Packers Draft: Top Day 3 Running Back Fits
Ardent draftniks and Packer die hards could probably write dissertations about the areas GM Brian Gutekunst needs to prioritize in this month’s draft, starting with the wide receiver, linebacker and offensive tackle positions, along with quarterback.
One part of the roster that isn’t quite as frequently discussed is running back, as Green Bay features one of the league’s most formidable tandems at that position, with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams leading the charge.
While recently commenting on his backfield during a Q&A session at the NFL Scouting Combine, head coach Matt LaFleur maintained that while Jones and Williams will be counted on to continue splitting reps as the primary backs, he’s also looking for a third man to emerge.
Though fan favorite Tyler Ervin could wind up being that third option, his track record suggests that his main duties will require him to serve as a receiving back and punt return specialist, with a career total of 6 carries in his four seasons as a pro.
As for sixth round pick Dexter Williams, he may not even make it out of the preseason unless he can distance himself from a disconcerting rookie campaign and earn the confidence of his coaching staff.
The highly regarded ball carrier seemed to fit LaFleur’s outside zone running scheme to a tee, with his dynamic cutting ability and the tantalizing burst he exhibited during his breakout senior year at Notre Dame.
But from the beginning, Williams never seemed comfortable operating in his new offense. Along with displaying hesitancy in hitting the hole, the ex-Golden Domer tested LaFluer’s patience in the preseason by dropping catchable balls and floundering as a pass blocker.
After his inauspicious start, it was no surprise that Williams went on to earn no more than 10 snaps and 5 carries all season.
Expect the Packers brain trust to invest a piece of their draft capital in a running back again since Williams — from the look of things — is on a short leash and will undoubtedly be asked to compete for a spot on the final 53.
Considering team needs at the previously mentioned areas, Green Bay will likely secure a running back no earlier than the fourth round.
Only twice in their past 15 drafts, in fact, have the Packers selected a running back within the first three rounds, with 2011 and 2013 being the exceptions that saw Alex Green and Eddie Lacy chosen in the third and second rounds respectively.
And with young backs like Jones and Williams — each 25 — coming off successful years in which they combined to produce 25 touchdowns, one could also argue: Why draft a running back at all?
The reason lies in LaFleur’s philosophy of running the ball early and often to set up play action. Prior to his arrival in Titletown, the Packers ranked dead last in rushing attempts under Mike McCarthy.
In his first year at the helm, LaFleur spearheaded a turnaround that resulted in Green Bay’s offense finishing 14th — in a tie with the division rival Lions — in rushing attempts.
Judging from his track record as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator and his years as an assistant under zone-blocking guru Mike Shanahan, the second year head coach is looking to elevate his ground attack into top-10 territory, as it pertains to carries, yards per carry, rushing yards per game and all relevant categories tied to successfully running the ball.
Achieving that goal all clearly begins with identifying the right type of runner to fit the fabled Shanahan zone-running scheme that was once taught to perfection by former long-time offensive line coach Alex Gibbs.
Fundamentally, the outside zone is the antithesis to the power scheme in that it asks it’s offensive line to move horizontally rather than vertically to block the closest defender. The blocking style aims to disguise play calls and facilitate favorable passing opportunities off the play action.
The running back in this scheme must possess the vision to see open lanes before they open and instinctively cut back at the right moment and pick up significant yardage. The ball carrier must be able to instantly burst through the hole while moving in a north-south direction.
Look up Hall-of-Famer Terrell Davis to see this running approach turned into an art form.
Other traits that LaFleur will be searching for are toughness, the ability to fall forward for tough yardage, pass catching, blocking and speed, among other attributes.
But the process of sorting through Day 3 backs implies that most — if not all — of the prospects in question will be lacking in one or more of those areas.
Picking one that comes closest to the ideal model from a skill rather than size perspective will be the objective here, as Jones and Williams have proven that players with diverse physical characteristics can thrive in LaFleur’s offense.
Here are some aspiring rookies that profile as future Green Bay Packers.
1.Cam Akers – Florida State
At roughly 5’11”, 215 pounds, the junior prospect packs a punch as an imposing one-cut runner, who generally follows his blocks in hitting the hole quickly and with authority.
