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Compelling Running Back Battle Looks to Be Wide Open

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Compelling Running Back Battle Looks to Be Wide Open

There may not be a more compelling preseason position battle in Green Bay than at the running back position. The group features young talent that offers explosiveness, versatility and depth, but it remains unclear how playing time will be distributed in 2018.

Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays are all entering their second pro seasons, and—in the case of Williams and Jones—are looking to improve on productive rookie campaigns. The elder statesman of the position group is Ty Montgomery, who has played three NFL seasons, but only spent last year as a running back full-time.

With that much inexperience, there should be plenty of room to grow and plenty of uncertainty.

“You don’t know at the end of day which guy is going to be the starter, which guy’s going to get all the reps,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans told reporters earlier this month. “Some of it is going to be based on what they do during training camp or preseason. We know sometimes injuries play a role that all of a sudden a guy gets his opportunity and all of a sudden he takes off. All those things figure into it.”

Various media outlets have made their own projections about the running back depth chart, with little consistency. It seems that Mays, who had only four carries last year, is a longshot to see serious playing time without some injuries occurring, so it will likely be the other three dividing snaps in 2018, but that’s about the only thing people can agree on.

Rotoworld lists Williams as the starter, Jones as his backup and Montgomery as the third option. ESPN’s fantasy rankings have it listed as Williams-Montgomery-Jones by projected fantasy points. OurLads has Montgomery as the starter, followed by Jones and Williams. And yet there are still those who feel strongly that Jones should be the clear starter after his performance in 2017 before injuries got the better of him.

Jones, the smallest of the trio at 5-foot-9, 208 pounds, seems to be the most explosive player of the bunch. With a 20-yard overtime winner against Tampa Bay and a 46-yard opening-drive touchdown run against the Saints, Jones showed an ability to hit the home run and create something out of nothing.

At 5.5 yards-per-carry, Jones had by far the best average among Packer running backs in 2017, albeit on just 81 carries. But Jones was unable to establish himself as the clear starter due to nagging injuries and problems in pass protection.

Sirmans said in his OTA press availability that Jones had improved both his recognition and technique in blitz pickup, adding that all the young running backs were improving but that it’s tough to measure real progress until the players have full-contact practices in pads.

“Those are the main things that I’m looking for right now,” Sirmans said. “How much that they’ve taken in the game and understand what their jobs are and able to process the game faster.”

Williams was solid in 2017, playing in all 16 games and leading the group with 153 carries and 25 catches. But at just 3.6 yards per carry, his explosiveness was a clear step down from Jones’. Williams seemed to be the most trusted of the young backs in pass protection, however, creating extra playing time last year.

Then there’s the versatile Montgomery. The former wide receiver was hampered by injuries in his first full season as a running back, playing in just eight games and touching the ball fewer than 100 times. His receiving background and overall NFL experience, however, will make the Stanford product a valuable Swiss Army knife and problematic matchup for opposing defenses.

“Ty is definitely a guy that’s in the game plan,” Sirmons said. “I think he’s too talented for him not to be on the football field. He can give us some matchup things that we need.”

All three young backs will see their share of snaps in 2018, and it’s likely that the Packers’ coaching staff doesn’t even know who will be the starter at this point. With such inexperienced players, there’s always a fair amount of unpredictability, but the coaches seem to think this group brings the right blend of skills to be dangerous this season.

Sirmans summarized, “I think that come training camp time, it’s going to be an interesting race and battle, because they all bring something.”

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Matt Kelley is a staff writer for Cheesehead TV. He can be found on Twitter via @hustleandheart1

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (31) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Turophile's picture

One thing to note is that most people don't consider the weight to height ratio. Jones is a sturdier build than both Williams or Montgomery, and Mays the sturdiest of all.

Of course this doesn't address ball security, speed, hands, blocking and vision, but many people just think of Jones as a 'smaller' back, when he has a bowling ball type build, that can work well in the NFL. Less height hurts in pass pro but can help a back keep low and be more difficult to tackle, as he runs.

i'm interested how Mays shows this year. Those fumbles last year were a lesson he has had loads of time to correct. He is a powerful guy who will want to show the fumbles are a thing of the past.

