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Green Bay Packers' James Starks shows long-term potential at running back

Jan. 14, 2011
 
Our reporters make their picks for the Packers-Fal...
Our reporters make their picks for the Packers-Fal...: Packers reporters make their picks for the game against the Atlanta Falcons.
James Starks' 123-yard game last week against Philadelphia caught the attention of scouts, but the Atlanta Falcons' more stout run defense will make a repeat performance more difficult on Saturday. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette

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Six weeks ago, it looked like running back rated among the Green Bay Packers’ top two or three priorities for the 2011 NFL draft.

Not now.

We haven’t seen a lot of rookie James Starks, but we’ve seen enough to reasonably conclude he’s a real NFL running back. Samkon Gado he’s not.

Starks’ performance in a small sample of playing time doesn’t eliminate the need at running back in the draft, but it definitely reduces it. Because of the short shelf life and value of quality depth at that brutalized position, the Packers still should take a shot in the draft if possible. They still don’t know if Starks is pretty good, or something more.

But based on his 52 carries over the past five games, there’s reason to think Starks might even be a little better than Ryan Grant, whose season-ending torn ankle ligaments in Week 1 diminished the Packers’ run game this season.

“Impressive,” was what one pro scout for an NFC team said after Starks’ 123-yard game last week against Philadelphia. “Good size with good straight-line speed on the second level. I’ve never been a big Grant guy.”

Starks and Grant are similar in several respects. They have tall, lean builds for their position — Starks is 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Grant 6-1 and 222 — and are decisive and physical runners.

Starks appears to be the better all-around athlete — a little more wiggle to avoid defenders, much better hands as a receiver. What no one can know at this point is whether he has anything approaching Grant’s unimpeachable toughness, which is critical for a position that probably takes the most physical abuse in the NFL.

Starks’ injury history is one reason the Packers have to remain wary. He missed his senior season at the University at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury, then with the Packers had the recurring hamstring injury that sidelined him for most offseason practices plus all of training camp and the first six games of the regular season.

Maybe that was just a bad run and he’ll be healthy from here on out, relatively speaking at least. He’s certainly impressive on the hoof. But that upright running style has to be a concern. Maybe not as much for ball security, because he appears to protect it well even when fighting for the extra yard. But it makes him an inviting target. He’s going to take some direct shots.

Let’s be clear also, nobody here is anointing Starks as the next Paul Hornung or even Ahman Green. Maybe Starks will play better than Grant, maybe he’ll even be as good as, say, Dorsey Levens. We’ll see. If nothing else, he’s shown enough in his limited time to not dismiss the possibility.

Still, looking beyond Saturday’s game, the Packers are in a better spot at halfback than two months ago, when their future consisted of an injured starter, Grant, who in December turned 28, which is nearing the point where many running backs begin to slide, plus stopgaps Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn, and undrafted rookie Dimitri Nance.

With Starks, they still don’t have a game-changer, but they have two backs who are probably good enough to be the primary runner for a respectable run game. It’s still worth the Packers’ while to draft another, because Grant’s time is running down, and maybe they can uncover a game-breaker. But the need isn’t as acute.

What’s difficult to figure is why coach Mike McCarthy cut back Starks’ carries from 18 in his promising debut against San Francisco on Dec. 5 to six the following week at Detroit to banishing him to the inactive list the two games thereafter. For anyone who hadn’t been following the Packers, Starks’ 23 carries for 123 yards last week against Philadelphia seemed to be a playoff gift fallen from the sky, but five weeks earlier, against the 49ers, he sure looked like the team’s best runner, much like Grant when he got his first chance at Denver in 2007.

McCarthy deactivated Starks for those two later games because, as the coach put it, Starks hadn’t performed well enough on the practice field to win a spot. In arguing McCarthy’s case, running back coach Edgar Bennett said the problem wasn’t effort or work ethic, but a missed assignment, in say, pass protection.

“Not that it was a lot of things like that, it only takes but one,” Bennett said. “You have to understand the focus and taking care of the little things, the detail. The kid works his butt off, he comes here early, he’s in late. Honestly. Some people say it (for saying it), (but) the kid comes in here early, early sessions, he prepares, he works hard. It’s starting to show.”

This week will be much tougher for Starks than last. Statistically, the difference between Philadelphia’s run defense (No. 15 in rushing yards allowed in the regular season) and Atlanta’s (No. 10) isn’t huge, but those rankings don’t tell the story. The Eagles’ small defensive line had become a liability by the end of the season and in the last seven games, including against the Packers, Philadelphia allowed an average of 129 yards rushing.

Atlanta lacks a big-league run stuffer but is deep with competent linemen to rotate in and out of the game. The Falcons also have one of the NFL’s under-publicized good players in middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Even quarterback Aaron Rodgers was cautious when asked at his weekly session with reporters if this game against Atlanta would be different than the teams’ meeting in November “now that you have a balanced attack.”

“We’ll see about that,” Rodgers said. “Last time I was the leading rusher. Hope that’s not the case again.”

Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com.

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