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This is the second in a series of position-by-position looks at the Packers’ personnel entering the 2011 offseason. We begin with an analysis of Green Bay’s RB situation.
Overview: After featured back Ryan Grant went down for the count in Week One with a season-ending injury to both his ankle and leg, the Packers used a RB-by-committee that included Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and rookies Dimitri Nance and James Starks.
While Green Bay’s ground game finished the season ranked a mediocre 24th and failed to get the job done in short-yardage situations on a handful of key occasions, it actually did much better than it was widely given credit for, as it forced opposing defenses to at least acknowledge the rushing attack enough to keep them from totally focusing on trying to shut down the Packers’ high-powered passing attack.
FBs Korey Hall, Quinn Johnson and Kuhn, who did double duty, were on the field in varying degrees roughly 40 percent of the time, primarily serving as lead blockers.
Here’s a breakdown of each of the running backs on the roster:
RB Ryan Grant: In the season opener against the Eagles, Grant looked like he was ready to pick up where he left off following a strong 2009 campaign (career-high 11 TDs; third-leading rusher in the NFC with a career-high 1,253 yards). Grant churned out 45 yards on eight carries before his season came to an abrupt halt. By all accounts, he should be fully recovered in 2011 and primed for a productive season in what will be his contract year.
RB James Starks: After sitting out the first 11 games with a pulled hamstring, Starks made an impressive debut in Week 13, rushing on very fresh legs for 73 yards on 18 carries. After landing in the Packers’ doghouse because of poor practice habits, Starks rebounded in the playoffs, starting off the postseason with an eye-opening 123-yard rushing effort against the Eagles and finishing it up by averaging 78.8 yards and a little less than four yards per carry with one TD. With an upright style reminiscent of Eric Dickerson, the 6-foot-2 Starks picked up positive yardage most of the time and did not have a fumble, penalty or dropped pass. Clearly, the arrow is pointing up for this sixth-round draft pick.
RB Brandon Jackson: Jackson was solid but unspectacular both rushing and receiving (1,045 combined yards), providing near-flawless blitz pickup and coming up with his share of big plays. He’s a free agent who probably would prefer to test the waters with both Grant and Starks likely relegating him to spot status should he be retained. But Jackson’s pluses definitely outweigh his minuses.
RB-FB John Kuhn: Like Jackson, the versatile Kuhn is a free agent, and if he splits the scene, it will make a lot of Packers fans very unhappy. The burly, blue-collar grinder’s nonstop hustle made him arguably the team’s most popular player. Despite his relatively limited ability, Kuhn more than proved his worth with six TDs (four rushing, two receiving). He also ranked third in the league in converting 83.3 percent (10-of-12) of his carries on 3rd-and-short (less than three yards) into first downs, and he added decent blocking when called upon as a fullback.
RB Dimitri Nance: A pickup off the Falcons' roster, Nance passes the eyeball test. But he could be a long shot to return after falling behind Starks on the depth chart and gaining only 2.6 yards per carry in limited playing time.
FB Korey Hall: After missing four-plus games with assorted injuries, Hall’s durability is cause for concern. But his quality work on special teams could be enough to keep him around.
FB Quinn Johnson: Johnson is a lead blocker pure and simple. He became much more of a force clearing paths for his fellow backs down the stretch. But as an offensive contributor, Johnson was a virtual nonfactor, with zero carries to go with three catches for 26 yards.
Bottom Line: With Grant back in the mix, and Starks looking like a solid starter in the making, Green Bay’s ground game could be greatly improved in 2011.