Position Series: RBs In-Depth

Despite numerous questions in the backfield, the Packers didn't re-sign Ryan Grant or draft a running back. Can James Starks stay healthy? Can Alex Green get healthy? Plus, who is the sleeper of the position group and is there anyone on the roster bubble?

Leader of the Pack

James Starks: For better or worse, the wagon appears to be hitched to Starks. Starks has everything the Packers look for in a running back: He's big and generally doesn't dilly-dally after getting the ball, which are critical elements when the weather and playing fields turn bad. He can catch and he can block. He's fumbled just twice on 287 career touches, including playoffs.

The injury history, however, is alarming. After not playing as a senior at Buffalo because of a torn labrum, Starks has played in just 21 of a possible 37 games (including playoffs), missing time with a torn hamstring and ankle and knee issues. After bursting onto the scene in the 2010 playoffs with games of 23, 25 and 22 carries, he never got more than 13 carries in a game in 2011. Even with the limited workload, he missed three games and was knocked out of three others. In the final seven games, he sat out three times and got just 19 carries.

"I've got all the confidence in the world in James," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "He's grown as a player — as our whole room has, really. James understands that you do get nicked up during the season but ... He's done a great job this whole offseason of preparing himself for a full season. We talked about it in the room the first day, You've got to be there for all 16 games. There's a difference between injuries and nicks, and you've got to know the difference and be able to play through that and play well through that and be there for the team. We're expecting a full season out of James."

Breakout performer

Alex Green: After being inactive for three of his first seven games, the rookie third-round pick was about to become a larger part of the game plan. Instead, he tore his ACL while blocking on the Packers' first kickoff return at Minnesota on Oct. 23.

At 225 pounds, Green has the size the Packers covet. He's not a burner with 4.55 speed in the 40-yard dash but he's got the quickness to burst through the hole. He showed excellent hands at training camp last summer. In other words, he's got everything the Packers like at running back. Question is, is he ready for a big role? Will his knee be ready for training camp after missing all of the offseason work? Is he ready mentally and physically to protect Aaron Rodgers?

The Packers apparently are comfortable with the answers to those questions. They didn't draft a running back and didn't re-sign Ryan Grant.

"I'm ready to show what I can do," Green said. "I didn't show too much last year as a rookie. This year, I've got the playbook down pretty good, I'm stronger than I've ever been and things like that. Once the time comes around, I'm pretty sure I'll be ready."

Sleeper

Nic Cooper: Nic Cooper (5-10, 249) rushed for 1,808 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior for Division II powerhouse Winston-Salem State. John Kuhn (6-0, 250) was a similar type player at Division II Shippensburg.

"Very explosive player, very quick out of his stance," Van Pelt said. "He's really good with the ball in his hands. Obviously, it's natural for him. He's a powerful guy — you can see that. He's got extremely soft hands for a big guy. We're obviously excited to see the pads come on and see what happens when we put the pads on in camp."

On the bubble

Nobody: Starks, Green, Brandon Saine and Kuhn are practically locks to make the roster. The Packers obviously like them; otherwise, they would have re-signed Grant or drafted a back. Saine, an undrafted free agent last year who got his chance when Green went down, is similar to Starks and Green and could share the third-down snaps with Kuhn.

"Brandon Saine, he's a very solid guy who played sporadically last year," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "You know what you're getting there. He's a sneaky runner. He sees the hole and gets through the hole and is good out of the backfield. He's a solid player."

Noteworthy number

315: That's the combined number of career carries by the Packers' running backs (Starks, 162; Kuhn, 132; Saine, 18; Green, 3). In 2008, Grant had 312 carries by himself.

Extra point

As long as Mike McCarthy is in charge, the "running" part of the term "running back" is a bit of a misnomer. "Our motto in the room is protect our football and protect our quarterback," Van Pelt said. "This system isn't a system where you're going to run the ball 30 times a game. Obviously, with the NFL MVP quarterback back there and being so talented at wide receiver and tight end, we'll play to those strengths. What we have to be able to do is win the down in the run game when we do have a chance to run it, to make the right cuts and get the yards that are there to get."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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