A Big Decision Looms: Should Ryan Grant Return To The Green Bay Packers?

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The hot topic around the water cooler all around Wisconsin (and other businesses that are home to hard working Cheeseheads) has been the fate of Donald Driver.  As the most veteran member of the Green Bay Packers as well as one of the most beloved professional athletes in Wisconsin, whether Driver will be back on the team has been “the” discussion so far of the Packers offseason.

There is another decision looming however that arguably would have an even greater effect on the Packers roster: whether or not to bring back RB Ryan Grant who is now an unrestricted free agent.

This isn’t meant to diminish what Driver has meant to the Packers.  He’s been a locker room leader for practically forever and his off the field efforts have made Driver a legend in the mind of Packer fans.  He deserves every ounce of praise he’s getting.

With the Packers’ roster loaded with talent at the wide receiver position, Driver’s potential departure would not have as much an impact on the field as the loss of someone like Grant would potentially have.

Why would the loss of Grant, who entered the season as practically a backup to James Starks, have such a wide reaching effect on the offense despite its heavy reliability on the pass?

Well, let’s take stock of the other halfbacks on the roster:

First is Starks.  The second year running back spent much of 2011 nursing one form of injury or another.  Factor in his rookie season in which he spent a significant amount of time on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and his durability must be called into question.

Starks is still likely the future at the running back position with Grant approaching his 30th birthday this December.    However, Grant showed he still had some burst late in the season. Starks missed three of the final four games of the season (one being a meaningless game against the Lions) and Grant averaged 8.5, 5.5, 5.5 ad 4.0 yards per carry in those games, respectively. Starks in his final four games averaged 3.5, 4.8, 1.7 and 2.2 yards per carry.

Both backs nearly mirrored each other statistically. Keep in mind that Starks played in 13 games and Grant played in 15.  Starks finished with 578 yards on 133 carries (5.8 yards per carry average) and one touchdown while Grant had 559 yards on 134 carries (4.2 yards per carry average) and two touchdowns.

It’s unreasonable to think the Packers can get any more than one or two more years out of Grant.  Running backs typically see a decline in performance after they turn 30 and Grant, one season removed from a major ankle injury, could be a prime candidate for such a decline.

Should Grant depart Titletown, Packer fans will perhaps see more of Brandon Saine. The rookie caught the eyes of Packer fans late in the season with his powerful running style as well as being a decent option in the screen passing game.  He’s fast and can block too.  Seems like the all-purpose halfback that would fit perfectly into the Packers’ offense, right?

Since he was acquired so late in the season, this upcoming offseason will be crucial to see what Saine can do.  Should Grant leave, he likely would be the number two running back behind Starks unless Thompson brings someone in via free agency or more likely drafts a back in the early rounds.

Then there is 2011 third round draft pick Alex Green.  The Packers seemed high on Green until he went down with a knee injury, but he just saw special team works and given the difficulty some running backs have in coming back from knee injury, it’s tough to gauge how much Green will be able to contribute.

What must also be considered is how much importance the running game plays in Mike McCarthy’s offense.  It can be reasoned that a stronger running game would take some pressure off Aaron Rodgers and the passing attack and would help when the passing offense does struggle.  Think a strong rushing attack wouldn’t have helped a little in the game against the Kansas City Chiefs?

If McCarthy wants to make a concerted effort to bring some semblance of balance to his offense, then I think Grant needs to be brought back for another year as Saine or Green or another back develops behind Starks.  The ball definitely should not be taken out of Rodgers’ hands, but the lack of a running game may have caught up with the Packers late in the season. With Andrew Quarless returning from injury, the Packers may have to make a decision on keeping the same number of tight ends to accommodate Grant on the roster but that question will be worked out in time.

It’s not even a given Starks will be successful in the league, either.  His happy feet in the backfield hurt him a lot this year and until he learns to cut and go, there will be questions about the running back position on the Packers.

It’s a tremendous help that you have the NFL Most Valuable Player as your quarterback, but having a good running game to complement a lethal passing attack could make the Packers’ offense jump from one of the best in the league right now to one of the best all time.

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Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com.

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  • Zack

    Starks and grant are interchangeable with eachother. It’s worth having both of them because one of them is bound to get hurt. I’d say sign grant to a 2 year deal if we can get him for a bargain. Personally I think grant was better when he was in his prime but they’re equal at this point in his career.

    • Kris Burke

      My primary concern with Starks is his durability at this point. Grant would be a good plug for one or two years while another back develops. If that’s Saine or Green or even both, so be it.

  • JimR_in_DC

    I think the Packers will move on from Grant. McCarthy isn’t as concerned with pass/run balance as some of us fans are, and I think he’ll be comfortable with the other RBs on the roster, and any RB draft picks that TT provides. Of course, this is all opinion and worth every penny I was paid for it. ;)

    • Kris Burke

      I went back and forth on this one, Jim. I think McCarthy may focus more on the running game after he saw what happened to his offense when the passing game has an off day. Even the greatest quarterbacks have off days.

