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NFL draft preview: Already deep at running back, Packers have too many needs elsewhere

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Saquon Barkley photo

The clear-cut top-rated running back in this year's draft is Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, who some scouts believe should be the No. 1 overall pick.

GREEN BAY — No one can predict what Brian Gutekunst’s modus operandi will be in his first draft as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager.

First hired by Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Wolf as an intern, mentored early in his scouting career by now-Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider and having risen up the ranks under conservative draft-and-developer Ted Thompson, Gutekunst will be sitting in the decision-maker’s chair for the first time. Whose approach he’ll espouse is anyone’s guess.

But here’s a safe bet: He won’t be using three picks on running backs — the way Thompson did last year on Jamaal Williams (fourth round), Aaron Jones (fifth round) and Devante Mays (seventh round) in what ended up being his final draft.

Because of those investments — and coach Mike McCarthy’s belief that versatile converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery can still be a Swiss Army knife out of the backfield — the running back position is arguably the one position on the roster where the Packers are set.

While using a pick on a back cannot be ruled out — Gutekunst could see a value he simply cannot pass up if one of the Packers’ highly-rated prospects is still on the board well after they’d pegged him to be picked — the Packers didn’t endure the growing pains they experienced in the backfield last year just to go through it again with more rookies this season.

McCarthy said last year was challenging with Montgomery, in his first full season as a starter, and three rookies all trying to get reps in what has evolved into an offense that’s almost exclusively a one-back system.

“(I) really like the backfield. They’re young, (but) the thing I like most about them (is), they’re all in Year 2, the young guys,” McCarthy said at last month’s NFL meetings in Florida. “That was tough (last season). When you have one position, and you have three rookies and a first-year starter, that was a challenge. You just don’t have enough reps to get those guys ready.”

As it turned out, Williams played the most of the group (441 snaps) and led the Packers with 556 yards and four touchdowns on 153 carries (3.6-yard average). Because of a couple of knee injuries, Jones saw less action (236 snaps) but was more productive on a per-carry basis, rushing 81 times for 448 yards (5.5-yard average) and four touchdowns. Mays fumbled his chance at a greater role as a rookie — literally — when he fumbled on each of his first NFL two carries. He played just 14 snaps on offense and carried four times for 1 yard.

“I think the fact now that they’ll have a whole offseason,” McCarthy said, “it will be one of our more competitive positions.”

The clear-cut top-rated running back in the draft is Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, who some scouts believe should be the No. 1 overall pick. After a trend league-wide that saw the position seemingly devalued, running backs have experienced something of a renaissance of late, with the New Orleans Saints (Alvin Kamara), Jacksonville Jaguars (Leonard Fournette) and Carolina Panthers (Christian McCaffrey) all having gotten huge offensive lifts from rookie backs last season.

“Good question,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead — whose team has Todd Gurley, the 10th overall pick in 2015, driving its offense — replied when asked why running backs have made a comeback. “I think is it the value of the running back (going up), but sometimes, especially the last few guys — Guess what? They’re really talented human beings.

“I think the value of the running back gets more valuable when that player actually is one of your more important offensive weapons and how a coach can use it. Now you put genres on running backs. Are they more in-line, first- and second-down type running backs? Are they more change of pace? Can they catch? And the really good ones can do both where, you can run between the tackles but also send him out (to catch passes). And that way when this running back is in the game at least the defense is on its heels a little bit in terms of, ‘All right, what is he going to do?’”

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