GREEN BAY – Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin are already friends, roommates, teammates and competitors. Whether the two rookie running backs will be the saviors of the Green Bay Packers’ long-dormant running game remains to be seen.
With the team taking Alabama’s Lacy in the second round of last month’s NFL Draft, then trading up to take UCLA’s Franklin in the fourth round, both players understand their connection. And when they arrived in Green Bay for the team’s post-draft rookie orientation camp on Thursday, they learned they’d be bunking in together at a hotel near the airport, where the rookies are being housed until training camp kicks off in July or they find more permanent living arrangements.
“We’re roommates in the hotel, we talk. But we’re going to have to compete,” Lacy said. “It’s just like when you’re in college – you get there, you meet the other running backs, you’re all friends but you have to compete. It’s no different here.”
Added Franklin: “On the field, we're competing definitely. But off the field we're definitely buddies. But we're here to help each other grow and push each other to get better."
And the Packers clearly need to get better in the run game. Whether that improvement comes from Lacy, Franklin or the host of holdovers – DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks all held the job of lead back at times last season – doesn’t really matter. After watching his offense face a steady diet of Cover-2 defenses geared to slow down star quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the potent passing game, coach Mike McCarthy wants a more balanced attack.
“We’ve made some scheme adjustments. We have already started that process,” McCarthy said. “Lacy, frankly will fit into some of these changes we’ve made. We’ll see how it goes through the offseason and training camp. I’m excited about it.”
The Packers haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in the last 43 regular-season games, far and away the longest active streak in the NFL. (The San Diego Chargers are next, with a 19-game drought.) Over the past three seasons, the Packers’ running backs have combined for just 12 rushing touchdowns and are averaging only 3.8 yards per carry – the fewest in the NFL for both categories. After one practice, McCarthy liked the first impressions he got from both young backs.
“Eddie Lacy, he definitely is very smooth. You can see the things particularly in the run game that he did at Alabama,” McCarthy said. “He was obviously very well coached there and his comfort in the inside-, outside-zone footwork, I think that was my first impression watching him in the team run and in the running back ball-handling drills. I’m glad he’s here.”
As for Franklin, McCarthy said he saw “just really what you saw on film. It’s very natural to him. … I think he’s an excellent fit for us.”
Not since Ryan Grant put together back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009 have the Packers gotten consistent production from a single ballcarrier. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Lacy, who carried 204 times for 1,322 yards with 17 touchdowns in 14 games last season, could fill that void.
“I mean, we’re all going to see when the season comes around. I still have to go through practice and the playbook and a whole lot of stuff before I even think about that,” Lacy replied when asked if he could be that back. “If I go out and do what I have to do, everything will fall where it’s supposed to and I’ll just move on from that.”
Lacy dismissed concerns about his durability, which he acknowledged caused his draft stock to drop. Viewed by many as the top running back in the draft, he fell to the Packers at No. 61, after North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard went 37th to Cincinnati, Michigan State’s Le'Veon Bell went 48th to Pittsburgh and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball went 58th to Denver. The Steelers reportedly passed on Lacy because of toe fusion surgery he had in the spring of 2012, while Broncos president John Elway said after the draft that health concerns were the deciding factor for his team between Lacy and Ball.
“I just feel like everything happens for a reason and even though I didn’t get picked where I was supposed to, I fell to Green Bay and even though it was the second round, I feel like it’s the perfect place to be,” Lacy said. “I’m not knocking (those teams) for feeling like that, but I feel like I’m in a great situation and I’m just going to move on from there.”
The 5-10, 205-pound Franklin, meanwhile, isn’t conceding anything. He set the UCLA single-season rushing record last year with 1,732 yards, and while he isn’t as big as Lacy, he believes he’s capable of being an every-down back, too.
“Eddie, he's my roommate. We were laughing all night (Thursday) night. He's a great guy. I met him at the (NFL scouting) combine,” Franklin said. “He's a great player. I'm excited to be on the same team with him. I expect to learn from him and I expect to teach him a little bit.
“They brought us here for a reason. We have to contribute. Competition is going to bring out the best in you. We're definitely going to find out what kind of men we are and what kind of athletes we are. So I'm excited to compete with Eddie and learn from Eddie and get better with him as well."
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.