Somewhat lost in a weekend of pure college basketball madness, the Green Bay Packers agreed to a two-year, $6 million deal to keep 2010 sixth round draft pick James Starks in green and gold.
Starks, who turned 30 this off season, churned out what was his best statistical year in 2015, but had received interest from the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent – leaving some uncertainty whether or not he’d be back in Green Bay.
Starks fell just shy of 1,000 combined yards in 2015 (601 rushing and 392 receiving — both career highs), had career high in carries (148) and receptions (43), and was heavily relied upon as starting running back Eddie Lacy struggled with an assortment of issues.
Starks may not seem like a key ingredient in the Packers’ 2016 recipe, but signing him to a low-risk contract will provide some stability for an offense looking to remedy a lot of issues from last season and build on a core group of proven players.
With all signs pointing to Eddie Lacy getting himself into better shape this off season, he’s sure to be the featured back in 2016. But Starks has shown that he’s capable of stepping in and being a three down guy if necessary. And head coach Mike McCarthy – even when Lacy was in the good graces of the team – chose to split carries and series between to two backs last season.
With General Manager Ted Thompson not biting on any free agent running backs, as expected, it makes sense to bring back Starks, who improved his hands, his role in the screen game and his pass-protection last season. And if Lacy keeps his weight down and remains disciplined, this one-two punch has the opportunity to be a top five tandem in the NFL.
What plagued Starks last year – especially over a four-game stretch late in the season where he saw his playing time diminished – was his ball security. Starks was responsible for five fumbles (four in the month of December), which matched his mark for fumbles in in his previous five seasons combined.
And that’s the thing, Starks is not notorious for his carelessness with the football. It was really a four-game stretch that helped label his 2015 season a fumble-happy ordeal. Although Starks did have issues with ball security early in his career at the University of Buffalo (10 fumbles over a five-game stretch), he made corrections. I imagine Starks can make the necessary adjustments to be rid of the newly re-acquired bad habit.
A big harp on James Starks early in his career was his ability to stay healthy. Injuries ranging from a lingering hamstring issue, to multiple foot, ankle and knee problems, to turf toe … he was off of the field nearly as much as he was on it. (In his first three seasons, Starks played in 35 games and missed 29 due to injury.)
But, Starks has currently played in 47-consecutive games dating back to 2013 – and much of that is a result of his maturation process as a running back. You’ll notice Starks (listed as 6’2”, 218 lbs.) doesn’t run with the same reckless abandonment that he did early in his career, and at 30 years of age, he can’t afford to. His refined style of running is conducive to staying on the field, which is more important than lowering his head for an extra yard or two.
Starks has become an important piece in the puzzle for Green Bay over the last six seasons. With just Lacy and John Crockett currently joining him on the running back depth chart, expect Starks to be a significant part of an improved Packers offense in 2016.