There are two ways to look at James Starks with free agency only a week away.
On one hand, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound running back is 30 with a history of hamstring, ankle, toe and knee injuries. On the other, Starks has only 661 regular-season touches on his NFL ledger and played in 47 consecutive games spanning the last three seasons.
Starks, who’s coming off his best statistical NFL season, is scheduled to hit the open market again after playing out the two-year, $3.25 million deal he agreed to with the Packers in March 2014.
Eddie Lacy’s up-and-down season resulted in Starks receiving the most touches (191) of his NFL career in 2015. His improvement in the passing game was reflected in his 43 catches for 392 yards and five touchdowns.
That nearly topped his receiving production in his first five NFL seasons combined (63 catches for 491 yards and one touchdown). Along with his improvement in pass protection, Starks appeared as explosive as ever in posting career-highs in carries (148) and rushing yards (601).
His only issue was fumbling and it became a large one. Starks’ five fumbles in 16 regular-season games matched his previous five seasons combined. His three turnovers came after he’d lost only one fumble on his first 516 combined touches.
Like fullback John Kuhn, Starks could be a prime candidate to return on a cap-friendly contract. His 2014 deal averaged only $1.625 million and it’s unlikely that number would increase given Starks’ age. He’s close friends with Lacy and has been a model citizen in the Packers’ locker room.
At the same time, the Packers must decide whether they want to bring in a proven veteran like Chicago’s Matt Forte or try drafting a developmental running back. Green Bay selected Lacy and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in 2013 expecting the two backs to be their 1-2 combination for years to come.
A neck injury forced Franklin to retire after his rookie season. Lacy, the former NFL offensive rookie of the year, is looking to get his career back on track after questions about his commitment and conditioning underscored a disappointing 2015 season.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who called out Lacy for his weight after the season, has been complimentary of the dedication the 25-year-old running back has displayed since the end of the season. The only other running back on Green Bay’s roster is former undrafted rookie John Crockett.
So it’s once again up to the Packers to decide Starks’ future after he stepped up in a pinch last season.
“I know that obviously our scouting department, those are things they’ve done a great job of it,” said new Packers running backs coach Ben Sirmans, who replaced the fired Sam Gash. “Just the success that we’ve had — or, I should say, Green Bay has had — over the years, they’ve done a great job of handling those things. I think as a coach you just go about your business as though the person is going to be (here), and in this case James Starks because you don’t control those things.”
James Starks, seventh-year running back
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: 631 total (599 offense, 32 special teams).
The stats: 148 carries for 601 yards, 43 receptions for 392 yards with five touchdowns and five fumbles (three lost).
2015 salary: $1.475 million.