Normally, expectations wouldn't be high for a 6th round running back, not to mention one out of a lackluster program like the University of Buffalo.
However, James Starks is no ordinary late-round, cupcake-college player. He's big, strong, and he's got wheels, all qualities which helped him rush for a school record 1,333 yards and 16 touchdowns his junior year, despite missing two and half games due to injury. His accomplishments had him listed as a preseason Doak Walker Award candidate, and earned him a 2nd round grade from draft analysts around the country.
A nasty injury changed all that. After tearing a labrum in his right shoulder, Starks missed the entire 2009 collegiate season, and his draft stock suffered. Once thought to be a Day One prospect, 192 picks passed before he was selected by the Pack.
But all that's in the past. The moment you strap on the pads and step on field, it doesn't matter where you were picked; it matters if you can play, and James Starks certainly has the talent to do just that. With training camp only 12 days away, it's time to see what kind of impact he can make.
I think it's safe to say that James Starks does not pose an immediate threat to incumbent Ryan Grant. Even though Grant's performance over the past two years has been anything but spectacular, it seems like Coach McCarthy places a lot of value on his consistency and ball security.
With that being said, Starks certainly has the ability to immediately challenge Brandon Jackson for 3rd down duties. In my opinion, this is where Starks will make his NFL mark: as a pass protector and a receiver out of the backfield. He doesn't necessarily have the ideal physique or burst to be an in-between the tackles type runner, but there's no questioning his worth as a pass catcher. Buried in his collegiate stat line is the fact that he caught 127 balls over his college career, including 52 in his last season at Buffalo. That's a lot of receptions, far more than even most receivers see at the college level. There's no question he can catch the ball.
Check out the following video:
Three different moments catch my attention:
- At the 0:21 mark, Starks catches a little swing screen out of the backfield, slashes up-field, effortlessly cuts back, and then turns on the jets.
- At 0:51, Starks catches a slant down-field after lining up in the slot (or possibly even split-out wide) and then makes a guy miss.
- Another screen at 1:26. Very patient, uses his blockers well, and then kicks it into overdrive when he sees an opening.
I think it's a given that Starks is a better option tha Brandon Jackson in terms of receiving ability. In brief, I have never really been impressed by Jackson anytime he has had the ball in his hands, aside from the occasional flash of brilliance. He's had two full years as the more or less de facto 3rd down back and he doesn't have much to show for it.
However, there is one skill that Jackson possesses in abundance that may give him the edge over Starks: his pass-blocking ability, which has caused many a man-crush. I've read mixed reviews on Starks ability in this regard, but make no mistake about it: if he can't pass-block, he won't play. It's not that he even needs to be better than Jackson as a blocker; he just needs to prove that he's adequate.
Aside from challenging Jackson for the back-up running back position, I think we could see Starks contribute in two other ways. As I've mentioned before, it's been said that he'll get some looks at possibly returning kicks, and indeed he does have the skill set to succeed at this position.
Another intriguing possibility is lining up Starks as a Wildcat quarterback. He played QB in high school and, as you may have seen in the YouTube video above, it's something they tried out during his time at Buffalo. I'm generally opposed to the Packers running the Wildcat, given the fact that the scheme neutralizes our best player, Aaron Rodgers, but I wouldn't be against adding a new wrinkle that could maybe be used when we hit a funk- or just to keep the defense guessing.
The bottom line is this: As long as he can stay healthy, there's no question in my mind that James Starks will be able to contribute in some way. Now whether that's as a kick returner or the back-up to Ryan Grant has yet to be determined. At this point, familiarizing himself with the playbook, improving his pass blocking, and simply being available are the most important things he can do to help his chances of taking snaps away from Brandon Jackson- because he certainly already has the ability and the talent to do just that.
Camp Countdown Questions series!