As I looked over the cuts made for the 53-man roster today for the Packers, there weren't too many surprises. Oh, yes, seeing Jarrett Bush and Breno Giacomini making the final roster was a bit of a surprise, but then again, somewhat expected: Ted Thompson always values his draft picks a bit too highly, and I have never understood his approach to the defensive secondary.
But the one that really stood out to me as a concern were the cuts of Vernand Morency and Noah Herron. Not that either one was looking like a starter, but simply the fact that both these experienced backs were released. It concerns me because the Packers appear to be going into the season with just three running backs, all of whom still have a lot to prove coming into the first week of the season.
Yes, we expected Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson, both acquisitions from the 2007 draft, to make the final roster, and many speculated that undrafted rookie Kregg Lumpkin would also slip through, as he had been the workhorse of the preseason and showed a bit of promise. However, like most of the prognosticators predicting the final roster, I thought the Pack would keep four running backs in the stable, and go with just one fullback.
Alas, the Packers went with just three, and kept both Korey Hall and John Kuhn at fullback. The rationale that was mentioned today through the media was that the Packers often go with a two-FB set in short yardage situations, thus needing both fullbacks.
I don't know if I buy that, but the loss of both Herron and Morency concerns me, and I'll tell you why.
The Packers are going into this season with a young quarterback and an offensive line that has struggled to open holes. This places a larger burden on the running game to establish itself both on the ground and in blocking.
Ryan Grant, as I have stated before, is our "best bet" going into the season, but is far from a home run. None of our running backs, including Grant, could get anything going the first half of 2007, which is what sent coach Mike McCarthy into essentially "pass-only" mode over that time. Brett Favre played under control and kept his turnovers down. When opposing defenses realized that they had to keep defenders back, playing honest against the high-octane passing game, Grant was able to step in and suddenly bring the running game into being.
It could be Grant was purely a lucky kid who happened to come in and make good in a situation that, perhaps, any running back could have (Brandon Jackson's late-season performance does tend to back that up...BJ couldn't do much at the beginning of the year, but had a 100-yard game once the defenses played the pass first). It could also be that he really is a solid back who is legit.
But, the contract holdout and somewhat predictable hamstring injury (that always seems to dog holdouts) means that Grant didn't play a down in the preseason, and we know nothing more about whether he was lucky vs. good than we did at the end of last season. We also have to cross our fingers that he's going to stay healthy, as hamstring injuries are known to linger and get re-injured.
Which takes me to my next concern, which is Brandon Jackson. He showed promise, and certainly has gotten a lot of press for his Offseason Regimen and Coming In Stronger Than Last Year.
However, what concerns me is not only his lack of production following the Bengal game, but the fact that he was abysmal in pass protection. Not just bad, not just missing a few assignments here and there. Abysmal.
So bad, that when I think about Jackson having to start due to injury, or even coming in as a change-of-pace back (which is normally done on obvious passing downs as a single-back or in the shotgun), I worry about the health of Aaron Rodgers. The assignment of that running back in a single set is often to pick up that outside blitzer, often on the blind side. Jackson may have shown a lot of weight room improvement, and maybe even some improvement running the ball. But he hasn't improved in his pass protection.
Which then brings me to the release of both Morency and Herron. I knew both were not going to make the final roster, but figured that one of them had to make it. Both are workman-like backs who aren't flashy or even starting material, but both bring a level of experience that neither of the other three backs possess, and both bring a skill unmatched by the other two backups:
Both were excellent and assignment-sure in the backfield.
In the last few seasons, the Packers had a quarterback in Brett Favre whose unheralded skill at evading pass rushers often made his blockers look better than they really were. After all, if you can avoid the rush, move the pocket, and prefer to throw risky passes, you likely won't get many sacks.
Favre didn't get many sacks, and the offensive line and other blockers were often heralded by those who worship at the Altar of Statistics. After all, the only legitimate statistic used to measure pass protection is sacks allowed.
But with Aaron Rodgers behind center this year, a priority is going to have to be keeping him healthy. And the best way to do that is to avoid having him take unnecessary hits. That running back is as important as his left tackle on many plays, and I'm not comfortable with Brandon Jackson being the guy back there continuing to learn his assignments with Ben Leber coming on a blitz.
I figured the best option was Noah Herron, a guy who would play special teams and is reputed for simply going out there and doing whatever he is asked to do solidly. Certainly, he is a guy you want on your side in a fight (or if your house is getting robbed). However, both Herron and Morency spent 2007 on the injury list, and that doesn't help your case a whole lot when it comes to taking up a roster spot.
I like Kregg Lumpkin, but I still see him as a developmental project who is going to take some time to grow into the position. He got a lot of action in the preseason, but that was because he played most of the second half of the games, with Ryan Grant not playing in any of them. Lumpkin also follows Brandon Jackson in spending much of his final college season injured, so his professional injury history is far from established.
Part of this domino effect in keeping two fullbacks stems from the loss of Bubba Franks over the offseason. Franks, a holdover from the Mike Sherman regime, fell from grace with his decline in production and injuries. However, the one thing he remained consistent on is his effective blocking, often coming in motion and lining up out of the backfield (as did starting TE Donald Lee). While Lee established himself as a receiving threat and a decent blocker, the loss of Franks leaves a void at the theoretical "H-Back" position.
The other two tight ends kept, Jermichael Finley and Tory Humphrey, are at best young, raw, and untested. Finley, in particular, appears to be a really tall wide receiver, without the bulk and skill needed to take on the tough blocking duties of a tight end. Humphrey is the #2 tight end, but is an injury risk and still not the ideal body to take on NFL defensive ends in blocking situations.
This is one reason I was disappointed with the selection of Finley in this year's draft. With Lee and five high-octane wide receivers on the roster, we should have been looking for a stronger blocking tight end, such as Martellus Bennett, the TE taken by Dallas just three picks after the Packers selected Brian Brohm. Finley's skill set appears to be rather one-dimensional as a receiver.
Without a strong blocking tight end on the roster, and without an experienced workmanlike back to take on pass blocking duties other than Grant, Ted Thompson is rolling the dice on Aaron Rodgers' health. The poor showing this preseason with both the running game and the ability of the offensive line to open holes for those backs means that, like McCarthy did with Favre, Rodgers may be asked to pass 40-45 times a game until the line "gels" (the wait for which is going on four years).
I know that being an NFL GM means taking "risks". But this risk may end up biting the entire offense in the butt. Given what we've seen from our backup quarterbacks (and what we haven't seen from our starting halfback), our season may really be riding on keeping Aaron Rodgers healthy.
Losing players like Franks, Morency, and Herron and their pass blocking abilities in the backfield doesn't seem like the smartest of risks. Replacing them with poor blockers like Jackson and Finley makes it even more glaring.
But, time will tell, and don't doubt for a second that the Minnesota Vikings won't be making an extensive blitz package part of their game plan next Monday night.