A year ago, the Green Bay Packers had a safety net at running back.
Though not a dynamic runner, Ryan Grant twice surpassed 1,200 yards rushing and gave Green Bay a known quantity at a position otherwise occupied by untested young players. Now Grant is a free agent and the Packers have shown no outward interest in signing him, or any other available running back, for that matter.
Indeed, Grant’s locker was given away to a wide receiver, a pretty good sign that the running back position in Green Bay now belongs to James Starks. As he enters his third go-around in the NFL, Starks is convinced he’s ready to have a breakout season.
“I believe I can,” he said last week, “and I believe I will.”
The Packers apparently believe the same thing because their lack of movement at the position indicates they’re happy with what they’ve got. But given the oft-injured, unproven players the Packers have at running back, this clearly is the biggest roll of the offseason dice for general manager Ted Thompson.
On a team that has cornered the market on wide receivers, acquired a good portion of the world’s supply of defensive ends and assembled enough cornerbacks to possibly bump future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson inside, the Packers remain perilously thin at only one position — running back — entering this week’s minicamp.
If everyone stays healthy and performs to expectations, coach Mike McCarthy’s pass-first offense can certainly get by with, say, Starks and second-year players Alex Green and Brandon Saine at the position. The problem is none of the three has shown he can handle a heavy workload in the NFL from either a production or a health standpoint. And the other two running backs on the roster — rookies Marc Tyler of USC and Du’ane Bennett of Minnesota — are undrafted free agents.
Still, McCarthy insists he’s satisfied with the group, which is augmented by versatile fullback John Kuhn.
“As far as the depth in the running back group, I feel very good about the ability, where their aptitude is at this point,” McCarthy said. “Because we do ask our backs to do a lot from the responsibility checklist as far as the run protection in the passing game, I really like the group.”
For what the Packers need, he might be right. Given the weapons they have in the passing game, they don’t really need a world-class runner.
With Starks and Grant sharing the carries last season, the Packers were 27th in the NFL in rushing yet third in total offense. McCarthy doesn’t necessarily want the backs to gain more yardage, just run more effectively with the carries they do get. Still, it’s hard to see how the Packers are sleeping soundly at night with the running backs they have.
Starks is a big back who can finish off runs, but the 2010 sixth-round draft pick isn’t exactly a workhorse. He hasn’t played a full season in years, missing his senior season at Buffalo with a shoulder injury, sitting out the first 13 games of his rookie season in Green Bay with a hamstring problem and becoming a non-factor in the final six games last year due to ankle and knee injuries. Given Starks’ medical history, expecting him to line up 16 weeks in a row would be wildly optimistic.
Green was the Packers’ third-round pick out of Hawaii in 2011 and was close to cracking the rotation when he suffered a major knee injury on Oct. 31. An ACL reconstruction is considered a nine-month injury in the NFL and Green said he’s shooting to return by the start of training camp, but it is unrealistic to expect a player at such a taxing position to be fully recovered at any point this season, much less the start of it.
Saine was a surprise last year after he was a late signee to the practice squad. He was activated when Green went down and showed flashes of promise, especially as a receiver. However, he couldn’t even hold the starting job as a senior at Ohio State.
Tyler is a good-sized back who runs with power but is held back by a lack of speed. Bennett has done little in the team’s open practices to suggest he’s ready to play a major role for an NFL team.
“I like the way James Starks is moving,” McCarthy said. “It’s nice to see Alex Green out there. Brandon is so consistent; probably the most consistent guy we have back there. I think both young free agents have a chance as far as their movement ability.”
The truth is, the Packers’ running game this season rests largely in the hands of Starks, who said he’s been working on flexibility and endurance in hopes of avoiding injuries.
“Past years, I happened to get little nicks and bruises here and there,” Starks said. “But I’m going to pray on it and God willing I have an injury-free year and I keep getting better each day.”
So there you have it. With training camp set to open in six weeks, prayer has replaced Ryan Grant as the Packers’ security blanket at running back.