When he entered the NFL, James Starks wouldn’t be tackled without a fight.
It’s how he proved himself. He wasn’t physically imposing, this sixth-round tailback from the University at Buffalo. Barely a shade over 200 pounds. But he ran hard and broke tackles.
Starks forced 27 missed tackles on 133 carries in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus. There were 19 tailbacks in the league who forced at least 25 missed tackles that season. None hit that mark on fewer carries. Starks forced more missed tackles as a runner than Frank Gore, Steven Jackson and Ray Rice.
His physicality helped transform Starks from a draft-day afterthought to the Green Bay Packers' top running back. He had a team-high 578 rushing yards in his second season, with more than 60 percent (355) coming after contact.
But his running style wasn’t sustainable.
“Some of the hits I was taking when I was young,” Starks explained, “trying to break all those tackles. You break two or three tackles, get two yards and a hurt knee. That was kind of messing me up.”
Early in his career, Starks spent almost as much time off the field than on it. If it wasn’t a hamstring injury forcing him to miss 13 games as a rookie, it was an ankle injury forcing him to miss three games in 2011. If it wasn’t turf toe forcing him to miss September in 2012, it was a bone bruise forcing him to miss December.
Starks had five leg or foot injuries in his first four seasons. Twice, he missed multiple weeks with a knee injury. From 2010-13, Starks played in 35 games. He missed 29.
Nobody questioned his talent, but his body too often resembled the board game "Operation." More than anything, Starks needed to prove he could stay healthy after signing a two-year deal before the 2014 season.
There have been injuries over the past two years — a hip this season, another ankle last — but they haven't forced him to the sidelines. Starks played all 32 games during his two-year contract, finally showing he can stay healthy.
Starks credited his health to altering his running style. He was “breaking a lot more tackles” early in his career, Starks said. Now, he’s finding other ways to produce. Careful to avoid the big hit, Starks forced only 18 missed tackles on 167 carries (counting playoffs) in 2015.
“I’m still making people miss,” Starks said, “but being smarter with it.”
Starks will seek his third NFL contract when he becomes a free agent in March. He’s coming off his best season, finishing 2015 with a career-high 601 yards. He also added a dynamic to the Packers’ floundering passing game, catching a career-high 43 passes for 392 yards.
He’s no longer the Packers' top tailback, but his value was significant in 2015. More than stats, his career-high four starts shows how important Starks was to the Packers. With starter Eddie Lacy alternating between weight and curfew issues, Starks kept the Packers' running game afloat at times. He’s a big reason the Packers' rushing offense finished 12th in the league (115.6 yards per game) despite Lacy’s disastrous season.
Starks did have fumbling issues, coughing up the football four times in December. His five fumbles in 2015 were as many as he had in his first five seasons, but he also had a career-high five touchdowns.
Of all his career-high marks, nothing is more important than this: Starks hasn’t missed a game since the Packers hosted the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 20, 2013. His streak stands at 47 straight games played.
“I just don’t like being hurt,” Starks said. “I like playing. I like being in the action and being able to help my team. The last couple years to stay healthy, it meant a lot for me just because I worked hard for it.”
Starks will be in a precarious situation this offseason. There isn’t a robust free-agent market for 30-year-old running backs, and Starks turns 30 next month. That, coupled with his comfort level in Green Bay, makes the Packers his most likely destination.
Still, there are no guarantees. As he cleaned out his locker after the season, Starks sounded like he would at least listen to a team offering a larger role. Yes, Starks said, he believes he can be a No. 1 running back. Of course, that doesn’t mean a No. 1 running back job will be offered.
It’s unlikely Starks will find a much bigger role elsewhere. In Green Bay, his value is clear. Starks is an ideal complement in the Packers' backfield, providing speed to Lacy’s power. He said it “feels weird” to consider the possibility of not playing for the team that drafted him. Even at age 30, even with his injury history, Starks believes there is still plenty to offer.
“I feel like I’m still learning,” Starks said. “You learn every day. I didn’t lose no speed. I didn’t lose no burst. I know everybody has their stereotype of a certain age, but I still feel young. Not a lot of wear and tear. I still feel good.
“I love playing football. Could I be a starter? Yeah. Can I handle it? Yeah. But I’m good in any position I play. I’m a team player. I just want to be successful. I want to win another ring.”
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