NFC North: Johnanthan Franklin

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- By re-signing running back James Starks to a two-year contract earlier this week, the Green Bay Packers brought back a capable runner who was good enough to start Super Bowl XLV.

It also ensured the Packers will have their deepest -- and most talented -- group of running backs perhaps since the combination of Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens shared the backfield in the mid-1990s.

In less than a year, it went from perhaps the thinnest position on offense -- if not the entire roster -- to one that should not be a concern for the foreseeable future.

As things stand today, the Packers have five running backs on their roster with NFL regular-season experience.

Here's a look at each one and what his role could be this season:

Eddie Lacy: The reigning offensive rookie of the year who rushed for a Packers' rookie record 1,178 yards last season, Lacy will be the workhorse back once again. In fact, he could be on the field even more than he was last season, when he played 60.5 percent of the offensive snaps. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at last month's scouting combine that he wants Lacy to become a three-down back. Last season, he often gave way to fullback John Kuhn on third down.

James Starks: Once viewed as a potential starter, a long injury history reduced him to a complementary role -- one in which he excelled last season. He averaged a career-high 5.5 yards per carry in a role that likely will be repeated this season.

Johnathan Franklin: Other than a 103-yard performance in Week 3 against the Bengals, a game in which his fourth-quarter fumble was returned for the game-winning touchdown, the fourth-round pick last year did not make much of an impact before he was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 27 because of a neck injury.

DuJuan Harris: A year ago, Harris was the starter by default, having finished the 2012 season in that capacity. Even after the Packers drafted Lacy and Franklin, McCarthy had big plans for Harris until a knee injury ended his season in training camp. The quick, diminutive runner could be the perfect complementary back to the power running of Lacy and Starks.

Michael Hill: Spent two weeks on the Packers’ roster last season and then was back on the practice squad when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him to their roster on Nov. 13. He finished the season with the Bucs but was re-signed by the Packers last month. He carried nine times for 23 yards in Tampa.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As far back as the NFL annual meetings in March, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy had a plan in mind to improve his running game.

“You’d like to get into a one-two punch deal,” McCarthy said.

As he talked at the Arizona Biltmore hotel back in March, McCarthy had no way of knowing then what his roster would look like five months later, but it was clear he envisioned one of those two punches would be thrown by DuJuan Harris. McCarthy liked how Harris finished last season, when he started four games (including both playoff contests) and averaged 4.2 yards per carry with four touchdowns.

Even after the Packers drafted a pair of running backs -- Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth -- McCarthy continued to project Harris as his starter.

When Harris returned to practice Aug. 12 from the knee injury that kept him out for most of the offseason workouts, McCarthy’s vision became more clear: He would use the quickness of the 5-foot-8, 203-pound Harris and the power of Lacy (5-11, 230) to provide that one-two punch to jolt a running game that finished 20th in the NFL last season.

Less than two weeks before the season opener at San Francisco, McCarthy will be forced to alter that plan because Harris reinjured his knee in Friday’s preseason game against Seattle and is headed for injured reserve.

“It sucks, honestly,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “He’s a hell of a player. He was going to be a big part of this offense. You’ve got to move on.”

The Packers may have to ride Lacy, who despite a rough outing against Seattle in which he totaled minus-5 yards rushing on eight attempts has been impressive so far.

“He’s going to have to step up and probably have a larger role,” Sitton said. “He’s going to have to grow. He can’t be a rookie anymore.”

However, there are concerns about Lacy’s conditioning and injury history that may prevent McCarthy from giving his rookie a greater workload than was originally planned.

“Every offseason you go through an evaluation with your offense, you do offseason studies, you project how you envision your offense looking and having to firm things up after the draft,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “You have a vision of packages in place on how you’re going to start the season. That goes along with part of my individual focus for the season. So, last week was the first opportunity to play both DuJuan and Eddie Lacy as a one-two punch format.”

Because Franklin doesn’t look ready to contribute, that leaves returning veterans Alex Green and James Starks as possible alternatives to Harris currently on the roster.

Green was the team’s leading rusher last season with 464 yards but averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and wore down late in the season, a year after returning from reconstructive knee surgery. But he looks stronger this season and has the team’s longest rush of the preseason, a 31-yard gain against Seattle.

“It’s unfortunate for DuJuan; he’s obviously a great player,” Green said. “We’ll see what happens. But right now, I’m just having the same mindset I had when I first came here.”

Starks, who has missed 26 of a possible 48 games in his first three NFL seasons and played in only six games last season, may have new life now. He was seemingly headed for the trading block or the waiver wire after he fumbled against St. Louis on Aug. 17. He had fallen to fifth on the depth chart behind Harris, Lacy, Franklin and Green.

When asked about Starks and Green, who were seemingly battling for the last running back spot before Tuesday’s developments, McCarthy said: “It’s a long year. You need ’em all. And I think both those guys have had good training camps.”



Thursday, 10/2
Sunday, 10/5