If you made a list of five players the Green Bay Packers could least afford to lose, would tailback Ryan Grant be on it? That's the question you should ask yourself Tuesday afternoon after the news that a torn ankle ligament will end his season.
The Packers officially placed Grant on injured reserve and signed rookie Dimitri Nance from the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad, a move that indicates they will push forward with Brandon Jackson as their indefinite starter. Grant is a proven producer who has rushed for 3,457 yards since midway through the 2007 season, but I'm not ready to declare his loss a catastrophe just yet.
Before you hit me with the inevitable "this-is-just-your-Packers-bias" notes to the mailbag, let me explain. I do think there is a significant drop-off from Grant to Jackson, but it's mostly in the sense of going from the known to the unknown. Jackson, as we'll discuss in a bit, has only minimal experience as a feature back dating back to his time at Nebraska. But I put in a call to Matt Williamson, one of our Scouts Inc. personnel evaluators, and what he said made a lot of sense.
"It's definitely a big drop-off," Williamson said, "but I also think this is such a running-back friendly offense because of the passing game they have. You don't need a great player there, and I don't even think Grant was a great player. He's a good runner who is quick to get downhill and very reliable, and those things are more than enough to be excellent in their offense."
Remember, the Packers went through two other feature backs -- Jackson and DeShawn Wynn -- before settling on Grant as their primary runner in 2007. Jackson will get the first shot at this job, but it doesn't mean he is the only option the Packers will have all season.
The biggest question is whether Jackson can, as Williamson said, "handle the punishment of being a feature back." He spent only nine games of his college career as Nebraska's primary ball carrier and has been an oft-injured reserve for three seasons in Green Bay.
"I would worry about him over the long term because we haven't seen him do it," Williamson said. "Over time, he's really been productive at no level. But for the short term, I think they can be nearly as potent as an offense. I would worry about short-yardage situations where everyone knows the run is coming, but this is still a really good offense without Ryan Grant."
Perhaps the biggest issue here is the thin depth the Packers entered the season with. With only two tailbacks on the active roster, they might have to use fullback John Kuhn in that role. Nance, meanwhile, is a 219-pound, between-the-tackles bruiser who I presume will fill the No. 3 role that would have gone to Kregg Lumpkin had the Packers not tried to slip him through waivers earlier this month.
Jackson's lack of history in this role, as well as the Packers' depth situation, could make for a musical chairs approach to filling Grant's job. But if you listen to Williamson, the standards don't need to be high for doing so.