GREEN BAY — Perhaps it will be, as Aaron Rodgers affectionately calls him, "The Used Car Salesman," who steps to the fore. Or maybe one of the rookies — second-round pick Eddie Lacy, or fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin — will prove ready from the jump. Or perhaps Alex Green, who had the misfortune of not recovering from his torn anterior cruciate ligament the way that Adrian Peterson fellow did, will be the player the coaches hoped he'd be last year. Or maybe, just maybe, James Starks will put his long injury history behind him and manage to stay healthy, since the guy's been pretty good when he hasn't been hurt.
Or perhaps they will utilize some or all of them, playing to each of their strengths and proving that running back by committee can work if you have better talent on the committee.
Whatever happens, however it happens, this much is clear: The Green Bay Packers need someone — anyone — to step up and be the kind of running back that teams actually think might be worth paying attention to.
Because last year, no matter who was back there, defenses didn't.
"It had an effect," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said of the lack of a running threat. "In previous years, our action passing game was very productive. We hit some big shots down the field. And we didn't get the type of reaction on the run-fakes that we had gotten previously, when we were able to run the ball better. Hopefully we get that and they have to come up and stop it, and we get that reaction."
That will require more production than last season, when Green carried 135 times for 464 yards (3.4-yard average), Starks ran 71 times for 255 yards (3.6-yard average), veteran Cedric Benson ran 71 times for 248 yards (3.5-yard average) and Harris burst onto the scene late and ran 34 times for 127 yards (4.6 yard average).
At season's end, it was Harris — the same guy who'd been out of football and working at a Jacksonville car dealership
when the Packers called and added him to the practice squad on Oct. 24 — who was serving as the lead back and rushing 28 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs.
Although he ceded some of the built-in advantage as the quasi-incumbent by missing the entire offseason — first with an undisclosed injury, then after having a fist-size cyst surgically removed from his lung — the 5-foot-8, 203-pound Harris has at least one person in his corner as he prepares to battle Lacy, Franklin, Green and Starks for the No. 1 role.
"I love 'The Used Car Salesman.' I think he's a special player," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "I think DuJuan Harris is an incredible combination of strength and agility for a man of his size, and I'm excited about seeing what he can do as a featured back.
"It's (also) been good having Johnathan and Eddie here. I think you're seen Alex Green and James Starks do some really good things this spring. It's going to be a tough competition for however many guys they keep at that spot."
The 5-11, 230-pound Lacy and the 5-10, 205-pound Franklin are vastly different players — Lacy should be fascinating to watch once the pads come on in training camp starting July 26, and Franklin's suddenness was impossible to miss in shorts and helmets — but both were able to carry the load as featured backs in college. Whether they get the chance to do that as rookies depends on how quickly they pick up the offense, including pass-blocking.
Even Rodgers, despite his affinity for Harris, sees potential in both.
"Both Johnathan and Eddie bring some different things to the table. Johnathan's a quick, athletic, loose-hipped guy who can make guys miss in the open field regularly, and Eddie is a power back who also has some agility," Rodgers explained. "You saw (Lacy) on some power runs, especially this spring, where he's been able to read his blocks and make guys miss. He's a very patient runner, which we haven't had here in awhile. I think you saw some of that with Cedric but really since Ahman (Green) was in his heyday, we haven't seen anyone be as patient back there.
"I think this training camp will be really important for him, to go from a high pick to a guy who can really be a difference-maker for us in the backfield. I think when he figures out the mental part of this, which I think he's getting closer, I think he could be a very talented back for us."
Rodgers recognizes that his life would be considerably easier if the running backs — alone or in unison — present a genuine threat to opposing defenses, as he believes Benson was starting to do when he suffered a season-ending foot injury last Oct. 7 at Indianapolis. The bottom line? Whoever is christened the No. 1 back will be vital to the offene's success.
"There's competition at that spot. No doubt," Clements said. "You've got James and Alex and DuJuan from last year, who came in and did well, and now you have the two rookie (draft picks) in the mix, and the free agent (Angelo Pease) as well, who's a good player. So it's a talented group, and it'll make our team better and that position better."