Monday, July 19, 2010

CCQ #12: Where does Starks fit in?

This is the first installment of our Camp Countdown Questions series. Each day leading up to July 31st, we'll be posing a crucial question the Pack need to answer in training camp.

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.
In my opinion, this is what the Packers have been missing offensively: a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield, who can not only run crisp routes and make the catch, but make things happen after he's got the ball in his hands. I was hoping a guy like Jahvid Best or Dexter McCluster would end up wearing the Green and Gold, but Starks is somewhat comparable and was acquired at a much better value.

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.

Make sure to check out all other installments of the Camp Countdown Questions series!


  1. I was very excited when we drafted Starks (after doing my research of course). Here is an athletic player with great balance who I can also see making a major contribution returning kicks or being a receiving threat out of the backfield. I love the way that he can avoid the contact but isn't afraid to lower the should for the additional yard or three. I'm very excited to watch him in training camp and preseason.

  2. I think for one of remaining 11 questions you should talk about our "sexiest" pick in the draft this year, Morgan Burnett. This is another player who I am looking forward to watching during TC and preseason.

  3. Man, I gotta say, I like your work a lot. It's now a part of my daily read. Great piece on Starks, and the overall Camp Countdown Questions is a great idea! It must be that beautiful name of yours, namesake!

    And, about Burnett, I've read last year, when Capers was hired, that he tended to sub an extra S in nickel and dime packages. There was noone last year, really, but Burnett's versatility and playmaking skills in college makes him the perfect candidate to fill that role, be it subbing in instead of a CB, or instead of a LB (which I believe will depend on whether Harris comes back, and how far Lee and Underwood have progressed). Burnett will be an extra option, instead of just adding a CB and removing a DL or a LB.

    Of, if by some reason Burnett actually is named the starter, then Bigby will be able to fill that role, if healthy...

  4. BTW, I see a lot of good things about him, but I also see a lot of poor tackling. A LOT.

  5. Wow, I labored over this glorious comment, only to have it disapper. Sigh. I guess the summary is I agree he's a great 3rd down screen back as he's quick and patient. Question will be whether he turns out to be "injury-prone". Guess we'll find out this fall.

  6. Also, to follow up on some the advantages you list for Jackson, I'll be interested to see how versatile Starks is. That is to say, if his pass blocking really isn't up to snuff, does that mean every time he lines up in the backfield the D can expect him to go out for a pass? Or possibly a run around the edge? Will be interesting to see how he fits into the offense.

  7. Mr. PackersRS- thanks for the encouragement! I like writing (especially about the Packers) and I'm glad that you're enjoying it so far. I hope we can keep it up and continue to please you!

    C. Liedl (hmm, who could you be...)- That's a very good question. If Starks can't PP than it doesn't make sense to let him see the field, because teams will know what his assignment is. Either way, I'd like to see him at least get a look at returning kicks.

  8. I think we'll only see Starks on special teams returning punts and kicks. In my opinion Brandon Jackson is a better rusher and is just as good receiving threat, but as everyone has been saying he has the ability to pass protect. Brandon Jackson will keep his spot on the depth chart