Green Bay Packers running backs coach Sam Gash with Johnathan Franklin, Eddie Lacy, center, and James Starks during OTA practice at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Green Bay Packers running back James Starks set new career-highs last season with 5.5 yards per carry and four touchdowns while averaging roughly eight touches per game. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
If running back DuJuan Harris can return to form after missing last season with a knee injury, his size and explosiveness could the perfect complement to Eddie Lacy and James Starks' bruising styles. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
What was a crowded backfield for the Green Bay Packers suddenly is a lot less cluttered, and the organization’s plan for the position is a lot more clear.
It seems that the Packers’ brass had been bracing for bad news well before Thursday’s revelation that Johnathan Franklin wouldn’t be returning to the team after sustaining a career-ending neck injury in November.
Amidst the eerie silence accompanying the 24-year-old running back’s offseason, the Packers re-signed veteran James Starks to a two-year contract and brought back former practice-squad running back Michael Hill after his release from Tampa Bay.
At the time, the moves raised questions about how the Packers planned to disperse snaps amongst the reserves to the NFL’s reigning offensive rookie of the year, Eddie Lacy, who absorbed 61.9 percent of the team’s carries last season.
However, it now appears the Packers guessed right in keeping the cabinet stocked in case Franklin didn’t return.
Lacy said he’s ready for another 250 or 300 carries if that’s what the offense calls for, but the coaching staff would like to lessen the burden for the between-the-tackles back, who ran the final month of the season on a badly sprained ankle.
Franklin was supposed to be part of the equation, but that job now rests solely on the shoulders of Starks and DuJuan Harris, the second-year scatback who missed all of last season with a patellar tendon injury.
“We haven’t sat down and figured out an ‘X’ number of carries for Eddie,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “Eddie was a workhorse for us last year, and then when James got in there last year, he ran very hard. That was a great one-two punch. Now you factor in DuJuan and the other guys, it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.”
Starks, a sixth-round pick in 2010, gained some financial security with the two-year deal he struck with the Packers in March, which included a $745,000 signing bonus. Not a bad payday for a 27-year-old back who entered last year’s camp on the roster bubble.
Snake-bitten by injuries since his days at the University of Buffalo, Starks was buried under Lacy, Franklin, Harris and Alex Green on the depth chart midway through the preseason before dominoes began to fall his way.
Franklin struggled early and Harris’ season-ending prognosis opened the door for Starks to grab the No. 2 job, and the 6-foot-2, 218-pound running back thrived in a downshifted role.
Starks missed a month of the season with a partially torn medial collateral ligament, but set new career-highs with 5.5 yards per carry and four touchdowns while averaging roughly eight touches per game.
Starks made it his goal to stay healthy this season after missing 29 of the first 64 regular-season games of his career with a myriad of hamstring, knee, toe, and ankle injuries. His new position coach, Sam Gash, believes it’s possible and isn’t coaching Starks in fear of another setback.
“If James goes in and something happens and he’s playing, I don’t think like ‘Oh my God is he going to get hurt?’” Gash said. “The way I look at it is you build your body to last and that started early in the offseason.”
Injury has made this an especially critical offseason for Harris, an in-season pickup in 2012 who slid into the Packers’ starting lineup during their playoff run.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy had slotted the 5-foot-8, 203-pound running back as the starter going into 2013, but surgery to remove a cyst compressing his chest and the patellar injury wiped out most of his offseason.
Harris returned to play one preseason game against Seattle, but touched the ball four times before re-aggravating the knee and landing on season-ending injured reserve.
Harris has been a full participant during the offseason program and agrees it was in his best interest to have surgery and allow the knee to properly heal. If he returns to form, his size and explosiveness could the perfect complement to Lacy and Starks’ bruising styles.
“That’s everything in life though, especially something you work hard for and you’re away from for a while, you tend to appreciate it more,” said Harris, who has also been taking kickoffs during practice. “I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason. God took me out of the game for a while, but when anything bad happens, there’s always going to be some good that follows it.”
Harris still will need to earn his keep. Next month, he’ll not only have to contend with Starks for snaps, but also fend off challenges from Hill and undrafted slashers Rajion Neal and LaDarius Perkins.
The group still is one of the deeper backfields the Packers have had under McCarthy, but Franklin’s departure removes some of the cushion. The rotation that forms behind Lacy likely will be what dictates if the league’s seventh-best rushing offense can build upon the strides they made last year.
Starks and Harris say they’re ready to make it happen.
“I love ’em, top to bottom,” said Gash of the backfield. “Even the young guys that have come in, they’ve gotten up to speed, and you can see that they’re starting to flash some things, too, but I think that from top to bottom, this is one of the best groups I’ve had. My job, I tell them all the time, is to make them all money.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.