It All Came Together This Season for Starks

Just when it looks like he's got it figured out, he might be gone. James Starks' development at running back for the Packers has had its ups and downs, but this past season the light bulb went on and it shined brighter than ever. That might be good timing for Starks, too, since he's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March.

Eddie Lacy grabbed the spotlight -- and deservedly so winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors -- for the much-improved Green Bay Packers running game in 2013.

But his position-mate picked a good season to shine, as well.

Backup James Starks, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month, should draw some interest on the open market after his best season in four years with the Packers. In a part-time role, he made the most of his opportunities, finally looking like the back the Packers thought he could be when they drafted him in the sixth round out of Buffalo in 2010.

"I just think he's so much more confident in running in the scheme," said Alex Van Pelt, Starks' running backs coach last season. "The runs fit his style. … He hits that hole with speed and burst, just flying up in there."

Starks, a powerful but lean 6-foot-2, 218 pounds, had always shown a punishing ability as a second-level runner since coming to Green Bay. But getting there had always been an issue. Indecisiveness in finding the holes led to too many negative runs. But this past season, he turned the corner and established himself as one of the league's legitimate explosive backs.

Starks had three touchdowns runs of 20 or more yards, tying him for second in the league (LeSean McCoy had four). All three of those runs came within a four-game span for Starks, which had head coach Mike McCarthy saying, "all (Starks) does is score touchdowns."

Perhaps more telling of how far Starks has come was that only five of his 89 carries went for zero or negative yardage. Whereas in seasons past he would be among the league's worst in that category, in 2013 he put himself among the league's best. According to STATS, his 5.6 percent "Stuffs/Carry" mark was sixth among running backs.

Not coincidentally, that led to a major difference in his yards-per-carry average. From a career mark of 4.0 from 2010 through 2012, he vaulted to 5.5 for the 2013 season. Among 49 running backs with at least 89 carries, that average (5.54 to take it a step further) was the best in the league. In Packers' history, only Eddie Lee Ivery in 1984 had a better average (5.6) with as many carries (99 for 552 yards).

Starks actually had a better yards-after-contact average than the bruising Lacy (3.0 to 2.28 according to ProFootballFocus.com), too.

The biggest question with Starks – and the one potential suitors will have to consider – has been his availability. Starks has had five different injuries costing him 27 games (including the playoffs) over four seasons. All of his injuries have been to the lower half of his body, including a hamstring that kept him out the first 11 games his rookie season before an impressive individual playoff run on the Packers' way to the Super Bowl in 2010.

This past season, however, Starks matched his career high by playing in 14 games (including the playoffs). A knee injury kept him on the sideline for three games early in the season.

"I'm feeling good," said a fresh Starks near the end of 2013, "This is the best I've felt in a long time. So, I mean, I'm fine."

The same goes for his attitude.

"I enjoy the game. I love playing football," said Starks. "Each opportunity that I get, I know my teammates know that I enjoy the game so I'm just out there having fun. I mean, football is fun. A lot of guys look at football as work but I look at it as a fun activity for me to be doing and a lot of people would enjoy to do, it so I'm out there having fun each play."

Other backs coming off noteworthy 2013 seasons that the 27-year-old Starks will be competing with in free agency include 26-year-old Knowshon Moreno (241 carries, 4.3 average, 10 touchdowns), 28-year-old Maurice Jones-Drew (234, 3.5, 5), 25-year-old Ben Tate (181, 4.3, 4), 28-year old -Rashad Jennings (163, 4.5, 6), 27-year-old LeGarrette Blount (153, 5.0, 7) and 26-year-old Donald Brown (102, 5.3, 6).

The Packers have five running backs – Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, DuJuan Harris, fullback Ina Liaina and Orwin Smith under contract. Kahlil Bell and fullback John Kuhn will join Starks as free agents.


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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