GREEN BAY – At the NFC Coaches Breakfast at the annual NFL Meetings last week, Mike McCarthy was asked what he thought of his team’s running back situation.
The Green Bay Packers coach replied with one word.
“Depth,” he said.
With the re-signing of veteran fullback John Kuhn, who came to terms on a one-year deal worth just over $1 million on Thursday, the Packers are even deeper in the backfield.
With NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy returning for his second season, No. 2 running back James Starks having re-upped with a two-year, $3.166 million deal ($725,000 guaranteed signing bonus) and DuJuan Harris (knee) and Johnathan Franklin (neck) both expected to return to full health, the Packers are loaded in the backfield. They also brought back Michael Hill, who spent time on both the 53-man roster and the practice squad last year before signing on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 53-man roster late in the year.
Kuhn’s greatest value is in his knowledge of the offense and ability to be a pass-protector for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but during the NFL Meetings, McCarthy continued to emphasize that he wants all his backs – from Lacy on down the depth chart – to prove themselves capable of playing all three downs. McCarthy said that will be new running backs coach Sam Gash’s directive, to develop all of his guys into effective third-down options. Gash is replacing Alex Van Pelt, who slid over to coach quarterbacks after Ben McAdoo was hired as the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator.
“It's important for all of them to be three-down players,” McCarthy said. “It was something that was discussed a lot through the hiring process, and even more so with Sam Gash when he was hired. For the way we want to play on offense, we want players to be three-down players [if] we want to keep our substitution limited. That's an offseason goal of ours.”
At this point, no one pass protects like Kuhn, who helped save the Packers’ season by getting enough of now-teammate Julius Peppers to allow Rodgers to side-step the Chicago defensive end and throw the game-winning touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in the regular-season finale at Soldier Field. That victory over the Bears sent the 8-7-1 Packers into the playoffs.
Asked what it takes to be an effective third-down back, McCarthy made it clear what still matters the most.
“A-No. 1, it is pass protection. We protect the quarterback,” McCarthy said. “He's a franchise quarterback, he's the best football player on our team, and we have to protect him. Checkdowns will [also] be an emphasis for us. Because we're very young with that group.”
At the time McCarthy was speaking, Kuhn had not come to terms, but the coach made it clear he wanted Kuhn back. Kuhn also is a key special-teams player and has also had a short-yardage role, so if the Packers go another direction on third downs, he still could contribute in other ways.
“Hopefully we get things worked out with John. I'd love to have John back,” McCarthy said. “He's been great in that room.”
With Kuhn’s return, that room is getting crowded.
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