Packers Training Camp Battles: Starks Leads by Default at Running Back

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Packers RB James Starks has the edge to be the starter in 2012.

When James Starks took a handoff, shed two defenders, powered his way through another, and reached for a 17-yard touchdown against the Saints in last season’s opening game, it looked like the Packers were set at running back.

That run was exactly what the Packers were hoping to get from Starks. It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t breathtaking. It was the offensive line creating a hole, Starks making a decisive cut, exploding through the hole, shaking off tackles and plowing his way for extra yards.

Unfortunately, that was one of the few decisive and explosive moments for Starks last season. It was his only touchdown run and there weren’t any other memorable runs the rest of the way.

Bothered by knee and ankle injuries, Starks looked tentative. He didn’t look like an ascending young running back ready to seize the long-term starting job on a perennial Super-Bowl contender.

Instead of the second-coming of Dorsey Levans or Ahman Green, Starks morphed into the only Packers offensive player to have a disappointing 2011 season.

Nontheless, Starks appears to be the front-runner to get the starting job in 2012.

Alex Green
Green might pose a challenge, but coming off  a major knee injury, it’s hard to envision the second-year player from Hawaii rising that quickly.

Green, a third-round pick, was starting to see his role increase when he blew out his knee in late October against the Vikings. If Green comes back healthy and ready to contribute, he’s an all-around back with the explosiveness to rip off a long run or take a dump-off pass all the way to the end zone every now and then.

Whereas Starks is more of a one-cut and move the chains type of runner, Green has more big-play ability. At least that’s what Green’s college film tells us. We only had three carries to judge his pro career.

Brandon Saine
Lurking in the background is Saine, an undrafted rookie from Ohio St. who looked decent taking occasional swing passes from Aaron Rodgers and charging full-speed ahead.

When Saine built a head of steam, he didn’t look like an undrafted rookie. He actually looked pretty good.

Teach this kid some fundamentals and how to pass block and you never know what he might turn out to be.

Pass blocking
While we’re all focusing on rushing yards and explosiveness, the Packers coaching staff will likely be focusing just as hard on which running back does the best job of keeping pass rushers away from Rodgers.

Starks, Green or Saine could quickly find themselves in the dog house if they allow too manly blitzers to come through and light-up the MVP QB.

There were a few occasions last season where Rodgers was visibly upset at Starks for blown blocking assignments, an issue that Starks addressed in a radio interview this week.

Having John Kuhn on the roster boosts the backfield’s pass-blocking ability, but he has a bum knee. If it takes Kuhn a while to get back and stabilize the backfield’s pass blocking, the running back battle definitely could be tilted in favor of the player who draws the fewest dirty looks and butt-chewings from the quarterback.

Prediction
I’m going with Starks.

There’s always the chance that Ted Thompson makes a Ryan Grant-type of trade and brings in another back late in camp, but why would he do that when he could just pick up the phone and get Grant himself back on the team?

Starks seems to have the skills to be the type of back that can beat up defenders late in games and help the Packers preserve leads built by Rodgers’ arm. The trick is keeping Starks from getting beat up himself.

Green’s goal should be to repeat Starks’ 2010 season: Get healthy, improve as the season goes on, and make an impact down the stretch.

Saine is a wild-card. Can he block well enough to be a third-down back? I like what he does once he turns upfield.

Final word
Yes, running back was a disappointment in 2011. But as we all know, the Packers don’t need the second coming of Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson to be successful. The backs on the roster posses the skills necessary to be a valuable part of the offense. They’ve even had fleeting moments of success.

If they can turn those fleeting moments into sustained production, the Packers offense will once again roll through the league.

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Adam Czech is a freelance reporter and a Packers fan living in the Twin Cities. Follow Adam on Twitter. Read more of Adam's writing on the Packers here.

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  • Lou

    Starks runs angry and always has a smile on his face but he has yet to break one (continually caught from behind), and led the backs in missed blitz pickups, then the real issue, being healthy. Green’s only issue coming in was holding onto the ball, now it is whether he starts the season on the PUP List or not. Saine was solid as a reserve but was never a featured back even at OSU. I know they throw the ball two thirds of the time but its time to get Ryan Grant back ASAP, nothing but question marks to replace him.

  • Adam Czech

    Starks isn’t a “break one” type of back. He’s not going to outrun a lot of defenders after his initial burst.

  • ScottS

    I believe Rodgers said in an interview last year that he thought Brandon Saine had the best hands on the team.

