When the Green Bay Packers selected three running backs in the 2017 draft, it looked like overkill.
Now it’s starting to look brilliant.
After allowing oft-injured and chronically overweight Eddie Lacy to walk in free agency and having only converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery in the running backs room in April, the Packers did some late-round saturation drafting at the position.
Their defensive needs were too great to use a premium draft pick on a running back, but they did nab Jamaal Williams in the fourth round, Aaron Jones in the fifth and Davante Mays in the seventh. In essence, they decided to throw a plate of spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks.
It took until the fifth game of the season, but something — or someone — finally stuck. After a breakout game in the Packers’ victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Jones was the first of the three rookies to exhibit the staying power the Packers were looking for.
Just in time, too.
If nothing else, Jones’ impressive 19-carry, 125-yard rushing performance gave the typically stingy Minnesota Vikings defense something new to think about heading into Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium. And just the threat of the run is about all coach Mike McCarthy’s pass-oriented offense really needs.
Jones’ hard, instinctive running had a dramatic impact on the offense Sunday. Should he keep it up, it could help quarterback Aaron Rodgers play even better — if that’s possible.
“I knew he was good; I didn’t know he was that good,” guard Lane Taylor said of Jones. “He was making guys miss and breaking tackles. He did a good job out there and I’m looking forward to seeing what else he’s going to do.”
Assuming it wasn’t a mirage, Jones’ emergence could be a game-changer for the Packers offense. Rodgers was magnificent against Dallas and particularly effective on play-action passes. That’s what a running game will do for you.
Just ask the opposition.
“That holds true with any offense,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “If they’re running the ball well, you’re going to have more of a tendency to come up on the play fakes and things like that. It’s especially true with the Packers and with what Rodgers can do. He does a good job of selling the run on the fakes. When the run’s going well, you think, ‘I’ve got to hurry up and get down there,’ and then he pulls it back and throws it.”
Rodgers’ 10-yard touchdown pass to uncovered wide receiver Jordy Nelson in the fourth quarter Sunday was a perfect illustration of that.
“That’s the beauty of the sequence,” Rodgers said. “We have a touchdown to Jones on a (7-yard) run play and come back in a similar situation and run an action that looks just like it. When you (install) some good scheme and Mike dials it up at the right time, it just comes down to execution.”
As impactful as Jones was, he’s still not McCarthy’s only option at running back. Remember, he was on the inactive list for the season opener while Montgomery, Williams and Mays were in uniform. That officially put Jones fourth in line at running back and shows the Packers think the others have talent, too, even if it has yet to emerge.
They’ll need that talent after going without a running attack capable of worrying opponents since the closing stages of the 2015 season. In their 28 regular-season and playoff games prior to last Sunday, the Packers had only two 100-yard rushers. Lacy gained 103 in a victory over Detroit and Montgomery had 162 in a victory over Chicago, both last season.
But Green Bay’s running game was even worse than it looked. In eight of the 28 games, the top running back had fewer than 35 yards. In 24 of the 28, the No. 1 rusher had 65 or less. That’s not even close to a productive running game.
Montgomery has been the starting back since Lacy went down in the fifth game last season, but he was unimpressive in the first four games this season and missed the Dallas game with broken ribs. Montgomery was a full participant in practice Wednesday, though that doesn’t guarantee he’ll be ready Sunday. Even if he is, McCarthy sounded like a time-share at the position is likely.
If Montgomery can’t go, McCarthy still has his three rookies. Jones looked like the best pure runner of the group right from the start, but the others seemed to have the edge in areas such as pass protection and pass receiving.
“You never know until they get here,” McCarthy said. “You really wanted to see who was going to jump ahead and Jamaal did that early, so he earned some more reps than the other two. It’s just really trying to get them to grow and progress because they’re young players. You could see in Aaron right away, his instincts in running. But they all had things they did well to begin with and they also had things they needed to work on. That’s normal for rookies. I’ll say this, it’s a challenge to have three rookies at one position like that. ... But I think those guys have done a good job preparing and obviously with Aaron’s performance against Dallas, they’re contributing.”
Montgomery played almost every snap until he went down against Chicago. Jones’ emergence gives McCarthy a second option, one he should take full advantage of, with or without a healthy Montgomery.