The rough-and-tumble back can barrel his way forward versus stacked boxes and run through arm tackles. When he’s not inflicting punishment, Akers has demonstrated that he is fully capable of finding openings in congested quarters, as he did against Boise State.
While his tremendous balance made him a reliable lead back in Tallahassee, No. 3 was also adept at generating speed once he ran past the second level.
Akers is an asset out of the backfield, as he continually showcased a penchant for catching passes cleanly in his hands. Moreover, the toolsy ball carrier performed diligently as a blocker by squaring up and getting underneath oncoming blitzers.
In assessing his college career, one can’t escape the fact that Akers played behind a subpar offensive line that occasionally left him with no other resort than to bounce runs to the perimeter with nowhere to go.
Another concern with the former Seminole was his upright running style, which could subject him to unnecessary punishment, even though Akers has the build to withstand the inevitable collisions associated with playing running back.
It’s not a given that this promising weapon will be available in the fourth round, but if he is, there’s no question that the Packers should find a way to stake their claim on him.
Comp: Carlos Hyde– Much like Hyde in his days as an Ohio State Buckeye, Akers features the qualities to develop as a patient back, who won’t look to dance behind a competent line. Similarly, the ACC product boasts the burst, speed, power and plant-and-go ability that the current Texan has flashed — but not consistently exhibited — at the next level.
2.Eno Benjamin – AZ State
The 5’9”, 195 pound former Sun Devil will never be confused for an imposing back, but rather Benjamin will make his money as a shifty runner, who uses his fluid hips to negotiate his way to daylight.
The gamebreaker quickly established himself as a first-year starter during his sophomore campaign, when he set Arizona State’s single-game rushing record with 312 yards versus Oregon State.
Benjamin breaks off big plays with his agility, quick jump cuts and instant acceleration to break through traffic, both up the middle and to the outside.
But while the 2-time First-team All-Pac-12 performer isn’t a pile pusher, he can grind his way forward for tough yards by turning his body sideways and making himself hard to bring down.
Further, his instincts allow him to sense defenders behind him and in his surrounding periphery, which helps him spin out of their clutches and get the most out of his carries.
Benjamin’s ability to catch the ball is second to none, as he consistently secured routine throws along with reeling in off-target passes by using his all-out effort and body control to extend for improbable completions.
In his two seasons as a starter, Benjamin registered 77 receptions.
His major shortcomings are ball security (see 6 fumbles in 2019) and his average long speed once he gets into the secondary.
Comp: Austin Ekeler- While not quite as strong a runner or nuanced a receiver as the San Diego Charger, Benjamin has the same jump cutting and instant acceleration skills that have made the undrafted Ekeler an unlikely NFL star.
3.Lamical Perine – Florida
Perine’s 4.62 40 time may cause him to drop lower than he may have been selected had he recorded a 4.5, but all that means for teams like the Packers is that they could come away with a certified late-round steal.
During his time in Gainesville, Perine has done nothing but acquit himself as a smart, patient runner, with a low center of gravity and extremely powerful lower body enabling him to maintain balance, absorb contact and bounce off tacklers.
The 213-pound bruiser may not have the straight-line speed some organizations may covet, but he possesses the lateral quickness to elude the first defender, while also employing that shiftiness when reading his blocks and cutting back to daylight.
To that end, Perine can similarly turn on his elusiveness in the open field as a receiver by slamming on the brakes and throwing his nearest defender off balance.
But 2019 Orange Bowl MVP isn’t only physically formidable, he exudes an infectious toughness in his play by lowering his shoulder and refusing to go out of bounds. On that note, Perine was known as a high-character individual due in part to being one of the hardest workers on the team.
The former Gator projects as a between-the-tackles back who can churn out his fair share of sizable 10 to 20-yard gains if given the opportunities, but game-breaking runs may be in short supply due to his lack of sustained long speed.
As a pass catcher, Perine’s soft hands made him a frequent target. Blocking-wise, the Alabama native was a competent contributor.
Comp: Frank Gore- Perine and the ageless veteran showcase extraordinary balance given that they both boast ridiculously sturdy lower bodies, while they also share the instincts to create yardage in tight spaces.
4.Anthony McFarland – Maryland
Equipped with 4.4 speed and sensational cutback skills, McFarland is one of the most exciting backs in this year’s draft.
