The long-awaited debut for the rookie, who hasn't played football in nearly two years, resulted in a solid 18 rushes for 73 yards, equating to a 4.1 yards per carry average. Following one of their poorest rushing efforts of the year against the Falcons, Starks may be the stretch run answer for a struggling running game.
At the very least, it seems he'll be another productive rookie in a group that has been a major factor in allowing the Packers to remain competitive during a season wrought with injuries to veterans.
Back in training camp, I wrote about these rookies and their progress anticipating most to be role players at best. No one could have anticipated the Packers being devastated by injury and many rookies being forced into action.
Usually people will say it takes three years to evaluate a draft class (including the undrafted-rookie free agents). Well, it appears we can come to the solid conclusion that this is a good group without the benefit of even one complete season.
Lets run down the rookie class and what they have done.
Which Rookie Has Been Most Impressive?
First-Round Pick OT Bryan Bulaga
It wasn't a huge surprise that Bulaga would play a lot this year with two aging tackles with plenty of injury history. Bulaga has started eight of 12 games this year and has been steady filling in for veteran RT Mark Tauscher. Having Bulaga in the lineup doesn't appear to limit what the Packers want to do on offense.
Second-Round Pick DE Mike Neal
Neal was slowed late in preseason by an injury. All accounts indicated Neal was NFL-ready, and in limited action he showed plenty of ability before being placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury just a few weeks into the season. Otherwise Neal looks to be a quality defensive lineman for the future.
Third-Round Pick S Morgan Burnett
While veteran Atari Bigby stayed away from Green Bay in the offseason, Burnett was penciled in as the starter. Burnett ultimately ended up on season-ending injured reserve like Neal. But also like Neal, he appeared to be a solid player and assuming a full recovery, seems he will have a productive career in Green Bay.
Fifth-Round Pick TE Andrew Quarless
Quarless wasn't expected to do much behind emerging star Jermichael Finley. An injury in Week 5 to Finley meant Quarless would now be pressed into action. Quarless has had some up and down moments, but with similar speed and size to Finley, he seems further along as a rookie than Finley did.
At the very least, he still gives the Packers some threat from the TE position helping the rest of the passing game. Having Finley and Quarless on the field at the same time appears to be an interesting concept for the future.
Fifth-Round Pick G Marshall Newhouse
Newhouse has quietly held down a roster spot as a backup lineman all year. No news is good news as we can hope Newhouse is able to learn for a year and possibly compete for a starting spot next year.
Sixth-Round Pick RB James Starks
As already mentioned, Starks saw his first action this past week. Between Ryan Grant's injury and a lackluster running game, it was a highly anticipated debut for a sixth-round pick. We'll see if Starks is a viable option at RB as the season winds down. But after a two-year layoff, you cannot help but be encouraged by his contribution Sunday.
Seventh-Round Pick DE C.J. Wilson
Several injuries to the defensive line have forced this seventh-round pick to move from practice squad to depth player in 2010. Wilson had probably his best game in Week 7 playing most of the game against Minnesota. A recent calf injury to veteran Cullen Jenkins will mean more snaps down the stretch for Wilson, who hasn't hurt the defense with his play.
Ted Thompson may have done his best work in acquiring CB Sam Shields and LB Frank Zombo as undrafted rookies.
Shields has been the nickel corner all year and his solid play likely was a huge factor in releasing veteran Al Harris. Shields has also recently been asked to return kicks and seems on the brink of breaking a big one. He has only one interception but hasn't had any glaring mistakes in the secondary and very few penalties.
Zombo may have had longer odds to make the roster than Shields. But injuries again have provided an opportunity. In making seven starts and seeing action in other games, Zombo has four sacks, 36 combined total tackles and two forced fumbles. He's missed a few plays but otherwise has been very productive considering where he started.
As the 8-4 Packers prepare for a tough stretch run in the final four games of the season, and hopefully land a playoff birth, it seems fair to say their success is largely due to these rookies being able to step up. None of these rookies have shown themselves to be a major drop off compared to the veterans they replaced.
Two final thoughts as virtually every game becomes a playoff game at this point:
Will any of these players hit the proverbial "rookie wall" as the number of games now goes beyond the college season?
And will James Starks become the primary back to carry the running game into this crucial stretch?
This is shaping up to be one of the more exciting conclusions to an NFL season that I can remember with so many teams with good records competing for the 12 playoff spots and no clear front runner yet.
We'll see if these rookies continue their solid play, or if they have any breakdowns as the pressure continues to rise. At any rate, it seems the Packers have some good young players for the future gaining invaluable experience as a silver lining to this injury-plagued season.