      • JimR_in_DC

        Although I agree with this in concept, I think McCarthy is stubborn when it comes to balance. With only two losses on the season, I’m not sure he’d make major offensive changes. I suspect he’s more interested in getting the defense in order.

        • JimR_in_DC

          Of course I could be wrong. ;)

          • Kris Burke

            Well, I think the offense will be somewhat tweaked obviously to keep opponents off course but I concur the defense will be the focus.

  • cow42

    “It can be reasoned that a stronger running game would take some pressure off Aaron Rodgers and the passing attack and would help when the passing offense does struggle.”

    i agree with this statement.

    problem is – i don’t think signing grant actually strengthens the running game. it would take someone not currently on the roster to make that happen.

    he’s gone.

    along with dd and cliffy.

    • Kris Burke

      Grant would be suitable for a year or two while another back develops. He doesn’t turn the ball over often and still has enough left in the tank to do what the Packers want to do for the time being in the rushing game.

      I’ll agree with Clifton being gone, but I’m torn on Driver.

      • cow42

        but this would not be STRENGTHENING the running game, it would be MAINTAINING the current running game.

        semantics, i guess.

      • David Wysocki

        Running backs don’t need to develop. If McCarthy wants to bolster the running game then he will draft a RB. Otherwise it’s Starks, Green, Saine. Grant doesn’t really make that group better.

    • Zack

      I don’t think there is a real focus on improving the run game… With Rodgers and our recievers playing as well as they did this year no one had an answer for our passing game except the chiefs and giants (which we arguably beat ourselves the play off game like 7 drops or something like that and Rodgers overthrew twice). personally I think we should have run more against the Giants but hindsight is 20/20.

      Anyway, back on point, there isn’t a need to IMPROVE our running game because our RB’s were as good or close to as good as they had been in the past. We just didn’t run very often, which doesn’t mean that our RB’s didn’t perform well, they did when we used them. Grant 4 Yds/carry and Starks 5.8 is good (that number sounds a lil high. You sure about that Kris? I thought Starks was around 4 too). Not A. Peterson but still a solid running game. I think keeping Grant is a good idea because, like Kris said, Starks has had health issues so it’s nice to have that reassurance of a solid runner behind him… if we can get him for a bargain which isn’t unforseeable because how many NFL teams want a 30 year old RB with past health issues?

  • Grant

    One thing to consider with these guys is whether they play special teams. If you replace guys like Driver and Grant with guys like Saine and Gurley, you have more options to help with special teams. I’m sure they’ll see how much of a pay cut they will take and then decide from there. It wouldn’t shock me if Driver offered to play for the minimum, and TT let him go anyway.

  • Bearmeat

    He gone. Unless he takes a huge paycut and is only a backup – He gone. Someone else will give him starter money.

    Same with Driver.

    I hope TT resigns Wells.

  • Ron LC

    Starks cannot be relied on. He has not put together a full seaon’s work. He will need backup and the young guys appear to be just as fragile as he is. Will have to work out a deal with Grant. Don’t want to waste anohter high draft pick on a back.

    • Zack

      Agreed about Starks not standing alone. Grant made close to 4 mil last year though. What number do you think we should give him/ he will take? I mean, if we can’t get him for low money I don’t think we should bring him back.

      • Oppy

        Are you sure that Grant made 4 mil last season? I thought he renegotiated during camp to remain on the roster, thought he took a pay cut that dropped him significantly?

        • Oppy

          Ahh, I see, he still had the ability to make that much if he hit incentives.

          “The Packers cut Grant’s salary by $1 million this season, in exchange for guaranteeing $2.5 million in base salary. Grant can now make up to $4.5 million this season if he meets all bonuses.”

          Read more: http://aol.sportingnews.com/nfl/story/2011-08-29/packers-rb-ryan-grant-taking-pay-cut-in-stride#ixzz1maw1S8nJ

          • Zack

            Yeah plus even the base salary is higher than he’s worth to me. I mean you, split running in half with another RB you should make half as much as the average RB makes. I’d offer him .750- 1mil with a maximum of 1.5 if he hit his incentives. I believe that’s fair considering his work load.

            • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

              He wouldn’t accept that. he’s an NFL running back. Someone else would pay him more…

              • Zack

                The average salary for an NFL RB is 957K. Grant is an average back at this point… He’s even considered a back up at this stage of his career. Sounds fair to me.

  • Zack

    Does anyone recall which of our backs if any stood out in pass protection? It may have some weight in the packers decision to keep him considering our pass happy approach to last year.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      unfortunately, none stood out. Starks had his good moments, Grant was Grant (not good), Seine didn’t have many chances. Kuhn is probably better than all of them. I have hopes for Alex Green – he’s pretty strong.

      • Kris Burke

        I just hope that knee injury doesn’t hinder him going forward. Otherwise I’d agree

  • Pete Kliman

    If a good back falls to us in the third round ,the brain trust should scoop him up.We need to get the running game going for obvious reasons.