Familiarity brought Starks back to Packers

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY -  As quarterback Aaron Rodgers guided the first-team offense through a two-minute drill Saturday, the opposing defense fell victim to repetition. Five straight plays produced five straight dropbacks by Rodgers, and each time he threw the ball somewhere downfield.

But on the sixth play of the drive, after an impressive third-down grab by tight end Richard Rodgers, who wrestled the ball away from cornerback Quinten Rollins, the Green Bay Packers reverted to one of their most fruitful endeavors of the 2015 season. Rodgers dropped back, turned left and lofted a screen pass to tailback James Starks.

Twenty-seven yards later, the offense faced first-and-goal.

Starks, 30, became an unrestricted free agent earlier this year after the most productive, and most demanding, season of his career. His 601 rushing yards were his most since college. His 43 receptions outdid his totals from the previous three years combined (32). So when the Packers re-signed Starks to a two-year deal worth $6 million in March, the soft-spoken and oft-smiling tailback wound up exactly where he wanted to be.

“It’s like a family for me,” Starks said. “All the people in the locker room are consistent in here. I know them, they’re like my family. I feel nice here. It’s just more comfortable to just come here, be able to focus, get away from everything. Distractions may be at home or close near you, and you don’t want no added stress. That’s why it’s been comfortable to me to come back and work hard and be able to focus on football.”

Still, Starks’ free agency included a visit to the New England Patriots, where running backs north of 30 have enjoyed continuations of their careers. Corey Dillon, the former Cincinnati Bengal; Fred Taylor, the former Jacksonville Jaguar; and Steven Jackson, the former Atlanta Falcon, all played for the Patriots in what amounted to their twilight seasons in the NFL. 

Starks said he asked his agent, David Butz, to handle the logistics of free agency. Butz assessed the options and made his recommendation, and then it was up to Starks to respond. From the beginning, Starks said, he hoped to be back in Green Bay.

“New England is a good organization, but I am where God wanted me to be,” Starks said. “I like New England, but at the same time I think God put me in a good place that he wanted me to be.

“I don’t know about that old age stuff. Everybody says once you hit this age, you’re older. I think that’s grown-man strength right there. You find an old man stronger than some of the young fellas. I don’t really buy into that. I don’t.”

Starks caught a number of screen passes Saturday in what looked like a clear attempt to revitalize what became a legitimate weapon for the offense last season. His reps in team drills appeared to exceed those of Eddie Lacy, who caught only 20 passes a year ago. 

Two plays later, after his 27-yard scamper set up first and goal, Starks punched the ball in for a touchdown.

Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field July 28, 2016.
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