Rookie running back Lew Nichols checks a lot of the boxes that the Green Bay Packers look for at this position, but it is on special teams where he will have to most likely make an impact if he is going to make the initial 53-man roster.
By no means is Nichols’ special teams experience or the competition at the position a deterrent from him making the final roster—the Packers knew all of this when they drafted him. In fact, it’s worth noting that under Brian Gutekunst and LaFleur, the Packers have preferred to roster their own draft picks when it comes to making those final roster decisions, perhaps giving Nichols an edge.
The ideal running back in the Matt LaFleur offense is able to leave their mark on the game in a variety of ways, whether that be as a ball carrier, a pass blocker, or a pass catcher. Nichols was able to do this during his time at Central Michigan.
He has the production on the ground, leading the NCAA in rushing yards in 2021 while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The year before, he averaged 6.4 yards per rush on 78 attempts. Nichols has experience in the passing game. He finished his career with 88 targets, including 44 in 2021, catching 77% of them at 7.6 yards per catch with three touchdowns. As a pass blocker, Nichols had 206 career snaps in that role and the second-most pass-blocking snaps of any of the drafted running backs in this year’s class, according to Bill Huber.
However, according to PFF, Nichols has just two career special teams snaps. Before OTAs began, running backs coach Ben Sirmans said that special teams play was going to play a “huge role” in determining who the third running back was. With Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon taking most, if not all, of the snaps on offense, the third running back is going to have to contribute in some capacity.
Competing with Nichols for that third running back role is Patrick Taylor, who was RB3 last season in large part because of his ability to contribute on special teams. Tyler Goodson will be tough to keep off the final roster because of his playmaking abilities, but what role he can carve out on special teams remains to be seen, with the Packers already having Keisean Nixon and Jayden Reed as options at kick and punt return man.
Through the small glimpse that I got to see during the five open practice sessions between OTAs and minicamp, all three running backs were working with different phases of the special teams unit. Also, a factor in this decision is how each running back fits in with the other members of the special teams unit, specifically the role they can fill. Goodson, at 197 pounds, and Nichols, at 220 pounds, could be asked to take on different roles.
By no means will Nichols’ special teams experience or the competition at running back be a deterrent for him when it comes to making a roster push—the Packers, of course, knew all of this and still drafted him. This is also a team, under Brian Gutekunst and LaFleur, who have favored their own draft picks specifically when it comes to determining who the final few roster spots will go to.
Not to say that what each of these players does on offense this summer won’t matter – that’s not the case – but it may not be the deciding factor either. So for Nichols to carve out a roster spot, he may have to learn on the fly a bit as he’s thrown into a variety of roles on the special teams unit.