I'm also hoping the entirely re-vamped offensive playbook has numerous options that take advantage of Montgomery's flexibility, when he is in the backfield.

Lare's picture

IMO, Jones is the clear #1 RB with Williams second. After that it's a shootout between Mays and Montgomery, both of which have issues with consistency that could make either one expendable.

Personally I think there are much more compelling position battles in training camp (WR, ILB, OLB, RG, RT, FB, CB, S, DL, backup QB, TE & ST) than at RB.

Lare's picture

I didn't say Mays & Montgomery were comparable, I said they had issues with consistency. Mays needs to consistently know the plays and hold on to the ball, Montgomery needs to consistently stay healthy.

Nerd's picture

Word on Mays is, he’s lost it. Doesn’t have the confidence anymore. Last in line for reps, going thru the motions.

Sucks too, because I think he’s got the skills. He was hurt his senior year, but I think he could beat out Williams to start. I meannot wouldn’t actually shock me.

To me, I like Williams. He’s your solid starter. Jones is the best ball carrier, but you have to limit his reps to keep him healthy.

Montgomery is gonna be more of a WR this year, imo. Cobb isn’t special anymore, and Montgomery is big enough to line up on the perimeter. Not even sure Cobb makes the team. You can get 600 yards out of the slot much more cheaply.

Mike and Aaron like Monty, to help diagnose coverages with motion, but they've got options in the run game now.

gr7070's picture

Aaron Jones is the far superior RB, and it's not even close.

However, there will be a battle in camp, but it's Jones vs. the pass rush that will determine just how much playing time the other RBs get.

Rak47's picture

"Far Superior" How so? You do realize that blocking, and receiving are part of playing the RB position, yes? I would hardly say Jones is far superior to Monty at blocking and is definitely not even close as a receiver.

PatrickGB's picture

I agree that after last year Jones seems to be the guy for this year. However, last year Monty was projected to be the guy. This year I hope that the game plan is the key for who is “The Guy”. Let’s scheme the game plan to determine who gets the most carries.
Fantasy leagues be damned.

Packer Fan's picture

I don't care who the starter is. It will be a long season and someone will get hurt. I want to see Philbin to use all three and ride the one who causes the best mismatches to dictate the game and score points.

korbie33's picture

I would like to see more two back sets with Williams leading either Jones or Montgomery.

dobber's picture

I agree. I think there's a lot of flexibility in this kind of set given Monty's ability to run more complex routes. Certainly creates the opportunity to manipulate defenses and coverages, especially when both Williams and Monty are at least passable blockers. Remember also that MM in the past has liked to line up TEs (namely RRod) in the backfield with a RB. Could be an opportunity for Kendricks to see snaps.

4thand1's picture

The best scenario would be for Jones to become a 3 down featured RB. I'd like to see him catching the ball out the backfield in pre season.

Johnblood27's picture

with the additions of Graham, Lewis and the skills of Jones, Williams and Montgomery, I will be greatly disappointed if I see any 3 wr sets (Adams, Cobb + anyone else) unless a rook blows the top off in camp and pre-season. Alison certainly doesn't rise to deserving snaps over the 2 wr, 2 te and 3 rb mentioned.

Coldworld's picture

I agree with your general desire, but I think 3 receiver sets should be part of the rotation. Take them out, and one less thing to defend.

stockholder's picture

Lets face it. These guys have a long way to go to be a Taylor,Green, or Hornung. But who does have the toughness. Williams. The scoring machine. Monty. The quickness, Jones. . And what about RIP? It's got to start up front first. The starter should be matched up against the defensive schemes. Mismatches first. Favorites second.

Turophile's picture

Is this the stockholder I disagree with so often ?

Favourable matchups first, above your favourite guy..............that's something i can get behind, good point.

