RBs: Packers offseason by position

Taking a closer look at the running back position as the Green Bay Packers prepare for the annual NFL Scouting Combine, which kicks off on Feb. 17 and marks the unofficial start to the 2015 season. The new league year begins on March 10, when free agency opens.

Players under contract

No. Name Pos. Ht. Wt. Age Exp. College 27 Eddie Lacy RB 5-11 230 24 2 Alabama 44 James Starks RB 6-2 218 28 5 Buffalo 26 DuJuan Harris RB 5-8 203 26 2 Troy 34 Rajion Neal RB 5-11 220 22 R Tennessee

Unrestricted free agents

No. Name Pos. Ht. Wt. Age Exp. College 30 John Kuhn FB 6-0 250 32 9 Shippensburg

The good news:  If there was any doubt that Eddie Lacy was the real deal after earning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2013, Lacy eliminated it with an even better sophomore season. Including playoffs last year, Lacy carried 305 times for 1,259 yards and 11 touchdowns in essentially 15 games. (He suffered a concussion on his first carry of a Week 2 victory over Washington and then missed the following week’s game at Cincinnati.) He also caught 37 passes for 264 yards in regular- and post-season play.

In 2014, Lacy carried the ball only 246 times for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns – only 39 fewer yards than last regular season on 38 fewer attempts – while also having caught 42 passes for 427 yards and four TDs. In two postseason games, Lacy ran the ball 40 times for 174 yards and caught one pass for 10 yards. All told, Lacy had 342 touches for 1,523 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie, and 329 touches for 1,750 yards and 13 TDs this season. By rationing his touches, the Packers got a healthy Lacy for 18 games and better production.

“I just play man. I get the ball and I run,” Lacy said late in the season. “Whatever the stats are at the end of the year, that’s what they are. At the end of the day, it’s a team game, it’s a team sport and you want to win. That’s the most important thing.”

The bad news:  Perhaps Kuhn has more value to the Packers than the other 31 teams, and to Aaron Rodgers more than any other quarterback, but the NFL MVP insists that the veteran fullback is key to the Packers’ offense and the team’s shift to using more three-receiver, two-back sets later in the year with Kuhn on the field made a difference in the offense. At least in Rodgers’ opinion, losing him in free agency would be a blow.

“We played a lot of our Eagle set, which is three receivers and two running backs and John Kuhn was on the field a lot and he (increased) the mean football IQ on the field every team he steps on there,” Rodgers said. “Hopefully we can lock up our guys, bring Kuhn back, because he played excellent and I was happy he got recognized the way he did.”

That recognition was as an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection. While the fullback position may be slowly being phased out of the game, it’ll be interesting to see if Kuhn, one of the oldest players on the roster in 2014, will be brought back for another season. While he didn’t speak at length with reporters when players cleaned out their lockers on Jan. 19, he did say that he has no intention of retiring and plans on playing in 2015.

Kuhn returned for the 2014 season on a one-year, $1 million deal, and if he returns, he’ll do so on a similar deal.

As for the importance of his position, Kuhn said, “There’s a lot of armchair quarterbacks out there and coaches, but everybody has their own opinions and philosophies, and I know we’ve lived by our own philosophy around here, to mix things up, to use guys in different ways. The fullback position here isn’t as traditional as it was back in the ‘80s. We can mix it up and we can do different things. I think you see that around the league in general, but here we have 53 guys who play football. We don’t have designated position slots, per se.”

The big question:  Late in the year, Lacy hypothesized that his improved production in his second season was at least partially a function of playing a full season with Rodgers, who missed the better part of eight games during Lacy’s rookie season with a fractured collarbone. Rodgers’ presence reduced the number of eight- and nine-man boxes Lacy faced, and that, in turn, reduced the beating he took from would-be tacklers.

“I think it’s because of how balanced our offense was this year vs. last year. … That definitely plays a big part into why I feel a lot fresher this year,” Lacy said. “I’ve definitely taken less hits. I probably get hit the same, I guess you could say. But it’s not eight, nine guys in the box every time because of our quarterback.”

That said, it was almost as though the Packers – and coach Mike McCarthy – were trying to figure out early in the season how they wanted to use Lacy. After carrying the ball 20 times or more in 11 of the 15 full games he played as a rookie, he never eclipsed the 20-carry mark in the first half of the season. His carry numbers in those eight games: 12, 13, 11, 17, 13, 14, 12, and 13.

With Starks as a reliable, change-of-pace slasher as his backup, the Packers won’t have to overwork Lacy in 2015, either. But perhaps they’ll have a better feel for exactly where the sweet spot is for Lacy’s touches. McCarthy said he was aiming for 20 touches per game during the season,

Offseason outlook:  It was Rodgers who may have inadvertently overshared in late November, saying that Lacy had told him that he wanted to slim down a bit this offseason. Lacy, who might have the best laugh of any player in the Packers locker room, got a good one out of it when asked about Rodgers’ assertion a few days later.

“I think what he’s getting at is if I’m going to be involved in the passing game this year, and if I want to be a better player, then it might not be a bad idea to, just get a little more agile, I guess you could say,” Lacy said. “It’s a thought. I mean, I don’t have to. It would just make you better as a player.”

While Lacy’s weight caused a bit of a stir during his first NFL training camp, when an unflattering camera angle on a Packers.com photo went viral, the coaches and training staff didn’t seem to have any concerns about Lacy’s playing weight in 2014.

But if Lacy’s role is going to continue to expand in the passing game – he did nickname himself “Moss,” after Randy Moss, in training camp, and the screen pass did become a useful weapon again in the Packers’ offense – dropping a few pounds from his listed (but likely light) 230-pound listed weight might not be a bad idea.

“Whatever happens through the course of a year – I don’t like to put numbers out, period – but however I get the ball, just make the most of it,” Lacy said. “And at the end of the year, you see what it is.”

Next: Wide receivers.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.