Defenses that fail to set the edge versus the redshirt sophomore — as Ohio State learned back in 2018 — risk getting burned on touchdowns of 70 and 80 yards given McFarland’s burst and ability to zoom past defenders once he hits open grass.
At barely 200 pounds, however, the former Terrapin has a small frame and lacks the lower body mass to drive through defenders versus stacked boxes. The thought of him being used as a battering ram would only amount to wasting the speedster’s talent.
McFarland is your classic satellite back in the Reggie Bush mode, who can be used on jet sweeps or line up wide as a pure receiver in the interest of putting him in favorable one-on-one matchups. Moreover, the 22-year-old also has experience returning kicks.
But this isn’t to say that McFarland doesn’t run hard — he does — and he will break his share of arm tackles once he builds up a head of steam. But his true strengths lie in his ability to change directions and explode out of his cuts, as evidenced by how he would often knock oncoming linebackers off balance with a quick shake or shimmy.
The electrifying dynamo is versatile enough in the passing game to be used on deeper routes than your typical bubble screens or curls due to his ability to track the football.
In terms of his blocking, McFarland is a non-factor in that part of the game due to his previously referenced lack of size.
Coming off a prodigious 1,000-yard season in 2018, McFarland’s production tailed off the following year, which was in large part due to an ankle injury he valiantly played through.
Comp: Matt Breida- The current 49er matches up quite well with McFarland in that they are roughly the same size and both are speed backs, with the former running a 4.39 40 prior to signing on as a rookie free agent in 2017. Neither are the workhorse type that can handle 20-plus touches per game.
Compared to McFarland, Vaughn is more of your prototypical meat-and-potatoes grinder, who can bang inside to get what’s blocked for him and a little extra. When the 5’10”, 215-pound back runs angry, it might take a village to bring him down.
While physical, the senior prospect doesn’t merely put his head down and look for a body to run into, Vaughn is quick to the hole and uses his vision to sniff out openings —- and when he does find a lane, he plows through it with conviction.
The ex-Commodore can turn into his own worst enemy when he opts to bounce runs outside, where quicker, faster defenders will often neutralize him. Those opponents will only get faster at the next level.
Vaughn is particularly lacking as a blocker in that he shows poor form, but that’s not uncommon among running backs entering the NFL.
Conversely, the compactly-built rookie-in-waiting is a very capable pass catcher, who quickly looks to tack on yardage after securing the ball. In fact, Vaughn is very adept at plucking throws outside his frame by even going low and practically scooping them up off the turf.
Comp: Thomas Rawls- The journeyman back not only has Vaughn’s same build, but he also fits the profile of a balanced power runner, with sharp instincts to elude would-be tacklers. Though an afterthought at this point, Rawls produced a few big performances for the Seahawks in his first two seasons, including a 161-yard outing versus Detroit in the playoffs during the 2017 postseason.
6.Darrynton Evans – Appalachian State
As a smooth operator with an effortless gait, Evans flashes 4.41 speed to make guys miss on the outside and generate big plays.
His speed and explosiveness allow him to be a dangerous perimeter weapon, while his instincts and lateral burst allow him to sidestep opponents by employing his jump cuts between the tackles.
In fact, the light-footed Evans has an unmistakable bounce in his step and frequently uses that trait to suddenly spin his way past helpless defenders.
At about 200 pounds, Evans isn’t a pile pusher, but the real concern with his running style is his penchant to charge the line of scrimmage in an upright stance, which exposes him to unnecessary contact. Making matters worse in that regard is the small school back’s willingness to dive forward for extra yardage from that upright position and needlessly putting his body in harm’s way.
The pride of Oak Hill, Florida, however, is very aware in safeguarding his quarterback versus the blitz and did even lead block on occasion.
Though Evans wasn’t targeted often in the passing game at Appalachian State, he made the most of 21 grabs by scoring five times. Much about his route running is unknown, but a coaching staff would be foolish not to design ways to get him into one-on-one matchups.
Comp: Jamaal Charles- Evans checks a lot of the boxes in terms of sharing many of the same attributes the former NFL star once possessed, including patience, lateral quickness, acceleration and — of course — pure unfiltered speed. By the same token, neither one is a physical back.