The Green Bay Packers will have little to no competition in training camp regarding their first and second string running backs. Third-year back Eddie Lacy is the Packers’ starter for the near future, and sixth-year player James Starks has an almost guaranteed roster spot as Lacy’s backup.
But things get interesting after that. After losing last year’s third-string running back, DuJuan Harris, to the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay now has a number of young players competing for the third slot on the running back depth chart. The two who are most likely to compete to backup Lacy and Starks are John Crockett and Rajion Neal.
Both young running backs have yet to prove themselves. Neal competed with Harris for the third spot last season, and was performing well enough in training camp and the preseason to possibly earn a spot on the active roster as an undrafted free agent. But a knee injury forced the Packers to place him on injured reserve, and after getting healthy he was signed to Green Bay’s practice squad.
Crockett had an outstanding career at North Dakota State, where he rushed for over 4,300 yards and 41 touchdowns over three seasons, including 1,994 yards his senior year. He is an explosive runner who was signed as an undrafted free agent despite projections saying he could easily be a sixth round pick. Crockett also excels at catching passes out of the backfield, something that the Packers utilized more and more throughout last season.
Neal has more experience than Crockett at the professional level, though the difference is marginal. He went through offseason work outs prior to last season, but had just five rushing attempts in the preseason before his injury. So Crockett is not at a significant disadvantage when it comes to experience.
The training camp battle between the two running backs could have an impact that stretches beyond just the 2015 season. Green Bay has not had a major use for a third string running back; last season, Harris had just 16 rushing attempts. But in the end, the winner of the third spot could be on the fast track to back up Lacy in 2016.
Starks will be a free agent after the upcoming season, and will turn 30 next offseason. Ted Thompson has operated under a mindset of cutting players before they become ineffective (such as with Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson) instead of waiting to see if they decline. It is possible that the Packers part ways with Starks following the season.
That would open the door for either Neal or Crockett to be the early front runner to be the second string running back in 2016. Lacy is a bruising running back, and Starks has provided an effective complement of speed and agility to Lacy’s powerful style. Both Crockett and Neal are faster, elusive backs who could continue to provide that complement.
Whichever running back makes the roster this year would likely spend the season developing. Lacy and Starks will get the vast majority of the carries regardless of who makes the team, and a third string running back would be very limited in the Packers’ offense.
But nonetheless, this year’s training camp could be the beginning of a tryout to be Lacy’s backup in the future. If Crockett or Neal live up to their potential, they could give Thompson an easy decision in letting Starks walk after the end of the season.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .