Alex Van Pelt didn’t seem the least bit worried.
The Green Bay Packers running backs coach – well, at the time, he was – insisted late in the season that his star pupil, rookie running back Eddie Lacy, wasn’t subjecting himself to undue punishment and thereby shortening his career because of his physical, bruising style.
“I think that’s his game. That’s the guy we knew we were getting, and we’re never going to shy away from asking him to break tackles and running as hard as he can,” said Van Pelt, who has since shifted to quarterbacks coach (although the club has yet to announce the move)
“It’s the type of guy he is. We knew that coming in. He’s a big, bruising back. If you’re those DBs, you see the film, you’re going to make a business decision of whether you’re going to take the big fella on or not. It sends a message across the league as well.”
On Saturday night, the message was loud and clear: Receiving 35 of a possible 50 votes from the Associated Press’ panel of pro football experts, Lacy was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year at the league’s annual NFL Honors event at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Lacy, who also made last week’s Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, is the first running back to win the award since Peterson in 2007.
Asked in that same late-season interview if he thought Lacy would change if he won such an award, Van Pelt replied, “I’m sure it would be exciting. That’s a heck of an accomplishment. But I don’t think that would change Eddie Lacy one bit.”
Don’t expect his style to change, either. Despite missing essentially two games with a concussion – he suffered it on his first carry, a 10-yard gain, against Washington on Sept. 15 and didn’t play the following week against Cincinnati – Lacy finished the season having rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns on 284 carries, finishing eighth in the NFL in rushing and tops among rookie running backs.
He also set the franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie – eclipsing 1971 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year John Brockington, who ran for 1,105 – and proved that the first offensive player drafted isn’t necessarily going to be the best as a rookie.
Lacy, because of durability concerns among some teams, fell into the second round and was taken No. 61 overall by the Packers. In the wake of the draft, for example, reports surfaced that the Pittsburgh Steelers opted for Le’Veon Bell over Lacy because of concerns about Lacy’s surgically fused big toe, and Lacy also had his pre-draft workouts derailed by a hamstring injury.
As a result, Lacy was the fourth running back selected in the draft, with all four going in the second round: The Bengals took North Carolina’s Giovanni Bernard at No. 37; the Steelers took Bell at No. 48; the Denver Broncos took Wisconsin’s Montee Ball at No. 58; and then the Packers took Lacy. The Packers actually held the 55th pick before trading back to acquire an extra selection, then saw Ball go off the board while waiting those six picks before going on the clock. Some claimed they “settled” for Lacy.
"I'm comfortable where I am, and my teammates believe in me, and they make me feel comfortable, so I'm able to play the way I'm capable of playing,” Lacy told reporters at Radio City Music Hall after receiving the award.
The Packers couldn’t be more thrilled that it worked out the way it did. Not only did Lacy have a productive rookie year, but he did so while playing on a badly sprained right ankle the final month of the season and with opposing defenses stacking eight and even nine men in the box while quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with a broken collarbone.
“I think he’s right where I thought he’d be. I thought he was a premier player, a premier runner,” Van Pelt said when asked if Lacy turned out to be better than he expected when he was doing his pre-draft evaluation. “I’m a little more surprised by his ability to pass protect as well as he has. That’s the biggest thing. I saw it on tape but to translate it over to the NFL game, that’s probably the biggest surprise to me.”
Lacy’s physical nature also brought a previously unseen attitude to the Packers’ offense. According to Pro Football Focus, 693 of Lacy’s 1,259 yards (including playoffs) came after contact, or 55 percent. In the Nov. 4 game against Chicago in which Rodgers was injured, 102 of Lacy’s 150 rushing yards came after contact.
“He’s a power guy, but I don’t want to call him just a power guy, because I’ve seen him where he’s made some moves and made guys miss,” guard T.J. Lang said of the 5-foot-11, 230-pound Lacy. “It’s been awhile since we had a running back like that – a heavier guy that can still move like that and just run through guys.”
Lacy did come into the NFL as a low-mileage back, having shared time with future first-round picks Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson before becoming Alabama’s starting back, and he also shared time with T.J. Yeldon in his final season. Lacy had only 151 carries in his first two seasons and 204 in his final season, and whereas he never had more than 20 carries in any single game in college, Lacy had 11 games this season where he carried the ball at least 20 times.
As for his style, Lacy said he can’t change who he is.
“(I) just run physically. Try not to get tackled by the first person,” Lacy said. “When you make contact, make sure the defender feels you. You just run powerful and don’t go down by that first hit.”
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.