Mistake prone and unhealthy, Green Bay Packers running back James Starks faces a more uncertain future with the organization than many might believe.
Viewed as a savior when he helped the Packers to a Super Bowl victory last season, Starks needs to eliminate the mental errors and avoid injury if he’s going to be part of the plans of the Packers through his next contract.
Certainly, Starks deserves every bit of praise for what he did in the latter half of the 2010 season.
It started with a 73-yard outing in his career debut against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 13. Things only got better in the Wild Card round versus the Philadelphia Eagles with a career-high 123 yards.
Starks led all NFL rushers with 315 yards in the 2010 postseason, and the rest is history. He earned his spot in Packers lore, and that can’t be taken away.
But that also doesn’t guarantee his future. Both before Starks’ professional career debut and after the Super Bowl, it’s been a mixed bag.
Starks missed his entire senior season of college with a shoulder injury and then first three quarters of his rookie season with a hamstring injury.
His 2011 season got off to a pretty good start with 541 yards rushing through the first 11 games of the year. And only his Week 3 performance against the Chicago Bears––with five yards on 11 carries––could be categorized as poor.
But then knee and ankle injuries suffered in Week 11 versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers derailed the rest of Starks’ season. Over the course of the final six games of the regular season, Starks played in only three, totaling 13 carries for 37 yards.
Then came the playoffs, the game in which nearly every offensive player underachieved in the divisional round loss to the New York Giants, including Starks.
Considering he didn’t play in the final regular season game against the Detroit Lions and had time to rest during the first-round playoff bye, Starks looked largely recovered from his ankle and knee injuries.
And his six carries for 43 yards (7.3 average) and four receptions for 24 yards (6.0 average) look good on the surface, until taking into effect his three blemishes that evening.
First was dropped pass that hit Starks square in the hands, one of several dropped pass by Packers receivers on the day.
The next error was a broken play on a draw intended for the Packers running back. But after a slow reaction, Aaron Rodgers was forced to run with the ball himself for a modest gain behind left guard, which exposed the quarterback to unnecessary contact.
The final mistake was a sack given up by Starks to Giants linebacker Michael Boley when he was unable to sufficiently engage the defender until Rodgers got rid of the ball.
Starks was far from the only Packer guilty of making a blunder, but three of them were hard to swallow.
And now Green Bay enters an offseason of uncertainty at the running back position.
Aside from Starks, they must make a decision on Ryan Grant who’s a free agent. At one point, it appeared as if the Packers would be content to let Grant walk away. But considering the way Grant ended the season by stringing together several impressive performances, there’s a chance the Packers could bring him back.
The Packers also have two younger options. Brandon Saine made quite an impression after signing with the Packers as an undrafted rookie and then being elevated from the practice squad to the 53-man roster at midseason. His speed and receiving ability are impressive, and he made the most of his limited action.
There may be more opportunities for Saine in the future if he can get a better grasp of the offense and gain the trust of his teammates and coaches in all phases of the game.
Then there’s Alex Green whom the Packers invested a third-round draft choice in 2011 before his season was ended with a torn ACL about halfway through the year.
Despite the presence of all these options available to the Packers, they don’t preclude the team from adding additional depth at running back through the 2012 Draft.
So where does Starks fit in?
It’s up to him.
He’s talented. He runs with power, isn’t shy of contact and has enough speed to succeed in the NFL. And he’s never been anything but a team player and solid locker room presence.
However, he must avoid the aforementioned negatives that have dogged him since his senior season at the University of Buffalo, which is easier said than done. Injuries aren’t always a player’s fault, especially a player that takes a pounding. But he’s only played in 16 of 32 regular season games since joining the NFL.
The Packers shouldn’t––and won’t––give up on Starks. But he has to become more dependable and reliable if he’s going to continue to be a featured runner.
If not, the Packers will explore other avenues at the position.