The Green Bay Packers can’t let James Starks walk


James Starks runs for a second half touchdown while Jordy Nelson celebrates the score.

Brian Jopek photograph

Remember last April on the second day of the NFL Draft when Eddie Lacy became the newest member of the Green Bay Packers and there were reports stirring about the mainstream media that James Starks was on the trading block?

Well, so much has changed since that day – and for the better of the Green Bay Packers and most notably Starks.

The hero of the 2010 Packers rush to the Super Bowl, Starks found himself buried at the bottom of the Packers running backs depth chart, behind the likes of Lacy, DuJuan Harris, Johnathan Franklin, and even a guy by the name of Alex Green. Remember him?

Then the players hit the field for the start of training camp and who was it that began to stand out? Starks. He was running hard, working hard and by all accounts was leapfrogging running backs in front of him.

By the time the first preseason game rolled around, he was the starter and everyone else was behind him at that point.

James Starks came on in relief and put up impressive numbers for the Packers in 2013.

Raymond T. Rivard photograph

The ebb and flow of training camp ensued and by the time the Packers broke camp last September, guess who was on the roster? Yup. Starks. Harris got hurt and was out for the season, Green got cut and Lacy and Franklin were still projects. And while Lacy was the defacto starter at that point, Starks became the viable one after Lacy got hurt himself in the team’s home opener against the Washington Redskins and made way for Starks to show his stuff.

Running for more than 100 yards in the blowout against the Redskins, Starks started the third game on the road at Cincinnati. He was again rolling along toward another 100-yard game against the Bengals when he went down with a leg injury near the end of the first half. The Packers turned to Franklin in the second half where he put on a show of his own until he fumbled on a fourth and 1 play – a play that turned the game toward the Bengals and against the Packers.

Lacy came back to regain his starting role, picking up 99 yards in the win over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field on Oct. 6. He wouldn’t that relinquish that starting role the rest of the season, but it also embedded Starks as a solid backup and a reliable back who added the second part of the 1-2 punch that the Packers hoped they would have in their running game.

Starks was out a couple of weeks, but came back when the Packers traveled to Minnesota. He was used sparingly, but effectively in that game when he carried seven times for 57 yards and blasted up the middle for a 25-yard touchdown run that showed the world that he wasn’t about to go anywhere.

From that point on, it was Lacy and Starks who occupied the Packers backfield. While Lacy was sensational as a rookie, picking up more than 1,100 yards, it was the breaks he got from Starks that helped keep him fresh through the 17-week NFL season. Lacy showed no signs of hitting the proverbial rookie wall and Starks served as the experienced backup who played smart and gave the Packers the needed boost when needed.

By season’s end, Starks, who enters the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, had gained 493 yards on 89 carries, averaging 5.5 yards per-carry. That’s a pretty good season considering his part-time appearances.

So, what does that translate into for Starks and the Packers? Well, for Starks, it no doubt means dollars; for the Packers, it means a tough decision on how to address Starks’ free agency? Do they let him test the waters of free agency – or do they try to re-sign the veteran for another run with the team?

Only Packers general manager Ted Thompson has that answer.

However, if I were the team’s general manager I would be calling his agent today and trying to find a way to get him back on the team’s roster.

Nov 4, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) rushes with the football during the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field. The Packers defeated the Cardinals 31-17. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Yes, the Packers have both Harris and Franklin coming back to the roster, but like cornerbacks, you can never have enough quality running backs on the team. Remember back in early 2010 when the Packers were down to Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn in their backfield? They don’t want to run into another situation like that again.

How strong would the Packers running game be if the Packers had Lacy, Harris, Franklin and Starks on the roster? I would surely sleep well at night knowing that.

The question is this: Can the Packers balance the dollars and playing time to make it happen? Again, that’s a question for Thompson. In my mind, he should be doing everything within his power to make it happen.

The Packers have kept a bazillion tight ends in the past – why not cut some of that dead weight at that position and shift more resources to the offensive backfield? In fact, if the Packers pick up a talented tight end in the draft they could surely shorten the depth chart at that position.

In the end, the Packers would be better off with a strengthened and deep offensive backfield. With the renewed emphasis on the run game in Green Bay it’s time to keep our own and head into 2014 with enough horses in the barn to keep the team well stocked for the future.