There was a point late in training camp when it appeared Johnathan Franklin could be on the Green Bay Packers' roster bubble.
When the rookie was selected by the Packers as a highly-touted running back out of UCLA, expectations were that he and Eddie Lacy could rejuvenate a Green Bay ground game stuck in neutral for the past several seasons.
But a less-than-impressive preseason showing tempered those expectations rather quickly, if not for Lacy, then at least for Franklin.
Most glaring was an inability to pick-up the blitz, displaying both a lack of knowledge where the pressure was coming from and getting overpowered by bigger defenders even when he was in the correct spot.
Compounding matters was that Franklin didn't show the speed and elusiveness with the ball in his hands that he had in college.
Despite receiving a team-high 21 carries during the exhibition season, Franklin gained only 47 yards on the ground, an average of 2.2 yards per carry. And his four receptions covered only 23 yards. He didn't find the end zone at all.
Even Franklin's lone attempt at a kickoff return was brought back merely 14 yards. All around, pedestrian might be the best way to characterize Franklin's preseason play.
When it came time to trim the roster down to 53 players, some through maybe the Packers would part ways with fourth round draft choice in favor of a player like Alex Green, who put together a better summer camp.
But you also have to consider, not once did Franklin get an opportunity to play with the first-team offense during the preseason. He didn't get a chance to run behind the likes of Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, nor did he have arguably the game's best quarterback forcing the defense to respect his arm.
Nope, instead, Franklin was running behind offensive linemen named Andrew Datko and Kevin Hughes and taking handoffs from players like Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman.
It's no wonder that Franklin was able to find running room on Sunday when he made his NFL regular-season debut on the offensive side of the football.
With Eddie Lacy and John Kuhn inactive because of injuries, the Packers were down to just two true running backs coming into the Week 3 game at Cincinnati.
And when James Starks went down with a knee injury late in the first half, Franklin was welcomed to primetime, ready or not. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rookie running back responded when given the chance to play with the starters.
"We've got some great offensive linemen," said Franklin after the game. "I've just got to praise God and give those guys up front credit."
Franklin finished the day with 103 yards on 13 carries, an average of 7.9 yards per rush, all of them coming in the second half. He also had three receptions for 23 yards to boot.
After going 44 games without a 100-yard rusher, it was the second consecutive contest the Packers had a player exceed the century mark, following Starks' 132-yard output against Washington a week earlier.
Indeed, the Packers ground game is clicking through three games this season.
On Sunday, the team rushed for 182 yards, an average of 6.1 yards per carry. Through Week 3, the Packers have gained 384 yards on the ground, 5.3 yards per carry, leaps and bounds better than they had been the past several years.
The depth at the running back position is also looking much improved. Following a week off for the bye, it stands to reason Lacy, Kuhn, Starks and Franklin (who suffered an ankle injury late in the game) will all be healed and ready to form a dangerous backfield rotation.
Whether Franklin will form a 1-2 punch with Lacy or he'll be used as a change of pace remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, Sunday's performance was marred by a fumble on a fourth-and-1 play call that was returned for the go-ahead touchdown by the Bengals that overshadowed what was an otherwise terrific showing from Franklin.
"We're always learning, every day. You always got to grow. If you ain't moving forward, you're moving backwards," said Franklin. "I just have to understand why certain things happen and grow from it and take a step. We've got a long season, and hopefully I'm blessed with another opportunity, but I've got to continue to work."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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