Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2015 season while looking ahead to 2016's free agency period. Today, we continue our series by examining the running backs.
The Green Bay Packers' two longest-tenured running backs are both hitting the free agent market this offseason. One is a fan favorite who has heard Packers fans make his name echo off the walls of stadiums across the NFL, while the other has consistently been a hardworking but unspectacular second option as a tailback.
By the time free agency opens in March, each player will have hit 30 years old and their returns are very much in question. Here's how we see the approach that the Packers will or should take to their two veterans.
Years in NFL: 10
Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Expiring Contract: One year, $930,000
2015 Stats: 9 carries, 28 yards (3.1 Y/C), 2 TDS; 10 targets, 6 receptions, 56 yards (9.3 Y/R), voted to Pro Bowl as alternate
Career Stats: 198 carries, 619 yards (3.1 Y/C), 15 TDs; 105 targets, 82 receptions (7.0 Y/R), 8 TDs
Many people think that I hate John Kuhn, but this simply isn't true. He was once even a useful player, adept at stoning oncoming pass rushers and even catching a pass out of the backfield. He's never been particularly skilled as a short yardage back, but again, that's not really his fault. Having a reliable extra blocker who seems to be buddies with your extraordinary quarterback is in fact valuable, to a point, and with Kuhn an unrestricted free agent about to turn 33, we've reached that point.
Kuhn's lack of athleticism is exploited far too frequently, and with the acquisition of Aaron Ripkowski in last year's draft, the Packers officially have too many fullbacks.
The single biggest reason to let Kuhn walk is that he is now a huge liability in pass protection, and had his worst season when trying to keep his good buddy upright. This is not necessarily all his fault as injuries and turmoil on the line caused plenty of havoc in blitz pickup across the board, but Kuhn lost enough one-on-one battles to make it pretty clear the end is near.
While I do not hate Kuhn, I will also not mourn the end of the Kuhn era. The hagiography of fairly unskilled, but grindy white athletes in Wisconsin is always uncomfortable, and there are probably 51 Packers who deserve to have their names yelled en masse before a fairly unproductive fullback who isn't even good in short yardage, the one job people actually notice. I'm sure another will arise to take his place, but to me Kuhn will always represent the celebration of mediocrity, and from a strategic perspective, the triumph of tradition over reason. Kuhn the man is a stand up guy. Kuhn the archetype is everything that is wrong with football.
Years in NFL: Six
Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Expiring Contract: Two years, $3.25 million, including $725,000 signing bonus
2015 Stats: 148 carries, 601 yards (4.1 Y/C); 53 targets, 43 receptions, 392 yards (9.1 Y/R), 5 total TDs, 5 fumbles, 3 lost fumbles
Career Stats: 555 carries, 2,361 yards (4.3 Y/C), 9 TDs; 142 targets, 106 receptions, 883 yards (8.3 Y/R), 4 TDs
Starks entered the league and joined the Packers in 2010, just in time to serve as one of many Super Bowl heroes. He rushed for 52 yards and nearly 5 yards per carry in Super Bowl XLV, capping a solid if unspectacular playoff run. In many ways 2015 was Starks' finest season, as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry over 148 attempts, his biggest single-season workload in his career, and often did so behind a banged-up offensive line. Starks' 392 receiving yards, 43 receptions, and - most importantly - 9.1 yards per reception also represent career highs.
The only knock against Starks is that he put the ball on the ground five times which is simply unacceptable. However, Eddie Lacy fumbled 4 times as well which meant Starks continued to get opportunities. With the exception of the fumbles, Starks does everything well while not excelling in any particular area. He can get tough yards and reads his blocks well, he is adequate in blitz pickup, and he is the best receiving back on the team, for better or worse. He even ripped off a career-long 65-yard run this season. Given the struggles of Eddie Lacy, Starks probably missed the opportunity for a huge productive workload and maybe a decent payday (though he does turn 30 next season), but the fumbles will probably keep interest more moderate. I would not be surprised to see him return on a team-friendly deal, which is the only kind Ted Thompson will give to an aging running back.
Starks has had a very productive career in Green Bay and has resurrected the running game on more than one occasion. I wish he would have received more work, especially in the passing game, but Starks is what he is: a model of consistency who knows the offense and can fill in admirably if something should go wrong with the first stringer. If he is gone, he will be missed, but given the alarming signs around Lacy and the lack of any spark from the guys on the bench, I suspect we'll see him back for at least one more year.