Green Bay Packers' James Starks runs for a first down as he is hit by Chicago Bears' Major Wright during the NFC championship game Jan. 23 at Soldier Field in Chicago. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Position analysis series
Pete Dougherty breaks down the Packers by position heading into training camp:
Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
Ryan Grant RB 6-1 222 5
Alex Green RB 6-0 225 R
Korey Hall* FB 6-0 236 5
Brandon Jackson* RB 510 216 5
Quinn Johnson FB 6-1 263 3
John Kuhn* FB/RB 6-0 250 6
Dimitri Nance RB 5-10 219 2
James Starks RB 6-2 218 2
* — unrestricted free agent
James Starks surely looked like a starting-caliber NFL running back in his seven regular-season and postseason games at the end of his rookie season.
That probably means he and Ryan Grant, returning from a broken ankle that ended his 2010 season in Week 1, will share the bulk of the Green Bay Packers’ carries at halfback in 2011.
That’s part of what makes this a transition year for the Packers’ backfield: Starks conceivably could become their best ball carrier; a high draft pick (third-round selection Alex Green) enters the mix at a position where rookies have a fighting chance of contributing quickly; and pass-blocking specialist Brandon Jackson could leave in free agency.
Starks’ prospects for this season aren’t based much on the overall numbers he put up last year — he averaged only 3.5 yards a carry in three regular-season games and 3.9 yards in four playoff games. But after missing all of training camp and the bulk of the regular season because of a hamstring injury, he got up to speed enough as a rookie to provide the Packers a viable run game in the playoffs that they lacked with Grant out.
Playing in an offense that finished the regular season ranked No. 24 in the NFL in rushing yards per game and No. 25 in average yards per carry, Starks had two especially good games in the postseason: He rushed for 123 yards (5.3-yard average) in the Packers’ wild-card playoff win at Philadelphia and a 4.7-yard average on only 11 carries in the Super Bowl against a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run.
Going into training camp, Grant might be the nominal starter because of his veteran status and previous accomplishments, but of all the scenarios that could play out, the most likely is he and Starks split most of the carries, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Starks is playing a little more than Grant by the end of the season.
They’re built similarly — both are tall (Starks is 6-foot-2, Grant 6-1) and have decent size (Starks is 218 pounds, Grant 222) — and though Grant has proven toughness for the position, Starks appears to be a little more athletic and the shiftier runner.
The issue with Starks is his health. He missed his entire senior season at the University at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury and was unable to practice as a rookie from the start of camp through midseason because of a hamstring injury. That injury history alone at a high-attrition position means the Packers have to be wary of counting on him for a full season.
Grant, in the meantime, is coming back from a substantial injury and carries a high salary ($5.25 million in base pay plus roster bonus) at an age — he turns 29 in December — when halfbacks usually are near or already beginning to decline.
But because of the beating running backs take, more NFL teams prefer to have two backs, sometimes even three, split the primary running duties unless they have a stud such as Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson. And though Grant the last three years hasn’t played to the level he showed when he sprung from the bottom of their depth chart in 2007 to help them advance to the NFC championship game, he was the NFL’s fourth-ranked rusher in the 2007-09 seasons combined.
The Packers’ run game suffered without him until Starks provided a viable run game in the playoffs. Grant always has been a worker, so there’s little reason to think he’ll be in anything but top shape when camp starts.
The Packers might have another option in Green, who played at a junior college because of academic shortcomings, then was a part-time player at Hawaii as a junior before becoming a huge part of the offense as a senior. He had an astronomical 8.2-yard average on his 146 carries last season, inflated by frequently running through big holes on the draw calls that Hawaii mixed in with its wide-open, spread passing game.
But he also has a nice combination of size (6-0 1/8, 220) and speed (4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash), and playing in Hawaii’s heavily pass-oriented offense should have provided good training for pass blocking and catching in an NFL system.
The NFL lockout prevented Green from learning the basics of the Packers’ offense this offseason, so he’ll be starting almost from scratch when camp opens. But he’s playing a position at which rookies often contribute immediately, and he’ll get his chance to show he should be on the field, at least on passing downs and perhaps more.
Finally, there’s the question of whether backup Brandon Jackson returns. The fifth-year pro will be an unrestricted free agent, and it’s unclear what his market value will be when the signing period begins, because though he plays running back, his main value isn’t as a runner but as a blocker in the passing game.
Jackson has had a couple of chances to win the starting job in four seasons with the Packers but hasn’t run well enough (3.7-yard career average).
On the other hand, he’s one of the better pass-blocking backs in the league, which is no small matter for a Packers team looking to protect an elite quarterback who sustained two concussions last season. Maybe another club will sign Jackson for a shot at playing more than on passing downs, but if not, he’d be more than welcome to re-sign with the Packers.
If Jackson returns, there’s at least a decent chance the team could keep four halfbacks. The past two years they’ve made an unusual decision by carrying three fullbacks instead of the two or one that most teams have, but it’s looking unlikely they’d do it for a third straight season. Two of those fullbacks, John Kuhn and Korey Hall, are unrestricted free agents, and the best guess is one will leave.
Though Hall is the best special teams player among the three — third-year pro Quinn Johnson is the other fullback — Kuhn is more valuable to the Packers because as he showed last season he can function as an emergency halfback besides playing as a lead blocker.
If the Packers keep only two fullbacks on their final roster, then they could carry four halfbacks and have the standard six players at those two positions combined.
Johnson hasn’t been the special teams player the Packers projected when they selected him in the fifth round of the 2005 draft, and he has started slowly his first two years but closed each strongly as a lead blocker.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.