The 24 year-old rookie, drafted in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL draft, had not taken a hit in competitive play in almost two years after suffering a shoulder injury in his senior season in Buffalo, finally seeing his first action in week 13 of the 2010 NFL season. Coming out of Buffalo, Starks managed back to back 1,000 yard seasons while massing 34 TDs in his combined sophomore and junior seasons. Most notable in Starks’s game is not his legitimate 4.45 speed and long-striding one-cut-and-go ability but, instead, his hands out of the backfield and burst through the initial hole. In three years at Buffalo, Starks managed to haul in a ridiculous 137 receptions, 93 of which coming in his final two years.
Starks, at 6’2″ and 215 lbs. does tend to run a bit high as backs his size often do, but his field vision and ability to quickly capitalize on narrow seams through the offensive line make him a difficult target to bring down once his first cut has been executed. Once in the secondary, Starks shows surprisingly loose hips and a down-hill style which allow for more than adequate yardage after first contact. While not heavily used in the passing game as of yet, you can bet that Mike McCarthy will showcase his abilities in this area soon enough.
During the 2010 season, Starks managed a pedestrian 3.5 ypc. average on 29 carries. This is not surprising as he saw his first action in almost two years and the Packers have a capable, if not unimpressive backfield committee already featuring Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn. Starks seemingly missed a golden opportunity for more meaningful touches when Ryan Grant found himself on IR early in 2010. A troublesome hamstring injury in training camp ultimately sent Starks to the PUP list leaving questions about his ability to stay healthy after such a long layoff.
Fast forward to the post season and Starks has improved his ypc. average to 3.8 on 70 attempts, showing increased rushing instincts, a reemergence of the downhill style exhibited at Buffalo and the ability to grind out tough yards when no rushing lane exists. Most notable was his performance against an aggressive run defense in Philadelphia where he amassed 123 yards on 23 attempts, a 5.2 ypc. average.
But what does Starks offer in 2011? The answer largely depends on the Packer’s belief in Ryan Grant.
Grant has a single year left on his deal which will pay him a $1.75M roster bonus in addition to a $3.5M 2011 salary. The 28 year old Grant will be up to full speed prior to the 2011 NFL draft and, as of yet, there have been no indications that the Packers will deal him prior to having to pay the bonus. Should the Packers believe that Starks, himself a Ryan Grant clone, provides a future carry-the-load ability, Grant could find himself on the trading block in what seems to be a relatively weak 2011 running back class. Such clubs as New England and Miami would provide ideal landing spots for Grant.
In all likelihood, the Packers will hold onto Grant as Brandon Jackson is a free agent and should receive some interest on the open market. Starks will likely serve as insurance while he learns the greater subtleties of blocking in 2011. While Starks has shown enough thus far to bring a level of excitement of “what could be” in coming years, he is by no means a sure thing.
It’s widely believed that a team can develop a starting running back from nearly any situation, they need not be highly drafted. Willie Parker, Terrell Davis, Priest Holmes, Dominick Davis, Ryan Grant, Michael Turner, etc. etc. all rose from virtual anonymity to become fantasy stars; the list that have is as long as those that have been highly drafted only to under-perform expectations.
Based on what I had seen from Starks in college, I was genuinely surprised that he lasted until the 6th round. Few backs that have the size, blocking and receiving abilities to remain on the field for three downs. While Starks has much room for improvement in the areas of pass protection and blitz recognition, his tangible qualities are too great in my estimation for him not to receive a significant number of carries going forward with the hope that he can be an eventual starter.
When considering unproven talents such as Starks in their first year, I consider them much like I do the would-be rookies, determining their fantasy draft stock as a 2nd year rookie. For Starks, his 6th rounds initial selection must be considered and his detractors are not unfounded in their belief that he has yet to show anything that guarantees starter potential. For this reason, I am pegging Starks as the #3 player in this year’s rookie draft for valuation purposes, following only Mark Ingram and AJ Green. Note that I also have no problem considering Starks at #1 or #2 depending on the drafted situations of both Ingram and Green. Starks HAS shown enough to provide intrigue as a starting back in the NFL and he’s certain to get carries to that end either in 2011 or 2012, but patience is advised. His body of work thus far simply provides more promise than most all rookies in most any situation.
James Starks is an intriguing player as we head into the Super Bowl in that he has provided enough for owners to be giddy about the future, non-owners to be skeptical of his future production and those with no opinion to remain ambivalent. If you are looking to move Starks, seek no less that a #3 rookie pick. If you are looking to acquire Starks, do so citing his lower draft selection, advancing age (24) and sub-par ypca. to date. At this point, you cannot give up the farm for an uncertain 2011 but he is sure to be a hot name in the off-season, and for good reason.
James Starks seems to be seizing the opportunity granted to him and can solidify further opportunities with a strong Super Bowl performance. Should he steer clear of injury, and grind out tough yards against a stingy Pittsburgh run defense, Ryan Grant may find himself wearing colors other than the Green and Gold come opening day, 2011. While not likely in my mind, it does remain a Stark possibility.
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