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PACKERDRAFT 2008 RUNNING BACKS

By Jerry Gilbert

Facing a number of questions about the running back position, Green Bay Packer General Manager Ted Thompson is likely to consider drafting a ball carrier, probably in the second day of the NFL Draft.

By every measure, Ryan Grant arrived in 2007 as a quality NFL running back. Playing a significant role in only nine games, Grant achieved a rushing average of 5.1 yards and a total of nearly 1000. However, he has been a starter for less than one complete season, and he could be injured at any time. Who can replace him if he falters or is injured is the first question the Packers face.

The second issue is whether any of the other tailbacks on the current roster can be an adequate replacement. The leading candidate is the second round selection from last year, Brandon Jackson, who started poorly but appeared to be coming on as the season ended. If the coaching staff has lost confidence that Jackson is good enough to start, the selection this year could be in the early rounds.

Among the other candidates, there is some potential, but there is nothing close to a sure thing. Vernand Morrency was a serious candidate to start last season, but due to some combination of the new system and nagging injuries, Morrency was nothing more than a spot player. DeShawn Wynn was the starter for a couple of games before being injured. Wynn has adequate talent, but has not maximized that talent since high school. He could be a factor, but only if he can prove to be consistent and durable.

Two players return from injured reserve. Noah Herron lacks the skills to be a feature back, but could still find a role with the team. Corey White on the other hand was a big star in the early preseason last year prior to his injury. He could have the size to be a short yardage option and only time will tell if he could be the starter. Wynn is another possibility for the short yardage role.

With no star behind Ryan Grant, Ted Thompson may well decide to use a fairly high draft choice to add a running back. There will be possibilities in every round of the 2008 draft.

Having dominated all other backs at the Combine with his times in the 10 yard twenty yard and forty yard measurements, Chris Johnson of East Carolina 5-11 197 is one of the most intriguing talents in this draft pool. His 4.24 forty was a leading subject of conversation in Indianapolis. Not simply a fast runner, Johnson proved himself at East Carolina to be a durable rusher and dependable receiver, who led the nation in 2007 with an average of 228 all purpose yards per game. This was part of a career total of 6693 total yards. However, it is the game changing speed as a return man runner and receiver that makes this player unique in this Draft. Johnson would be a great value in round 3.

If the Packers are seeking a more traditional back in that third round area, they may look at Matt Forte 6-1 221 Tulane. Similar to Ryan Grant in size and speed, Forte both moved the pile for rough yards and broke away for long gains as he averaged 177.3 yards and over 11 points per game as a senior. I became interested in Forte at the Senior Bowl, where he showed that he could run the ball effectively and also contribute in the passing game against the best defenders in the country. More recently a pro scout has compared Forte to Jamal Lewis.

Another bigger back who played well at the Senior Bowl is Tashard Choice, 5-11 217 of Georgia Tech. Choice led his conference in rushing the last two years. The last back to do that was Thomas Jones. At his recent pro day, Choice ran the forty in under 4.5 and had a vertical over 37 inches. He may have the athletic talent to be a feature back in the NF.

In the fourth to fifth rounds, Green Bay may look at a couple of backs such as Allen Patrick 6-1 198 from Oklahoma or Kevin Smith 6-1 217 of Central Florida. Patrick is an undersized power back, who probably needs to get bigger. He improved in his decision making in his years at Oklahoma. Unfortunately, an injury at the East West Game practices deprived him of the all-star game showcase. Kevin Smith had a great season in 2007. He rushed for over 2000 yards and came within 60 yards of topping the all time single season rushing record held by Barry Sanders Only a junior, Smith was a step slow at the Combine but ran in the 4.4 range as expected at his pro day.

Still other prospects may be available at the end of the draft. BenJarvis Green-Ellis, 5-10 217 Mississippi, has a running style that keeps him low to the ground. He gave tacklers fits at the East West Shrine practices. Green-Ellis began his career at Indiana where he averaged 98 yards per game in the Big Ten Conference before transferring to Mississippi where he was an all conference back for two seasons. A lack of breakaway speed puts him at the end of the draft.

A small school prospect from Montana is Lex Hilliard 5-11 231 who keeps low with a forward lean. Hilliard scored a school record 48 rushing touchdowns in his career along with moving the chains on 12 of 16 third down opportunities in a season. Hilliard could be a short yardage back for some team.

Finally, although he will not be drafted by the Packers, who do not draft short running backs, Justin Biever, 5-8 198 UW Whitewater, has earned the right to be considered with these other backs. Having just been selected as the Division III most valuable player last season, Biever proceeded to put his UW Whitewater team on his back and drag them to an upset victory over Mount Union in the Division III championship. Capping the victory with a 66 yard burst late in the fourth quarter to set up the clinching touchdown, Biever rushed for 249 yards in the biggest game of his career. A pro team in some league should have a spot for this warrior.

The consensus first round backs in this draft are Darren McFadden and Rashard Mendenhall, but with Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson on the roster, running back is not one of the highest priorities for the Packers. On the other hand, this draft contains some backs who could help a team, and Green Bay is likely to select one of them.

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