Steven Jackson inked a three-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons today, confirming one of the worst kept secrets of this year’s free agency cluster hug (edited for general audiences).
The 30-year-old steamroller of a running back never failed to eclipse 1,000 total yards in his final eight years with the St. Louis Rams. He was a rookie, in 2004, the last time he didn’t reach the 1,000-yard mark, and in his time in St. Louis, he played through a brutal laundry list of injuries that helped prove, time and again, that Jackson would walk barefoot through hellfire, soaked in lighter fluid, to get on the field and stay there.
This signing, I think, is the most significant so far for make-believe football reasons. Reggie Bush to Detroit was plenty meaningful, and Wes Welker’s signing with the Broncos has big-time fake football implications, but Jackson in a legit offense – with two All-Pro wide receivers and a Hall of Fame tight end and everything – becomes a bottom-end RB1 in 2013.
Think that’s generous? Consider this: Jackson, in a down 2012 season, finished as the 16th highest scoring running back. He posted the same yards per carry (4.1) as Arian Foster, DeMarco Murray, and fell just short of LeSean McCoy‘s 4.2 YPC average. He did all that in a Rams’ offense that was, at times, breathtakingly terrible.
Jacquizz Rodgers, the running back many thought would take the reigns after Michael Turner’s departure from Atlanta, doesn’t pose a major threat to Jackson’s workload with the Falcons. Rodgers might get his fair share of passing down work, but his career 3.7 yards per carry average is more than enough for us (and Falcons coaches) to dismiss him as a guy who demands 12-15 touches a game. Not even close.
Here’s a stat that should make you tear open your shirt in a fit of Biblical rage: Turner, that fantasy persona non grata to so many owners, saw 51 red zone touches in 2012, while Jackson saw just 27, according to some good old-fashioned research from JJ Zachariason.
Touchdowns are a devil to project, but with even 15 more red zone runs and carries in 2013, Jackson fantasy prospects should activate your salivary glands.
Jackson, for the first time since the Rams had a multitude of offensive threats that kept defenses honest, won’t face the crushing eight-man fronts that have anchored his fantasy value for the past few seasons. With no offensive weapons and a less-than-stellar quarterback in Sam Bradford, Jackson has had to stare down the barrel of eight and nine defenders in the box (near the line of scrimmage) for the better part of four years.
Finally – and mercifully – Jackson will have the luxury of facing defenses who have to account for Roddy White and Julio Jones on the outside, Tony Gonzalez across the middle, and Matt Ryan, who threw for more than 4,700 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. Defenses won’t be able to pile guys near the line of scrimmage, anticipating a Jackson run while receivers are easily accounted for in man coverage. Safeties will have to remain high.
It’s possible that Jackson wouldn’t even recognize this sort of defensive formation.
Jackson represents a giant upgrade from Michael Turner, the King of Plodders. And unlike Turner, Jackson is adept at catching the pigskin, apparent in his six seasons of more than 40 receptions. Rodgers in 2012 was targeted 59 times, catching 53 of those passes for 402 yards and a touchdown. I think it’s fairly safe to project Jackson for more than 30 catches, along with 250 carries (Turner and Rodgers combined for 316 carries last season).
Incorporating the diminished defensive fronts Jackson is destined to face isn’t an easy task when we’re looking toward his 2013 prospects. Jackson, with 260 carries in 2011, finished with 1,145 yards and five touchdowns. He ran for 990 yards last year, on 246 carries, in a dismal Rams offense that failed to eclipse 17 points eight times last season.
Perhaps age and added mileage to those well-worn treads will play a bigger factor than we expect in 2013. Still, a running back who shows up to training camp six pounds lighter than he was the season before – as Jackson did in 2012 – has shown he’s committed, and now, on a team on the precipice of a Super Bowl, Jackson should be more motivated than ever to give the Falcons the only piece they were missing last year: a legitimate running threat.