GREEN BAY – Standing beside the locker he’s occupied for the last six years, James Starks takes a quick survey of the room as he reflects on his time with the Packers.
Twice the veteran running back has been an unrestricted free agent and twice he’s opted to stay in Green Bay, including this past offseason on the heels of his most productive season.
This is home for Starks. It’s where he won a Super Bowl, learned how to be a professional and overcame a litany of injuries early in his career.
Starks is as basic as any player you’ll ever meet. He isn’t defined by labels and couldn’t care less about whether his name is on the marquee.
All Starks has ever wanted was to play football, and the Packers were the first team to offer him that chance as a sixth-round pick out of Buffalo in 2010.
Six seasons later, the soft-spoken veteran still doesn’t draw much attention to himself. Yet, he’s a trusted part of the offense and now is one of the longest-tenured players on the roster.
“It’s like a family for me,” said Starks following Thursday’s third practice of training camp. “It’s just more comfortable to come here, be able to focus, get away from everything. The distractions maybe at home or close near you – you don’t want added stress. That’s why it’s been comfortable for me to come back, work hard and focus on football.”
Starks’ career has been the tale of two halves. He battled persistent injuries during his first three seasons, limiting him to 1,196 combined rushing and receiving yards and two touchdowns on 268 regular-season touches.
Starks’ luck turned in 2013 when he averaged 5.5 yards per carry behind NFL offensive rookie of the year Eddie Lacy. He could’ve sought the limelight elsewhere once the season was over, but instead re-signed with the Packers.
Since Lacy’s arrival, Starks has amassed 2,048 combined yards and 11 TDs on his 393 touches over the past three regular seasons. In the process, he’s become a well-rounded threat.
Once purely a hard-charging power runner, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound back has diversified his skill set. Understanding what it would take to see the field more, Starks has been relentless in improving as a pass-blocker and receiver.
Starks has caught hundreds of balls from every angle imaginable over the past year. He worked on his strength and hand placement to improve his pass-blocking considerably.
It translated to Starks catching a career-high 43 passes for 392 yards and three touchdowns in 2015 in addition to setting new career bests in carries (148) and rushing yards (601). The only downside statistically was a career-worst five fumbles (three lost), another area he has been focusing on with new running backs coach Ben Sirmans.
“(The coaches) emphasize protecting Aaron (Rodgers) and you really can’t play if you can’t protect him,” Starks said. “I just took that to heart. I worked on it and worked on it. I knew I wasn’t the best at it, but then I started getting better and better. It’s a progress. Nothing’s easy so I just worked at it, continued to grind and got better at it.”
Starks turned 30 in February but doesn’t buy into the notion that an NFL running back’s best years are behind him once he graduates from the 20s.
The way Starks sees it, this is only the beginning.
In a time where running backs’ birth years often are viewed like expiration dates, the statistics show Starks has only become better with experience.
“I don’t know about that old-age thing,” said Starks with a smile. “Everybody says once you hit this age, you’re old. I think that’s grown-man strength right there. You find an old man is stronger than the young fellas.”
Over the past three years, Starks has developed a close friendship with Lacy. Both easy-going personalities, they hoped to stick together after the 2015 season ended and Starks became a free agent again.
Lacy slid a few friendly “Bro, come back” messages to Starks, but didn’t put any added pressure on his friend regarding his future. Once Starks re-signed in March, however, Lacy was one of the first to send him a congratulatory text.
The beauty of the arrangement has been in its simplicity. Neither is concerned about who has more carries or gets the start. It comes down to production.
That’s what Starks hopes to provide as he enters Year 7.
“I don’t care where I’m at, really. It doesn’t matter,” Starks said. “We’re all starters if you put us in that position. Any given day, somebody could get hurt, go down and we have to perform. If that happens, can I do it? Yeah.”
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