NFL Draft Preview: Packers face big decisions at running back

Our fourth look at the 2020 NFL Draft as it relates to the Green Bay Packers takes a look at the running back and fullback positions, where Green Bay has spent, on average, one pick per year since 2007 building depth in the backfield, but with only flashes of success to show for it.

Green Bay has used 13 picks to address the run game in the Draft since 2007, but only three of those picks have been in the first three rounds, and none in the first round. The Packers have used second-round picks on Eddie Lacy and Alex Green, but like many teams in the NFL in the past decade or two, Green Bay has sought value with late-round picks, a strategy emphasized in 2017 when the Packers grabbed three running backs after the third round had concluded. Averaging one pick per year, and picking most of their running backs or fullbacks in the late rounds, makes it a safe bet that the Packers may be hunting for late-round assets again at the position, especially as the position is more valued in Matt LaFleur's offense, and also to help take some of the pressure off of Aaron Rodgers and the passing game, which currently only has one proven, reliable pass-catching target (Davante Adams).

Here's the Packers' Draft order as of today:

NFL Draft Preview: Packers hold 10 selections in 2020 Draft - Thumbnail Image

NFL Draft Preview: Packers hold 10 selections in 2020 Draft

As laid out, the Packers have spent 13 Draft picks on running backs or fullbacks since 2007, an average of one per Draft. They've spent four picks in the past three years on the position, including three choices in 2017. Aaron Jones highlights that group from 2017, and is entrenched as the starter, coming off of a 1,000-yard rushing season in which he also caught 49 passes. Jamaal Williams, from the same class, is a reliable secondary back, both as a runner and receiver, with 1,480 rushing yards and 91 receptions in three seasons of work. Dexter Williams was drafted in 2019 and only managed a handful of carries.

Also on the Packers' roster is Tyler Ervin, who is primarily a return specialist. There are no fullbacks on the roster as of this post.

With that context in mind, let's look at the pool of players in this year's NFL Draft.

It seems at first glance highly unlikely that the Packers would be drafting a running back with one of their first two picks. It's been 30 years since the Packers spent a first-round pick on a running back (Darrell Thompson, 1990). That being said, with an emphasis on running backs in the offensive scheme, particularly backs who can catch passes out of the backfield, perhaps if the Packers see an impact contributor slide down the board, they'd be open to making the decision.

One early contributor with plenty of positional versatility is Georgia's D'Andre Swift, who projects as a jack-of-all-trades running back unlike anything else on the roster. Swift may drop due to a history of minor but nagging injuries, but the projections have him going as high as mid-first round and as low as the middle to lower portion of the second round. That's the profile of an athlete who could land in the lap of a team drafting down-ballot that has him high on their board, especially a team that needs instant help at the position.

A similar back is Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins, who isn't as polished of a pass route runner as Swift, but like Swift, is passable to borderline asset in pass protection by virtue of personality. Both Dobbins and Swift are physical players, especially as it relates to finishing off runs, and both were productive in college. Swift is probably the better pass-catcher out of the backfield, but Dobbins might be a touch more reliable with the ball in his hands as a runner, at least if you trust the Big Boards out there. Dobbins similarly slots in mid-first to mid-second round. Again, neither fit the profile of what the Packers have on the roster already, but a 150-touch reserve that is an asset in the pass game as a rookie would allow the Packers to be more creative on offense (and take some heat off of Aaron Rodgers having to do it all).

Don't expect the Packers to take big-school backs like Clyde Edwards-Helaire of LSU or Cam Akers of Florida State in the first two rounds. While both are obviously gifted runners, if Green Bay is shopping for running backs early, it won't be for players who are a minus in the pass protection and pass catching categories, especially if the high pick is a spell for Aaron Jones.

OK, we'll talk about it. Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor is a fit for the Packers' offense. The record-setting back is a punishing straight-line runner, with a burst up the middle (top 40-time in the NFL Combine among running backs at 4.39) that will move the chains for whoever drafts him, and will be capable of being a day-one starter in the NFL. A mild concern is how well he will play on passing downs, but the early indication is that it's not a negative, at least. Two big concerns regarding Taylor, noted in nearly every Draft profile: He's already carried the ball a TON in the past three years. Running backs have a shelf life and Taylor's had nearly 1,000 touches the past three years. That being said, the heavy workload didn't seem to slow Taylor down at all in college. The other, probably greater, concern is the fumbles. Those are probably the two greatest factors in Taylor moving down Draft boards and into the second round, although some boards and analysts have him solidly first-round, even the top running back in this year's Draft.

In the middle rounds (3 through 5), a couple of prospects to watch for include Darrynton Evans of Appalachian State and Anthony McFarland of Maryland. Both boast home-run speed and had limited work in college, so there is perhaps a slightly higher ceiling with these mid-round backs. Evans showed flashes of pass-catching ability out of the backfield, while McFarland is being graded almost solely on measurable testing numbers since his college production was very light.

Pressing down the board a bit, some of the late-round options for the Packers, where they pick six times between picks #175 and the end of the Draft, include the very athletic A.J. Dillon of Boston College, who led the Combine at running back in both the vertical and broad jump as well as a 4.53 40 while tipping the scales at 250 pounds. Another athletic player with some limitations in terms of scheme and production is Baylor's JaMycal Hasty, who has the physical traits necessary to succeed at the position.

Here's where we enter the plausible or most likely picks for the Packers at running back: Late-round choices on college backs that produced well but fell down or off of Draft boards for one reason or another. Cincinnati's Michael Warren fits the bill, who won't wow anyone with sheer speed but was productive as a two-season starter at running back. His slide may come due to limited work in pass protection and past fumbling issues. Another productive college back is James Robinson of Illinois State, who projects as a seventh-round selection.

Some role players that can be had later on in the Draft include Illinois back Reggie Corbin, who offers some versatility in a running back/slot back role; Miami's DeeJay Dallas, a former quarterback-turned-running back with upside; TCU's Darius Anderson, another upside pick at the position; and Louisiana-Lafayette's Raymond Calais, who posted the Combine's third-best 40 time at 4.42 and is slotted somewhere in the late rounds in most projections.

Green Bay has some urgency at the position, given that Jones and Williams are in the final years of their rookie deals, and there's nobody else proven on the depth chart that would be obvious to take over should the Packers opt to not retain either back. It seems like a risky proposition for Green Bay to shell out big money at a position they have mostly invested late-round Draft choices in, and one that is devalued in today's NFL landscape. That's what makes this Draft so fascinating at running back; the Packers are at something of a crossroads with two productive fourth-year players at the position. Financially, they'll have to decide what their limit is in terms of keeping one or both backs. It's not a sure thing either direction what Green Bay will do with Jones and Williams. A high pick on a running back would signal obvious change at the position, and perhaps as soon as this year, since Green Bay already has four running backs on the depth chart (although one is serving primarily as a kick returner). Picking, on average, one back a year means the odds are fairly solid they'll add to the position at some point this Draft, much more likely later on where they have six of the final 80 selections of the Draft.

The NFL Draft is April 23-25 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Teams will conduct the Draft remotely.

Photo: Getty Images (Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin)

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