

I don’t think that McCaffrey is that sort of elite talent at running back. That’s not to say he’s not a very good player and could do a lot of good things for the Packers, but he’s not a once-in-a-generation sort of prospect. I’d rather see the Packers do some things at running back where they can stockpile a lot of players who are good at multiple things later in the draft or through free agency.

BC: Whether it’s in the draft or in free agency, it seems like the Packers need depth at the running back position, considering they released James Starks and Montgomery is the only halfback under contract, wouldn’t you think that’s the case?

JM: I think that is absolutely the case. Looking ahead to the draft, the Packers have seven draft picks and probably one compensatory pick coming their way, which could be a fifth rounder. There are players on the board that would fit the profile of the picks that they have, and I think the draft would be a good opportunity to acquire some depth at the running back position. I think given Ted Thompson’s history, you’re probably looking at someone in rounds two through four coming to the Packers if you’re going to draft a running back this year.

Free agency is also an option, but there are some concerns there. The big concern with running backs, since it’s such a high turnover position, is that you have to ask why a guy is available. Why did his team not want him back? Why did they decide that they want to release him or not bring him back at the conclusion of his contract? A lot of times it’s going to be age, and the Packers don’t want to invest money in a running back who is rapidly approaching the age of 30.

You also have to think of things like injuries, guys who have had high-carry seasons, or who have just been through the wringer of being an NFL running back, and those are big considerations if you’re thinking of signing a running back in free agency.

BC: So if you had to predict, what do you think happens to Eddie Lacy in free agency, and how much money do you think he’ll command?

JM: This is something that I’ve maintained since the start of the offseason. I think the chances of Eddie Lacy returning to the Packers are greater than almost any other Packers writer I’ve seen out there. I think that’s because Lacy and a lot of other running backs hitting the market, Adrian Peterson included, are going to get a free lesson in economics this offseason. Basically it’s the supply versus demand argument. Do teams need a lot of running back who are over 30 or approaching 30? Lacy, and it makes me feel old to say this, is a lot closer to 30 than 20. He’ll be 27 by the start of the next season, so that’s approaching the age where a lot of running backs are starting to break down. So the market value for a guy like Lacy, unless there’s a team out there who’s willing to give him the Chris Ivory special, is going to be lower than Lacy and other people predict.

I think there still is value in the Packers having that sort of “traditional” running back. You have to keep in mind that while they ran a lot of their plays out of shotgun, 60% of their running plays came from under center. Lacy is very good at running from that sort of position, and I think if you use a guy like that judiciously, he can still have a lot of value for his team. I don’t think you want to bring him back as the feature back, but Lacy, if he’s at the $2 to $3 million dollar range, would be a good value signing for the Packers.

BC: Okay, maybe not the name brand that Lacy has, but if the Packers are looking for depth at the position, both Don Jackson and John Crockett are exclusive rights free agents. Is it inevitable that the Packers re-sign at least one of them?

JM: I think Don Jackson and John Crockett are both guys that are worth taking another look at, but I also wouldn’t count on them as sort of that running back of the future. Both guys were very productive in college, but I always wonder why the Packers bring in guys that were very productive, but not really elite athletes. Neither Don Jackson or John Crockett is going to jump off the page in any sort of area of their physical profile. Both do things well, but I wonder why you wouldn’t rather take a flyer on a guy who does something extremely well. Even Christine Michael is a 4.3 or low 4.4’s 40-yard dash guy. That’s an elite athlete. Neither Don Jackson nor John Crockett is that sort of guy, and I’d rather see the Packers take a flyer on a guy who does one thing really well than someone who’s sort of a low-level, well-rounded player.

BC: Earlier this week the NFL released its list of players invited to the NFL combine, and absent from that list was former Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who was charged with assault and suspended in college but was also considered one of the most talented running backs in this year’s draft. This is part of a new initiative by the NFL not to invite players to the combine that have been convicted of violence. Jon, do you agree with this stance that the NFL is taking?

JM: I completely agree. I have zero tolerance for people who are involved in this sort of thing. I think it demonstrates an extreme lack of judgement. I have a lot more sympathy for the college-aged guys, like Laremy Tunsil last year, who make bad decisions with drugs and alcohol. That’s one thing, and I think you can evaluate that on a more case-by-case basis. But I have no problem with taking guys out of consideration or off the board or out of the Combine, whatever you want to do, who have been convicted of something like what Joe Mixon has done. It’s just beyond the pale for me. I think it would be a huge black mark against any team that wants to bring him in, and I completely agree with the stance the NFL has taken.