Green Bay Packers running back James Starks reaches for a pass during training camp practice Tuesday at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Green Bay Packers running back Alex Green catches a pass during training camp practice Wednesday at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
James Starks didn’t require any clarification for why the Green Bay Packers made the moves they did this offseason.
The need became obvious to improve a running game that bottomed out in 2012 when the team failed to produce a 500-yard individual rusher for the first time since the Clinton Administration.
That put into motion a rushing renaissance of sorts, beginning in April when general manager Ted Thompson cut injured running back Brandon Saine and used draft picks on a pair of prolific college backs, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin.
The move undoubtedly raised the level of competition inside the running back room, but it’s yet to generate a clear front-runner to carry the torch for a unit that ranked 20th in the NFL in total rushing a year ago.
Lacy, the 5-foot-11, 230-pound back who powered Alabama’s run to a national championship in 2012, appeared to be gaining some separation from the rest of the backfield before developing a hamstring injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s session and leaves his availability in question.
The Packers aren’t in a rush to hand out job descriptions two weeks into training camp, but the door remains open for the 27-year-old Starks and 25-year-old Alex Green to state their cases to remain in the team’s plans.
“Just how I played last year, I wasn’t satisfied with myself. I felt like I could do better,” said Starks, who played in only six games because of foot and knee injuries. “(Now), it’s about just getting better really. It’s training camp. It’s going to be competitive. They brought the new guys in here to get some spark.”
The indecision about which way the Packers will go with their starting offense was reflected when the Packers released their initial depth chart this week and listed first-year running back DuJuan Harris as their starter despite the fact he hasn’t practiced at all this offseason and sits on the physically unable to perform list with a knee injury.
As a result of Lacy’s most recent hamstring flare-up, Green again was taking snaps with the first team during Wednesday’s practice ahead of Starks and Franklin, a fourth-round pick who rushed for more than 4,400 yards in four years at UCLA.
Green, a third-round pick in 2011 out of Hawaii, led the Packers in rushing last season with 135 carries for 464 yards, but managed only 3.4 yards per carry in 12 games during his first season back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his rookie season after four games.
Running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said there’s been a “night-and-day” difference between the Green who wore down late last season and the one running the ball today, but he still faces some obstacles.
The 6-foot, 220-pound running back missed Tuesday’s practice when his surgically repaired knee flared up, but he doesn’t plan on slowing in the face of increased competition.
“We want to continue to fight ... knowing Starks for a couple years, I know he’s going to continue to fight, as well,” Green said. “These young guys, they’re definitely going to come in here and compete. It’s going to be a good group of fighters, and we root for each other to get better.”
It’s fine to cheer for one another, but it’s hard to envision a way to sneak all five onto the team’s 53-man roster if all are healthy. It’s a scenario the Packers have been preparing themselves for since the draft when an NFL Network report surfaced indicated the team was looking to trade Starks.
Considering Starks’ history — he’s played in only 22 of a possible 48 regular-season games in his first three seasons — the market for the 27-year-old running back never developed.
In a move to counteract nagging injuries, Starks traveled to Florida and worked out at Dr. James Andrews’ Athletes Performance Institute this offseason, where he worked to strengthen some of the smaller muscles in his body that contribute to hamstring injuries.
In 10 training camp practices and one scrimmage, the 6-foot-2 running back has looked more like the back who went into the 2012 training camp as a starter before going down with a turf toe injury in the Packers’ preseason opener, which forced the Packers to sign veteran Cedric Benson.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has seen the difference in both of his veterans.
“They’ve picked it up,” McCarthy said. “When DuJuan gets back, it’ll even go to another level. Our running back competition clearly, top to bottom, it’s never been this good.”
Harris remains the wild card of the group after finishing last season as the team’s primary back after Starks and Green wore down late.
The 5-foot-8, 203-pound scatback’s 34 regular-season carries for 157 yards and two touchdowns came too late to salvage the season as the Packers became the only NFL squad over the past three years that failed to register at least one season with more than a 4.0-yards-per-carry average.
Harris was expected to be the face of the rushing attack heading into the offseason, but his situation is in flux after missing the entire offseason program because of surgery to remove a cyst compressed against his lung and now a nagging knee ailment.
“I’m not going to lie. I’m ready to get back out there,” Harris said. “Whenever I see us struggle, I feel like it’s my fault because I’m not there to help. You just have to be patient. I’ll be out there really soon.”
The hamstring issue could turn out to be nothing and allow Lacy to continue his march up the depth chart, but finding an immediate answer to the team’s running woes won’t come overnight.
The proof will come when the games matter, a challenge the backfield readies for when the Packers open the preseason Friday against the Arizona Cardinals.
“That’s camp and the preseason. That stuff all takes care of itself,” said Van Pelt of the competition. “Hopefully in the four games of the preseason we’ll have those questions answered. It is definitely a competitive room. There’s no question. The young guys coming in have raised that level of competition for the older guys and it shows.”
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