  • Wagszilla

    RE: Brandon Saine

    “Teach this kid some fundamentals and how to pass block and you never know what he might turn out to be.”

    Huh? Saine is the best pass-protect back on the team.

    • Adam Czech

      1. The best pass blocking back is Kuhn.
      2. Saine hasn’t played enough to call him the best on the team at anything.

      • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

        I was about to say the same two things, Adam.

  • http://None Bearmeat

    If this group doesn’t achieve, TT will go out and get a low level FA or trade for a functional RB.

    Being adequate at RB is enough in this offense – and this group can do that.

  • Tarynfor12

    What is the hangup with the ‘breaking the big one’ when RBs for the Packers are discussed and using it as a demerit against them?

    This offense isn’t built on the need for it.Otherwise,TT and MM would put higher draft or FA value on it.’IF’it occurs..great..’IF’it doesn’t…we don’t need it to win.
    TT and MM have an expectation for the RBs in GB and it isn’t how many ‘big’ ones they run off.

    The breaking one is a fan thing for a highlight reel and the bread and butter for a few other teams(locked into a prison for losers)who even after getting a ‘break one’ can’t bust out.

    Getting a big one from any of our RBs would be great but I’ll settle for a constant 4+ ypc average and let that make easier what the man who needs to ‘break it open’ do so.

    A couple of 8-10 yard runs does more for Rodgers than the ‘to the house or the front door’run every..how often do they occur?

    • Adam Czech

      I don’t know if it’s necessarily used as a demerit, but it should be discussed when evaluating a RB.

      • Tarynfor12

        The discussion when evaluating a RB should be in line with the offensive scheme.Starks along with most any RB has a lesser chance of doing so in GB whereas if he were in a more dictating run offensive scheme the likelyhood of the big one being broken increases dramtically.
        Evaluate the RB for what he is offered as in scheme and decide if a success or not but,to rate low a RB in a non run based offense via the lack of big ones is simply misleading.

        • Pat Mc

          I agree that a couple of 8-10 yard runs does more for Rodgers than the ‘to the house.

          Starks (and other RB) exploding through the line comes down to the OL doing their job. That starts in practice where for the past few years the OL has not been able to do their work during the week.

          I predict that with a stable OL this year the RB’s will look more decisive and explosive. Only because the first 25 plays will be scripted and practiced during the week.

  • Adam Czech

    Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t seen anyone rate Starks low simply because his skill set doesn’t lead to many 80-yard TD runs.

    • Tarynfor12

      Perhaps I again read too much into things but I think for me anyway this implies such;
      “Unfortunately, that was one of the few decisive and explosive moments for Starks last season. It was his only touchdown run and there weren’t any other memorable runs the rest of the way”.

      Starks is a hard running fall forward guy who will get the tough yards and that allows Rodgers to option out of the run more when the defense seems to key against the run or Starks.His memorable moments may not be runs but what he induces from a defense to help Rodgers.
      I may be biased but I simply believe this kid has something we haven’t seen yet but will this season.

      • Adam Czech

        Taryn:

        We agree w/ each other (for the most part). A memorable run doesn’t have to be a long run. A three-yard gain where a RB makes a first down out of nothing can be very memorable. But even using that criteria, I still can’t think of many memorable runs from Starks last season.

        But I am in no way writing him off. I think he has the tools to be what the Packers need. His health and ability to get better will determine if he’s able to use those tools.

        • Oppy

          He demonstrated his rookie season he had the skill set to be successful in the Packers (mostly) zone blocking scheme.

          What worries me more than anything is that last season Starks seemingly lost the one characteristic that is essential to a ZBS RB, the one trait that put him ahead of Grant- DECISIVENESS.

          If Starks can pick, plant, and power through the line, he’ll be fine in 2012… Until Green’s knee is fully healed

  • Pat Mc

    With a pass first offense, Rodgers needs to move the safety and/or MLB’s to get his WR’s open.

    The OL needs to practice the scripted plays so the RB knows where the hole will be.

    If Finley catches the ball the Safety will need to come up to help the MLB’s cover Finley. When the RB is picking up good yardage 3-7 on those plays the safety will need to come up quicker.

    That is when Rodgers hits Jennings or other WR for a big gain (maybe TD). Then Rodgers is in the D’s head and the fun begins.

    Again, it all starts in practice with everyone doing the plays together.

  • CJ

    Nice thoughts but we need more than Starks, more than Green, more than Saine, we need them all. RB position is one of who has a number of RB’s to make it through a season, one or tow is not enough. Go get Grant, stash Bennett on the PS and hope we have enough.