Going Deep: Who’s Packing In The Green Bay Backfield?
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire
When thinking back on the 2017 fantasy football season, most minds would first wander, of course, to the year’s dominant running back performances. Todd Gurley finally realized his full potential, Alvin Kamara made a ton of us look really smart for stashing him, and Kareem Hunt rocked the world and captured the rushing title. These three players are not the ones that come immediately to mind for me. No, it was an entirely different trio that captured my heart: Ty Montgomery, Aaron Jones, and Jamaal Williams. Or, as I affectionately called them, [Packers RB].
Even in a year where Aaron Rodgers missed the majority of the season, [Packers RB] performed admirably for fantasy teams. Finishing as a top-20 RB in PPR in 11 out of 16 games, [Packers RB] performed in this metric at a better rate than players such as Devonta Freeman, Jordan Howard, Christian McCaffrey, and the aforementioned Hunt. It’s also a better rate than every player currently being drafted as RB11-RB20 other than Lesean McCoy. “But Ryan!” you say, “It’s not fair to compare Green Bay’s entire backfield with single players!” The dominant run game of the Minnesota Vikings had an RB in the top 20 in 12 out of 16 games, the Titans in 9 of 16 games, and the Eagles in just 5 out of 16 games. Green Bay was also by far the most predictable of those backfields, with the likes of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon alternating top-20 performances for much of the year, Derrick Henry and Demarco Murray behaving much the same, and the Eagles splitting their 5 top-20 weeks between three running backs, one of which wasn’t on the team during week 1. An owner of [Packers RB], on the other hand, was nearly always able to easily predict the highest scorer from the backfield in any given week. Excluding the games in which the starter was injured, there were virtually no nasty surprises regarding the usage of any [Packers RB].
The Packers as a team managed to rank a league-average 17th in total rushing with Brett Hundley under center for most of the year. Rodgers’ return should bring increased efficiency, less stacked boxes, and more redzone opportunity. They also possess an offensive line projected to be a top-10 unit by Pro Football Focus this year. [Packers RB] should once again produce fantasy points to its owner’s delight. “But Ryan! I don’t want to own a player in a timeshare!” Luckily, if historical patterns hold, you won’t have to. Green Bay awarded at least 60% of the snaps to a single running back in 12 out of 16 games last year, despite having multiple available at various points during the season. That’s comparable to Melvin Gordon (13 of 16) and more than both Leonard Fournette (6 of 13) and Howard (6 of 16), with all snap counts from Pro Football Reference. [Packers RB] sure puts a lot of current first and second-round picks to shame!
All this makes it apparent that the Packers prefer to use a single player for most of the backfield work, and generally avoid using a backfield-by-committee. We can therefore be reasonably certain that one of Williams, Montgomery, or Jones will win the valuable position of [Packers RB] and hold on to it as long as they stay healthy. But which one will it be? Let’s investigate.
Before getting into this, I want to make the disclaimer that if anybody actually knew which of the three will emerge in this backfield, you wouldn’t be able to get any of them in the 8th round as you currently can. Use the following information to decide for yourself which of them to take a shot on — and, as I just showed, it’s critical that you take a shot on at least one of them. Running backs with top-10 upside don’t grow on 8th-round trees, and that’s what all three of these players could be as the primary RB in an Aaron Rodgers-led offense.
Jamaal Williams was the most productive running back in Green Bay last year, and held on to the starting job through the entire second half of the season. Williams is currently listed as the #1 RB on the Packers depth chart, and all indications have shown that he’ll open the season as the starter, given Aaron Jones’ two-week suspension and Montgomery’s lower position on the depth chart. Williams will get the first crack, and could run away with the job if he succeeds. Williams has also proven the most durable of the group, missing only one game last season with a minor knee sprain.
Williams also boasts some third-down chops, posting nearly a 75% catch-rate and possessing excellent pass-blocking skills. His current head-start combined with his ability to play on all three downs makes it easy to imagine Williams as the most valuable RB on this team. He does, however, come with a slightly higher cost compared to the other two, with an ADP of 85th overall on fantasyfootballcalculator.com and being the highest-ranked of the three on ESPN and across most other services. A pedestrian 3.6 YPC is also a mark against Williams, though it occured on the weakest iterations of the Packers offense last season. Still, a late-seventh or eighth round pick is well worth the opportunity Williams could have on this offense.
Ty Montgomery has one of the more interesting stories in fantasy football. After converting from WR during the 2016 season, Montgomery opened 2017 as the starter, also posting a 75% catch rate and being marginally more efficient on the ground than Williams. Critically, Montgomery has by far the most experience of the three playing with Aaron Rodgers, meaning he could develop as the go-to safety valve on third down. We also know Montgomery can split out wide (duh, he was a wideout) and create mismatches all over the field.
Durability concerns, unfortunately, do come into play with Montgomery, who carries the sickle-cell trait. Though he doesn’t seem to let it worry him, it is a pre-existing condition that requires careful management and can lead to increased fatigue. Regardless, with an ADP firmly in the eighth round, Montgomery is a favorite of mine in PPR drafts, as it appears he has the best chance of being the guy on third downs.
Finally, we have Aaron Jones, a favorite of many analysts. Advanced rushing metrics absolutely love this guy, with him ranking 19th in Playerprofiler’s yards created per carry, and posting a 31.3% in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, bested only by Alvin Kamara. He also led the Packers last year in YPC with 5.6, though on only 80 carries. These metrics theoretically paint Jones as the most effective runner on the roster.
However, there’s some downside here too. Despite his reputation coming out of college, Jones appeared less capable on third downs last season than his fellow backs did, with only a 50% catch rate and being trusted with the least targets of the three on a per-game basis. Of course, Jones is suspended for the first two games, giving opportunity to the other two backs to run away with the job before Jones gets the chance to showcase his theoretically superior running skills. That said, Jones is pretty consistently the last of the three off of draft boards, and is going nearly undrafted on ESPN specifically. If you’re willing to hold him on your bench for two weeks, Jones could reward you if he’s still given the opportunity.
With all three of these backs toting different advantages and red flags, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that choosing between the three is an impossible task. But make no mistake — whether you simply throw a dart based on when they’re available or have a favorite that you specifically target, the candidate for [Packers RB] that you choose to draft could represent the turning point of your fantasy season.