Bubble Series: Tough Choice at Running Back

We examine the six positions where roster spots are up for grabs heading into Thursday's preseason finale against Kansas City. At running back, Brandon Saine and James Starks might by vying for the final spot. So how might a linebacker fit in that equation?

The Green Bay Packers' preseason finale against Kansas City is all about the bubble.

By our estimation, there are six positions where roster spots are at stake: running back, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, inside linebacker and safety

"Make a statement," was coach Mike McCarthy's advice to those bubble players. "Define yourself, answer a question that's out there about you. Is it consistency? Is it big-play ability? There's different categories you use when you grade and evaluate players, and obviously some players do things better than others. If you can show improvement and show growth and more value, that's what you look for in these game environments."

Running back

The situation: The addition of Cedric Benson has changed everything. Benson and Alex Green are the locks. Are Brandon Saine, who is coming back from an injured hamstring, and James Starks, who is recovering slowly from turf toe, competing for the third and final spot? Or would they keep four running backs, even with their limited special teams value?

"It's tough. That's a personnel decision," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "Obviously, you feel good about both of those guys and what they've been able to do and where they are in their career as young backs. It'll be a wait-and-see type of deal."

When healthy, Starks has been productive. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season and caught 29 passes, even while missing three of the final six games with an ankle injury and being limited in the three others. Despite his occasional mental meltdown, the Packers generally entrusted Starks to handle third-down duties. When he knew who he was blocking, he graded out as one of the better pass-blocking backs in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

"I thought he had really progressed (before the injury), really understanding more protections and the calls up front," Van Pelt said. "I thought he was buying into that and getting a better understanding of who he had in protections. It's unfortunate. He didn't have a great game with the fumble in the first game but he had two great runs with a couple of guys that were unblocked that he made miss and got positive yards."

After Green's season-ending knee injury, Saine was promoted from the practice squad and became a reliable role player. He's big, can block and can catch — attributes shared with Starks — and the coaches constantly laud his intelligence and reliability. However, he hasn't played in the preseason and might not play much against the Chiefs.

"The times that he did touch it this week, he looked normal," Van Pelt said.

The prediction: Saine was a No. 1 on three special teams units before the injury and was back with the punt unit this week. Advantage, Saine. Starks missed his entire senior season at Buffalo, most of his rookie season with Green Bay and much of the second half of last season. "Availability and accountability" are the watch words for McCarthy. Advantage, Saine.

However, keep this in mind: Erik Walden will be suspended for Week 1 and won't count on the roster. That frees up a spot for a fourth running back, buying Starks an extra week to get healthy. At that point, the Packers could release Saine and put him on the practice squad.

That said, our hunch is the Packers go with Saine and give up on Starks, who is listed fourth on the depth chart. McCarthy tried to spin the demotion as Starks being injured. Sure, but then why is Derek Sherrod the No. 2 left tackle?


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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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