Andrew Lloyd Peth's picture

We should have a running back by committee. It goes like this:

1. Jones
2. Jones
3. Montgomery
4. Jones
5. Jones
6. Montgomery
7. Williams or Mays to rest Jones for a series
8. Jones

Every play Jones is on the field, we have a legitimate threat, forcing the defense to key on Rodgers a little less.

Plus, anyone who competely writes off Mays because he fumbled as a rookie...

...doesn't believe in coaching or development.

That's my committee. But let's face it, expecting McCapers to use the right players in the right spots is no sure thing.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

I agree with this, play them all. Each of Jones, Willams and Monty has unique skills to bring. Having them come in with fresh legs is a big benefit. Other than DL, RB benefits the most from having fresh legs.

dobber's picture

Jones is just one of those players who seems to play at a different speed from the others around him. The burst and vision just jumps right off the film. The Packers haven't had many of those players in recent years.

Nick Perry's picture

"That's my committee. But let's face it, expecting McCapers to use the right players in the right spots is no sure thing"

I'm hoping with the addition of Philbin McCarthy has less of those "Ruts" where he seems to forget he's got a running game OR a Aaron Jones or Ty Montgomery on the bench. I've heard more than once when guys recall Philbins time here before he was a great "Buffer" between Rodgers and McCarthy.

I'm hopeful Kendricks redeems himself and plays well this year because I think the Packers could do some pretty interesting things when lined up in 13 personnel, especially in the Red Zone. But IMO it's a package that the Packers could really take advantage of most defenses either running or passing the ball.

dobber's picture

^^THIS^^

I would argue that the greatest control over play calls for the offense by the coaches comes from the personnel group they give #12 to work with on a play by play basis. My hope is that fewer 11 packages will force him to diversify more...and I think he'll benefit.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I agree. Just some notes though. 11 personnel is the de facto base offense for most teams. It is run about 60% of the time in the NFL. GB's DVOA was 2nd best in the league when using 11 personnel in 2016, at a whopping 31.9, whereas our DVOA as a whole on offense was 16.4. Eleven personnel is probably the most efficient personnel formation for GB. We ran it 57% of the time in 2016.

With BH at QB, I don't know how much stock to put into 2017, but we ran 11 personnel 64.5% of the time, with an 11.2 DVOA, which still ranked 13th in the NFL, and our DVOA when not using 11 personnel was -10.3. Given BH's issues, using 3 WRs even more in 2017 seems counter-intuitive to me.

Due to personnel changes like Jones, a healthy Monty, Williams, plus Lewis and Graham, I'd like to see more 2 TE sets that we can probably run or pass out of. Anyway, here are some links.

https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2017/2016-offensive-pers...

https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2018/2017-offensive-pers...

dobber's picture

I can't argue with numbers.

But...do they have the same kind of personnel to run 11 as effectively this season? Depending on how they deploy Graham (meaning, if they line him up as more of a traditional TE and go with what looks like an 11 package) I think they're hurting themselves. At this early stage, I think their best grouping will be with Lewis in 11/12 where the only difference is where they line up Graham. I like the idea of a 21 package with Monty and another back, and Lewis lined up tight.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I was nodding in agreement while reading the comments of JS and Dobber, but remembered the two footballoutsider articles and looked them up to make sure I remembered it correctly. I have advocated using more 2 TE sets for a while now but I was too cheap to pay the $6 to download FO's almanac that would have shown GB's DVOA when using 21 personnel (and every other personnel grouping, if I read it correctly), so it is possible that our DVOA for 21 groupings was also good. The 3 WR, 1TE were free articles.

