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Former Packers receiver Ty Montgomery leaps from desperate fill-in to featured back

After beating out Christine Michael in emergency duty in 2016, Green Bay’s erstwhile wideout now takes his shot at an Eddie Lacy-sized hole

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys William Glasheen-USA TODAY Sports

Eddie Lacy will get plenty of attention Sunday as the former Green Bay Packer playing against his old team, but after the Seattle Seahawks let Christine Michael join the Packers last year the running back exchange between the two clubs might have gotten even more interesting if not for Ty Montgomery stepping up and seizing the opportunity away from Michael in Green Bay.

If you recall the last time Seattle visited the Packers in December, Montgomery had not yet established himself as the team’s leading rusher that he became by season’s end, and just a few short weeks after acquiring Michael Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy was talking about increasing the chances for the prodigal ex-Seahawk runner.

Indeed, Michael had been brought in expected to take over the majority of the ground work after Lacy went down with ankle surgery—and after the Packers had already shuffled through disappointing relief projects James Starks and Knile Davis, even turning to fullback Aaron Ripowski and wide receivers Randall Cobb and Montgomery to handle the backfield load in the middle of the season. Staving off those crisis patches should have been easy for the fourth-year pro Michael, but he didn’t prove any better at that initiative than he did in Seattle.

Or maybe the truer way to tell it is that Montgomery wouldn’t let him.

Despite his 88 numeral making him look at first like a gadget player exploiting both the element of surprise and defenses aligned to stop Aaron Rodgers’s aerial attack, Montgomery performed admirably in the latter part of 2016 including a monster 16-carry 162 yard day against the Chicago Bears in Week 15: the most for a Green Bay runner in the regular season since 2005 (Ryan Grant had 201 in a playoff match against the Seahawks after 2007). That Bears game helped boost Montgomery to a 5.9-yard per attempt average that could have led all running backs if he had the 100 totes to qualify, but still Montgomery did it on a somewhat-fulsome 77 rushes and ended up powering a stretch when the Packers finished 6-0.

And although McCarthy might have expanded the experiment as a short term solution to a desperate situation, even after Green Bay had ample occasion to bring back Lacy or acquire another top tailback during the offseason, and then also drafted three running backs in the spring—all of whom made the regular season roster—the now-former wide receiver Montgomery enters 2017 still as the Packers primary ball carrier. Beyond that, Montgomery seems to have more support in that role from his coach than Lacy ever did in four years.

So the Montgomery story is already fascinating and has a chance to get even more so if he has a productive full year. He’s also done it all with sickle-cell trait, which caused him to sit out a Week 8 game at Atlanta in 2016.

Of course the tale of a strictly-defined wideout stumbling into a legit running back gig out of pure necessity is such fun folklore that it’s also kind of a myth—and again, maybe bent out of shape more by the odd optics of Montgomery’s snowmen number. While it’s true that Montgomery was announced as a receiver when Green Bay drafted him and on the roster throughout his rookie year, and that he had contributed much more significantly from wide splits while at Stanford than taking handoffs, Montgomery was always considered much more of a positionless athlete as a prospect and in his early Packers days.

His earliest value was expected to come from kick returns. Look at these tweets by Danny Kelly from draft season 2015:

Sure enough, before an ankle injury shortened his rookie campaign Montgomery was active on kickoff duty, averaging a solid 31 yards on seven returns. He also got involved in the passing game that year, collecting four targets per game from weeks 2 through 6. But this came mainly because Green Bay got wracked by injuries to starting wideouts Jordy Nelson and Devante Adams, elevating the youngster into the rotation until the sprain finished his year too.

With Rodgers’s top pass-catchers healthy again in 2016, Montgomery saw zero catches on zero targets through the first four weeks of the season. McCarthy started mixing Montgomery into the backfield just to provide him some touches even before Lacy got hurt against the Dallas Cowboys in October. It so happened that Montgomery then had his first truly meaningful receiving games, with 10 catches apiece in weeks 5 and 6, right before the running back position turned into a total void—making his transition appear more abrupt, as he was suddenly visible at one part of the field, now again conspicuous at another.

But even as a hybrid athlete, Montgomery never displayed the sort of lean length you associate with receivers who are also versatile ballcarriers, like Percy Harvin or J.D. McKissic, or even C.J. Prosise. Here again Danny Kelly compares him to Alfred Blue back in 2014:

And here, just take a look at a recent picture of Montgomery:

No matter his knack for kick returning or experience out wide, his body has always been less of a Ty Lockett type and more of a Montgomery Ball type (note: Montee Ball’s name is not really short for Montgomery).

And yes it’s true that Ty Montgomery put on some additional weight with a full offseason to get ready for the running back role, but it’s not like he transformed his body: At 223 pounds during training camp he’s either eight or three pounds heavier than his previously-posted playing weights.

Nevertheless, he’s a fantastic athlete who has adapted at a high level to a position he hadn’t played full-time since before high school. Setting the Edge’s Justis Mosqueda, who is a Packers fan but also a generally trusted analyst, has recently been promoting Montgomery as lowkey one of the best backs in the league:

Comparisons to Le’veon Bell may need to slow a bit just for now, but Mosqueda posted in depth last month about a metric for running backs he particularly values* and though Montgomery’s 77 carries are too few to make him eligible for that dataset, it’s a cumulative value not a rate and Montgomery’s total indeed places him in the top 10 for all of 2016 suggesting he would be much higher given 200 or so attempts.

(*It’s yards gained above expectation, adjusted for touchdowns and filtered for yards lost, which is supposed to control for offensive line quality by measuring a back’s performance beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s a filter I don’t totally agree with for overall assessment, but does count a certain kind of value independent of blocking. Anyway, it helps understand Mosqueda’s confidence in Montgomery.)

Montgomery’s postseason figures were less impressive than his regular season rate, 25 carries for 91 yards in three games for a very Christine Michaelish 3.6 yard average, so I’m not so sure we’ll see the same output again over a larger sample or against top defenses. But it’s also true the Green Bay has never really required a big time lead runner, just somebody reliable enough to tighten the defense a little for Rodgers.

Either way McCarthy has not often been known for his personnel creativity, so it will be fun to watch Sunday if the Packers use Montgomery’s talents in diverse ways or if they further his transition into a prototypical professional running back.