Most Important Packers No. 24: James Starks / DuJuan Harris
JUN 05, 2014 4:30p ET
Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers' success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find every report here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team's 25 best players, but rather it's a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player's position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
AGE / EXPERIENCE
WHY THEY'RE NO. 24
It doesn't matter if it's James Starks or DuJuan Harris, but one of them -- or the combination of the two of them -- has to be productive this season behind Eddie Lacy. To single out either Starks or Harris as the more important player before training camp opens would be foolish. If Starks wins the No. 2 job at running back, that makes him the 24th most important player to the Packers' success this season. If Harris beats out Starks and gets the second-most carries on the team this season, his role becomes the 24th most important. Bottom line: One of them needs to step up when Lacy needs a break.
For as great a rookie season as Lacy had (winning the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, making the Pro Bowl and being a second-team All-Pro selection is about as good as it gets), he still missed nearly two full games with a concussion and can't possibly run as hard as he does without taking a series off occasionally. Last season, Packers running backs not named Lacy had 122 rushing attempts. That accounted for more than 30 percent of the carries by Green Bay's running backs, clearly establishing that being a backup behind Lacy brings plenty of opportunities.
After three consecutive years of being no better than the NFL's 20th-best rushing team (the Packers dropped as low as 27th in total rushing yards in 2011), Green Bay had the league's seventh-best running attack last season. Lacy is obviously the main reason for that, but Starks and Harris will play a pivotal part in whether the Packers remain among the top 10 running teams.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
Last season, Starks was finally healthy. For a couple years, Green Bay hoped that Starks would be running back No. 1 on the depth chart, but injuries played a big part in why that wasn't a successful strategy. Starks' improved durability in 2013 was likely assisted by being in a secondary role. Though it's true of every player that health is a very important aspect, it's especially true for Starks. When he's healthy, he's a good player. The problem is that Starks' career has been too closely split at 50/50 of when he's hurt and when he's injury-free. After somewhat surprisingly giving Starks a two-year, $3.2 million deal this offseason, the Packers just need Starks available. Because when he is, he often performs well.
Harris is coming from the opposite direction of Starks. It was Harris who missed the entire 2013 season with a knee injury after he showed flashes in minimal attempts at the end of 2012. A year ago at this time, head coach Mike McCarthy was talking about Harris as the starting running back. After what Lacy accomplished, those days of being the presumed starter are long gone for Harris. But it's rare for a player to go from being that highly regarded in the eyes of the coach to a player who's an afterthought. Regardless of Starks' new contract, Harris will absolutely be in the mix to be the top running back contributor behind Lacy.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT THEM?
Even behind Lacy, Starks and Harris, there is still Johnathan Franklin. McCarthy was ecstatic when Green Bay landed Franklin in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. However, Franklin had a very disappointing rookie season. It would take a tremendous training camp from Franklin (or an injury to Lacy, Starks or Harris) for him to be considered as the No. 2 or 3 running back this season.
In 19 carries last season, Franklin fumbled twice, one of which was recovered and returned 70 yards by Cincinnati in what was a game-winning score for the Bengals. Franklin showed flashes in that Week 3 game, especially with his 51-yard carry. Overall, though, he failed to impress. By late November 2013, Franklin was placed on injured reserve after suffering a neck injury.
With Lacy, Starks, Harris (and Franklin), this is the deepest and best group of Packers running backs in quite some time. But it's up to Starks and Harris to make sure that they continue to play well off the bench so that Green Bay's offense doesn't let up when Lacy is resting.
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