Yes, I agree that the addition of Lewis and Graham makes using 2 TEs more attractive in my eyes. Then again, I loved the idea of Marty Bennett as a true dual threat TE.

dobber's picture

A year ago I was suckered in by the thought of running more 2 TE sets with Bennett/Kendricks in the fold. Then, though, the question was, "Who comes off the field to put a second TE on the field?" At that point, it would have removed what we perceived to be a better WR (namely Cobb or Nelson) for Kendricks. This year, I think Graham/Lewis gives them enough over that 3rd WR (Allison? Ugh.) to run more of those sets.

stockholder's picture

I remember jackson and Chewy. Dorsey and Bennet. As A-Rod gets older they'll want more running. Graham will be better than jackson. I see MM running the west coast more. Especially early until they get the RG, RT Fixed. So Quick Hits and move the chains. Shuttle passes and screen passes will be back when they do.

Coldworld's picture

I am all for two back sets whether the second back is a RB, a FB, or a HB. Last year we really didn’t do much with either our FB or 1 TE+ 1 HB in the early games. At the time I wondered if that was being held back for later in the year.

Now we have no Nelson but we have more experienced RBs and far more options at TE. I would hope that we are planning far more variety in our sets as a result. In Philbin, we may have recovered the key to such variety I hope.

With less reliance on 3 WRs, I would hope we can use different personnel in a 3 receiver look. Adams maybe near ever present, but, If we can get anything from one of the rookies, we do not always need to be so predictable from 3 receiver sets this year. Maybe even stretch the field and not always from one position.

Once Hundley took over (and a certain TE quit) there really was not much point in showing what they might have planned. Hundley’s lack of ability to read the field and run through progressions really made anything not vanilla or 1st read highly unlikely to result in success as designed.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I'd love to know what our DVOA was in just the 5 games AR played and finished when we used 11 and 21 personnel in 2017. As bad as Bennett was, he was still on pace to eclipse RR's career year of 510 receiving yards (Bennett was on a pace for 620 yds with AR at QB), and Jordy was on pace for 875 to 920 yards and he caught 6 TDs in the first 6 games.

I don't understand why folks want 2 RBs. I am down on Rip and don't see much good in having any 2 of Monty, Williams or Jones out there together. Putting an H-back in there with an RB makes some sense to me.

PatrickGB's picture

Pass protect is key for all these guys. I would rather have a lesser player who can pass pro than a wimpy scat back. Jones may be the one guy who fits that term best ,yet even he has improved in that area. If he can stay healthy Monty is the best all around back, Williams the toughest and Mays has potential to be a guy to spell them all.

Since '61's picture

The Packers should use their RBs in a rotation based upon achieving the most favorable matchups against a given opponent or on a particular play.

I realize that for depth chart purposes there will be a #1, #2, #3, etc. RB. But I see different RBs rotating in by possessions. Remember, when the Packers offense is in rhythm they usually go no huddle so they could run a 10+ play drive with the same personnel package.

The "starting" RB(s) will likely change from week to week and even from the first half to the second half. If healthy this offense should find ways to use all of their weapons during the course of a game and keep the defense off balance. Thanks, Since '61

Spock's picture

We fans get excited by the new coaches (Pettine, Philbin) this year, but I think the one coach who gets overlooked is Ben Sirmans. He was a STEAL to get last year after the work he did to make Todd Gurley the previous rookie of the year RB. I don't think he gets enough credit for developing the RB's in GB. I'm excited about our RB's this season. I have more faith in Ty's "Swiss army knife" abilities and I believe (hope) this is the season he stays healthy. :) I honestly believe that Graham is going to be used as the perimeter receiver opposite Adams as often as not. Graham is listed as a TE but the reality is that he's a large receiver. With defenses forced to deal with his height advantage and having Mercedes Lewis in as a "tight" TE in formations I expect the running game to put up huge yardage. Should be an exciting season! Go, Pack, Go!

PAPackerbacker's picture

I just hope all the RB's stay healthy this season so their skills can be used as the game dictates which one is the best favorable match up against their opponent during the course of the game. Doesn't matter who starts as long as they can stay healthy and contribute to a team effort. But it all starts with the blocking up front to open holes for the backs to gain positive yardage and keep 3rd downs to short yardage situations. I'm sure each situation will dictate which back is best for maximum results. I have confidence in the coaches to adjust the game plan and rotate the backs accordingly against the opposing defenses.

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