The Packers rarely make major free agent headlines, but the storied franchise will have a major decision to make in 2017. Just what will Green Bay do about Eddie Lacy?
The former second-round pick is slated to hit the free agent market after playing out his rookie contract in Wisconsin. The Pro Bowl tailback is just 26 years old and has averaged a solid 4.4 yards per carry in his four-year career, but has also made just 17 starts over the past two years. Last fall, he saw his role taken over by a converted wide receiver during the team’s run to the NFC Championship.
When healthy, Lacy has the potential to be a game-changer — but are the Packers willing to justify a big contract for a player who has raised more questions than he’s answered the past two years? And if not them, then who?
The burly tailback burst into the NFL zeitgeist as a rookie in 2013, rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Packers won the NFC North. He was similarly impactful the following year, upping his yards per carry and cracking the 1,100-yard barrier for the second straight season.
But just as it appeared Green Bay had a franchise tailback on the roster, questions about Lacy’s commitment and effectiveness began to surface. His weight ballooned heading into the 2015 season, raising concerns about his conditioning that proved reasonable as the season wore down. He gained just 117 yards — 3.25 per carry -- in the final three games of the season before rebounding for a pair of solid performances in the playoffs.
He was limited to only five games last fall as an ankle injury kept him from the field. His absence left the Packers with a major hole at tailback; one eventually plugged by a receiver and a guy who little regarded the tailback-needy Seahawks cut him midseason. The combination of Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael proved sufficient to fill Lacy’s shoes — the pair ran for 5.3 yards per carry to provide a potent counterbalance to Aaron Rodgers’ passing attack.
Despite Montgomery’s emergence, Lacy is optimistic about his chances to remain in Wisconsin.
“Talking to my agent, the Packers have been very vocal about having me back there,” Lacy told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “I feel as though I can run in any offense; the more downhill, the better.”
Head coach Mike McCarthy echoed that sentiment at the NFL Draft Combine.
Concerns about Lacy’s weight may be overblown, but questions about his ability to be the kind of player who can handle 20 carries every Sunday may not be. He’s run the ball fewer than 14 times per game over the past two seasons, transitioning from rising star to possible platoon back in the process. He’s also been less useful in the red zone over that span; after rushing for 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons (one every 26.5 carries), he’s recorded only three the last two years (one in 85).
Still, he’s an intriguing talent with a history of success and a combination of skills that allows him to make people miss or just bowl over defenders. Here’s who could be interested in his services this spring.
Green Bay Packers
Montgomery and Michael were a solid stopgap solution, but Michael is an unrestricted free agent and Montgomery could struggle now that opposing defenses know what to expect from him. With James Starks officially gone, Green Bay will bring in at least one running back this offseason, and Lacy could be the call if the price is right. Head coach Mike McCarthy knows how dangerous the bruising runner can be when he’s healthy — but he also knows the headache he creates when he’s not.
The Vikings can jab at their division rivals by bringing in Lacy, though they’d have to release Adrian Peterson and his $18 million cap hit first. Minnesota’s backs averaged a league-worst 3.2 yards per carry last season, giving Sam Bradford little relief for a struggling offense. Bringing in Lacy would be an instant upgrade — but so would a healthy Peterson.
Finishing just ahead of the Vikings in terms of yards per touch were the Giants, who have already jettisoned veteran Rashad Jennings this offseason. New York went with a platoon approach last fall and struggled, putting the clamps on an otherwise impressive 11-5 season. Lacy could help, but second-year back Paul Perkins is primed to step into a leading role after finishing the 2016 season on a high note. Bringing in a back like Lacy could adversely affect his development.
Tampa is expected to cut Doug Martin and his $5.7 million cap hit this offseason, leaving a big hole in the lineup next to Jameis Winston. Martin was impressively ineffective last season, rushing for just 2.9 yards per carry on a team with few other reliable options at tailback. Lacy would legitimize the Bucs’ rushing attack and take some pressure from Winston’s shoulders in the process.
Devontae Booker may be due for a strong sophomore campaign, but the Broncos got little production from their tailbacks in 2016. An ineffective platoon of Booker, C.J. Anderson, Justin Forsett, and Kapri Bibbs failed to present a credible threat last fall, making things more difficult for young quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. Lacy could help — though bringing a player with conditioning concerns to the thin air of Mile High Stadium may not be a great combination.
The Lions haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Kevin Jones in 2004 and currently have just $5 million locked up in running back salaries for 2017. Detroit has favored a platoon attack in recent years, which could make sense for Lacy; he has run well with limited touches and could be a fourth-quarter beast against tiring defenses. However, if the talented back is holding out for a starring role, a trip to his former division rival may not make sense.
Former general manager Ryan Grigson’s strategy of bringing in veterans on the wrong side of age 30 led to his ouster, but his decision to pick up Frank Gore actually worked out for the franchise. Gore ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, but has one year left on his contract and will be 34 years old in May. Indianapolis needs help at tailback, and bringing in Lacy could give the team a hard-to-tackle tandem next fall and serve as an audition to be the team’s true No. 1 back down the road.
The Jets’ primary tailback last season was 31-year-old Matt Forte, who struggled to regain the form that made him a star in Chicago. Bilal Powell did a great job sharing carries — his 722 yards were a career high — but bringing in Lacy could give New York a power back to add a new dimension to a struggling offense. However, with more than $10 million tied up in tailbacks for 2017 and holes throughout the roster, spending big on another runner may not be the wisest decision.
If LeGarrette Blount doesn’t re-sign with the team and Lacy’s price drops, the Patriots could turn to the former Packer to be their new bruising tailback. Head coach Bill Belichick likes backs who can catch the ball — James White and Dion Lewis immediately come to mind — and Lacy has always been an underrated receiver. New England has fewer than $3 million locked up in running back salaries next fall, but may prefer to stick with Blount or roll the dice in the draft instead.
Carolina is expected to release longtime veteran Jonathan Stewart and his $8.25 million cap hit this spring, leaving room to add an impact runner to the roster. The Panthers probably aren’t ready to hand the reins over to Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne just yet, so expect them to be active in free agency and the draft in hopes of putting a forgettable 2016 in the rear view.