The Packers instead got greedy and brought back veteran backup James Starks, ensuring that Green Bay will bring one of the NFL's most talented, productive and versatile running back groups to training camp.
According to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Starks and the Packers agreed to a new two-year deal late Monday night. A cooler-than-expected market for the 28-year-old helped lead to a reunion and now the Packers can feel as good about their stable of backs as at any time in recent memory.
As recently as two years ago, the Packers struggled to find one capable player to take handoffs from Aaron Rodgers. Now, the offense has four.
|Eddie Lacy||James Starks|
Source: Pro Football Focus
A second-round pick in 2013, Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns during his first season, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in the process. He's the wrecking-ball starter.
After finishing 2012 as Green Bay's top back, Harris was viewed as a starter by head coach Mike McCarthy until a knee injury ended his season in training camp. He will be fully healthy by the time offseason workouts begin.
Franklin, a fourth-rounder from last April, ran for over 100 yards in his only extended action as a rookie.
The Packers could have let Starks leave in free agency and still felt very good about the status of the running back position. With him back in the fold, Green Bay now has an embarrassment of riches in the ground game.
While up and down and often injured early in his career, Starks stayed mostly healthy and had his best professional season in 2013.
He rushed 89 times for 493 yards—good for a career-high 5.5 yards per rush—and three touchdowns over 13 games. He added 10 catches for 89 yards and another score.
The 99 total touches were a perfect amount for Starks—just enough for him to make a considerable impact, but not so many as to put the sometimes-fragile running back at serious injury risk.
In his new, more defined role, Starks delivered.
He ran for 132 yards against Washington after Lacy went out early with a concussion. He also broke 40 yards five other times—with six runs over 20 yards—as Green Bay's primary backup, including an 88-yard effort in the Packers' season-finale win over the Chicago Bears.
His average of 5.5 yards per carry tied with Andre Ellington for the highest among running backs with at least 75 carries. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Starks averaged 3.0 yards after contact (fourth-best in the NFL) and forced missed tackles (22 total) at a better rate than Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.
Only Donald Brown of the Indianapolis Colts had a higher "Elusive Rating," which calculates a runner's success beyond the blocking of the offensive line.
The Packers couldn't pass up the opportunity to once again throw the 1-2 punch of Lacy and Starks at opposing defenses.
The two rushed for 1,671 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, totals that blew the doors off what Green Bay received from the running back position in 2012.
That season, the Packers' leading rusher (Alex Green) had 464 yards and the team rushed for just 1,702 yards and nine touchdowns. Green Bay finished seventh in the NFL with 2,136 rushing yards in 2013.
While not a prototypical running back tandem, Lacy and Starks—or Spin and Slash—make it work.
A bell-cow back, Lacy gobbles up yards between the tackles, wearing out defenses and making tackling a chore. Starks is also a power runner, but he makes his living as a violent, one-cut-and-go back in the mold of a poor man's Peterson.
The Packers can also feel good about giving Starks a two-year investment.
While he will be 30 years old by the time his new deal expires, Starks has under 400 career touches. If all goes right over the next two years, his role will not be that of a workhorse back. His four to eight carries a game behind Lacy should help protect his body and extend his playing career.
Given how often the running back position suffers injury in the NFL, having four backs with starting talent can come in handy.
Keep in mind, Harris went down with a knee injury in August, Lacy fought an early head injury and an ankle issue later on, Starks missed three games with a knee injury and Franklin eventually ended up on injured reserve with a concussion.
Injury hit the position hard at times in 2013, but the depth of the team's running backs meant very few hiccups in dealing with those issues.
The Packers will have that luxury once again in 2014.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.