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Unknown DuJuan Harris was a revelation late in the season.

RBs: Packers offseason by position

Players under contract
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
44
James Starks
RB
6-2
218
26
 3
Buffalo
20
Alex Green
RB
6-0
225
24
 2
Hawaii
33
Brandon Saine
RB
5-11
220
24
 2
Ohio State
26
DuJuan Harris
RB
5-8
203
24
 1
Troy
30
John Kuhn
FB
6-0
250
30
 7
Shippensburg
 
Free agents
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
32
Cedric Benson
RB
5-11
227
30
8
Texas
25
Ryan Grant
RB
6-1
222
30
6
Notre Dame

The good news:  In a season where Benson’s year ended in October with a foot injury that wound up requiring surgery, Starks’ bad luck with injuries continued and Green’s post-surgical knee didn’t hold up, Harris was a welcome bright spot. From his very first carry – an 11-yard run against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 9, on which he ran over safety Ricardo Silva – in a Packers’ uniform on Dec. 9 after a practice-squad call-up, he played bigger than his height. He finished the regular season with 34 carries for 157 yards and two touchdowns, a 4.6-yard average that was the best of the Packers’ cadre of running backs. In the playoffs, when he was designated as the team’s lead back, he carried 28 times for 100 yards and two TDs. Whether or not he can serve as an every-down back, however, is up for debate. Running backs coach Alex Van Pelt did not rule out the possibility, however, while also suggesting that it’s not in the Packers’ plans to have one running back carry the load.

“I don’t see why he couldn’t. Do we need him to be one? I don’t think we do,” Van Pelt said. “It would be tough for him to see a body of work for the season, if he wore down later in the season. But he was great for us when we had him. He was fresh and was quite the change-up from what we have in the room. But would we need him for every down? I don’t think we would. If we had a Cedric back, James and DuJuan, I think you would have to give everybody some touches.”

The bad news:  As promising as Harris was, the bottom line on the running game was that it simply wasn’t good enough. Green wound up leading the team in rushing with 135 carries for 464 yards (a 3.4-yard average) and zero touchdowns) before his knee became an issue and he faded from the picture late in the year. In 21 seasons since the arrival of coach Mike Holmgren in 1992, only once did the Packers’ leading rusher manage fewer yards than Green. In 1998, Darick Holmes ran 93 times for 386 yards after Dorsey Levens’ early-season leg injury left the Packers in a similar backfield predicament. Even in Holmgren’s early years, when the running game was an afterthought, Vince Workman and Darrell Thompson did more. After carrying 13 times for 35 yards at Chicago on Dec. 16, Green was inactive for the Dec. 23 game against Tennessee with a concussion, dressed but did not play in the regular-season finale Dec. 30 at Minnesota or the playoff opener against the Vikings six days later, and then was inactive for the season-ending playoff loss to San Francisco. A third-round pick in 2011, the Packers had high hopes for him coming off the knee injury even before Starks went down in preseason.

“(It was) nothing that he did. His knee bothered him at times,” Van Pelt said of Green, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Oct. 23, 2011 at Minnesota, ending his rookie season. “The bye week, when he had some time off, it kind of scarred up a little bit from the week off. That took a while to get over and then he had a concussion and missed a week there. That week off scarred some more, so he’s still battling the rehab of that ACL. I’m hoping in the second year post-surgery he’s back to normal feeling good for a whole season. It wasn’t anything he did, his running ability or style. It was just that his knee flared up late in the season and felt like get the fresher legs out there.”

The big question: However you feel about Harris, the fact remains that uncertainty reigns at the running back position. Even if Harris’ performance late in the season was a harbinger of things to come, there’s no guarantee that he’s the next Maurice Jones-Drew – a diminutive back with the ability to carry the load – and the Packers don’t sound as if they are thinking that way, either. Harris is in their plans, clearly, but to what extent? Starks, of course, remains a frustrating question mark. From the shoulder injury that wiped out his senior season at the University of Buffalo to the torn hamstring that cost him the first half of 2010 to the knee and ankle injuries that hobbled him in the second half of 2011 to the preseason toe injury and late-season knee injury that allowed him to play only six games in 2012, he simply can’t be counted on. And what to make of Benson? He seemed to be getting into the swing of things when he suffered a Lisfranc foot sprain at Indianapolis on Oct. 7. At age 30, what does he have left after missing the final 13 games, including playoffs?

Offseason outlook: The Packers must decide whether Benson is worth re-signing, and at what price. They got him on the cheap last year, inking him on Aug. 12 to a veteran-minimum deal. Perhaps he’d be willing to take that again, since he had no real suitors last offseason, and now he’s coming off an injury. Asked if he thought Benson had something left, Van Pelt replied, “Absolutely. He’s a very a natural styled runner. He has a good feel for setting up blocks. He knows where the holes are going to be based on fronts. Yeah, he’s fun to watch. As a group we sat down and reflected, and said, ‘Man, if he could’ve been healthy for a whole season, we felt like he would’ve helped our run game even more.’”

Grant seemingly was a stop-gap signing, although he did have some productive moments (20 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns vs. Tennessee). Still, he’s not expected back. Starks is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and as a sixth-round pick, he’ll only be making $630,000 in 2013. It makes no sense to cut him before bringing him to training camp, unless the team is convinced he’ll never get healthy. The real offseason issue is whether general manager Ted Thompson might invest a high draft pick in a running back, given the trend away from such selections. Since taking over as GM in 2005, Thompson has taken only three running backs in eight drafts: Brandon Jackson, a 2007 second-round pick from Nebraska; Starks, a sixth-rounder from Buffalo in 2010; and Green, a third-rounder in 2011. (He has taken two fullbacks, Korey Hall in the sixth round in 2007 and fullback Quinn Johnson in the fifth round in 2009.) Given how much Cover-2 the Packers saw all season long as defenses had little respect for the run game, perhaps such an investment would be prudent.

“If you’re running the ball and they’re closing the middle of the field and bringing an extra guy down, it obviously plays to our strengths as a passing offense,” Van Pelt said. “There were times when I felt we forced (opposing defenses’) hand and they had to come down to stop it, there were some games. But we’d obviously like to be more consistent and be more productive start to finish. Obviously, you want to get balance from the start (of the season). Really, the first four weeks you’re trying to figure out who you are as you look at your breakdown of self-scout. Once that first month is over, then you try to figure out your tendencies. You want to come out and be balanced from the start.”

Next: Wide receivers.

– Jason Wilde

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