It isn’t often that a position group enters a season 100 percent different than it was a year before. While it is true that Ty Montgomery was on the team both years, he was not a running back to start the year. As of Week 1 of the 2016 season, the running backs on the Packers’ roster were Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and Brandon Burks (Aaron Ripkowski was of course there as well, but we’ll count him as a fullback). When Week 1 of the 2017 season rolls around, the Green Bay backfield will be composed of some combination of Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Devante Mays, Kalif Phillips, and William Stanbeck. With no clear bell-cow player, the question of how carries will be divided up remains unanswered.
What makes deciphering the backfield workload all the more difficult is that no player on the team has a full season as an NFL running back on their resume. Rookies are always hard to predict, especially when the earliest round any of them were selected was the fourth round, and Ty Montgomery has never entered a season prepared to carry the rock out of the backfield. Given the number of unknowns surrounding the group, any estimates at this point are subject to change once the preseason begins and we’re afforded the opportunity to see how each player stacks up against the others.
The first assumption that should be made about the RB position for the upcoming season is that the team will keep three on the active roster, not including Aaron Ripkowski. In the past, Mike McCarthy has used two backs on a consistent basis and left a third, depth running back on the active roster in the event one of the top two gets injured. Given the lack of a provened back, it’s possible that three players could see significant carries, but that appears unlikely for the time being. For now, it appears as though Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams will be the two dominant backs on the team.
On average, the Packers have run the ball roughly 415 times per season since Aaron Rodgers took over as starter. Montgomery got just 77 carries in 2016, which is a relatively small sample size for the man who is supposed to be the No. 1 back. He’s gained about 10 pounds of muscle since last season. The former wide receiver claims he was cautious of his weight in the past, not wanting to bulk up as a slot receiver. Now that he’s had an offseason to mold himself into a running back and hone his skills as a pass blocker and ball carrier, it seems realistic to think he could get between 150 and 200 carries over the course of the season, if he stays healthy. If Montgomery can handle a workload such as that, roughly half of the carries will remain available. Keeping in mind that Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Ripkowski will likely account for between 75 and 100 carries, there are roughly 100 and 175 carries left available. It is these carries that could conceivably go to Jamaal Williams.
Williams is shorter and lighter than Montgomery, but he’s an experienced back that brings images of Ryan Grant in his prime. If he plays up to his ceiling as a player, Williams could be this year’s Jordan Howard, relegating Ty Montgomery to backup running back and receiver on his way to a role as a feature back. This may not be likely, but it’s possible. More realistically, look for Williams to be a change of pace back who has no problem stepping up to the plate if Ty suffers an injury or struggles at any point in the season.
After Montgomery and Williams, the Packers have little need of a back who plays significant time. With Ty they have a pass catching back who can also carry the rock between the tackles, and in Williams they have a similar pounding back. As a result, the final one (and possibly two) running back spot(s) is little more than a depth position. The favorites for this spot should be rookies Aaron Jones and Devante Mays. The two are tough to separate at this point, but a solid preseason from one or the other would likely solidify a spot. If one or both of them make the roster, they’ll be unlikely to see the field until injuries force them into the fray, much like Ty was forced onto the field a year ago.
Ultimately, the Packers’ backfield is little more than a question mark at this point. Brimming with potential and depth, but lacking a clear cut feature back. Regardless of what happens, don’t expect the Green Bay backfield to suffer in the same vein they did in 2016. They’ve reloaded the position and are ready to hit the ground running in 2017.