ESPN's Chris Mortensen blew me away Friday afternoon with his report that free-agent running back Cedric Benson is in Green Bay and preparing to sign a contract with the Packers. I don't necessarily stand in judgment against it, I'm just totally surprised. A few thoughts on this deal, assuming it occurs:
General manager Ted Thompson stepped out of his comfort zone a couple of times this offseason to sign veteran free agents, in each case for a specific reason. He didn't think his team could go with an untested player at center, so he signed Jeff Saturday. And he thought the Packers needed multiple infusions of juice at defensive line, leading to the acquisitions of Anthony Hargrove, Daniel Muir and Phillip Merling. So he must have thought his backfield was in worse shape than it appeared to be to pursue Benson.
The Packers clearly committed to James Starks as their lead back in the offseason, and while he struggled in Thursday night's preseason opener, that would be an awfully quick hook on that commitment. Starks is still just 26 and the Packers are usually pretty patient with their player development.
The Packers have downplayed the significance of experience and veteran depth in the backfield since Ryan Grant injured his ankle in Week 1 of the 2010 season. Since then, they have passed up numerous opportunities to add veterans with cache, including then-Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch, and instead remained committed to their internal depth. The timing of this move is a legitimate question. Why now?
With all of that said, the Packers had a need for some experience in the backfield. At this point, Alex Green and Brandon Saine, with a combined 21 NFL carries, were Starks' backups. But the Packers had not acted on that need for so long that most of us had given up on pushing it.
I reached out to Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., who liked the deal from a pure football perspective. Williamson doesn't think Benson will help the Packers in their passing game, but it's worth noting he produced more than 1,000 rushing yards for the Cincinnati Bengals in each of the past three seasons. "Benson is a better runner still than anyone the Packers have right now," Williamson said. "He can get what is blocked still -- and a bit more. And he should be a decent inside zone runner, especially against unstacked boxes." In other words, Benson should be able to capitalize more than Starks on defenses situated to play the run.
Benson is 29 and has a long history of legal problems. We all know the Chicago Bears released him in 2008 as a result. He was suspended one game last season after a pair of misdemeanor assault arrests. That's only relevant to the Packers in that another incident would probably lead to a significantly longer suspension, per the NFL's policy against repeat offenses.
Overall, this move is notable mostly for what it reveals about the Packers' internal view of their backfield. To me, you don't go through the trouble of signing Cedric Benson just for a look-see. You bring him in because you think you need him. I think a reasonable argument could be made that the Packers needed more juice in their backfield. I'm just surprised they acted on it when they did.