Free At Last, Free At Last
A lot of football fans know that Steven Jackson came into the league toward the tail end of the Mike Martz Era, but what they might not remember is that Steven Jackson has NEVER had a winning record as an NFL player. As a rookie (2004), the Rams finished 8-8 and won a division title thanks to the woeful state of the NFC West. Since then, the Rams have gone eight years without a playoff berth.
In Jackson's career, the Rams won 44 regular season games, and lost 100.
Suffice to say he must feel like he's won the lottery having landed in Atlanta with a 3-year, $12 million contract. In five years since Mike Smith became the Falcons head coach and Matt Ryan took over the huddle, the Falcons have won 56 regular season games (averaging 11 wins per season). GM Thomas Dimitroff has built the Falcons into a Super Bowl contender, and decided this offseason that one of the final pieces to the puzzle was a better ground game.
2012 Falcons Team Rushing Rankings
- 378 attempts (26th in NFL)
- 1,397 yards (29th)
- 3.7 yards per attempt (29th)
When your team's defense ranks in the top 5 in points allowed, and your passing offense ranks in the top 5 of points scored, it's fairly easy to zero in on the sorry state of the running game as the reason the Falcons fell short of a Super Bowl berth in spite the NFC's best record.
Michael Turner hit the wall last year, averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per rush. He averaged just 50 rushing yards per game and was unable to make defenders miss or shed tackles. At 30 years old, Turner was released in favor of signing Jackson. The question Falcons fans and fantasy owners need to ask themselves is how much better is Jackson? Let's look at the tail of the tape:
- Age -- Turner is 30 years old, Jackson will be 30 when the season gets underway
- Career Carries -- Turner has 1,639 career carries vs. Jackson's 2,395
- Career Yards per Rush -- Turner averaged 4.5 yards per carry while Jackson chimes in at 4.2 per carry
- Career Receptions -- Turner has just 70 career receptions while Jackson has 407 catches
- Touchdowns -- Turner has 67 career touchdowns versus Jackson's 64
On the surface, it's not entirely clear that Jackson is a major upgrade. Although he's a bit younger, Jackson has endured 50% more carries (and the pounding that comes with it), and Turner has the better career rush average. On the other hand, Jackson averaged 4.2 yards per rush last year -- maintaining his career baseline, while Turner has been on the decline (3.6 as we previously noted). Turner has been the more productive touchdown scorer (double digit TDs in five straight seasons) while Jackson is BY FAR the better receiver.
Digging Under the Surface -- Defining the Upgrade, Part II
Fantasy owners have to dig deeper to realize why Jackson is assuredly a significant upgrade over Michael Turner.
- Trust your eyes -- Jackson hasn't regressed, Turner has -- Watch the film and you'll see that Jackson still has burst, acceleration, and power. Turner went from a game breaker early in his career (he averaged more than 5 yards a carry in San Diego) to a plodder with little ability or will to break tackles.
- Jackson can and will be on the field more frequently -- Turner was only on the field 43% of the time last year, largely because the Falcons avoid using Turner in obvious passing downs. Jackson, on the other hand, was on the field 67% of the snaps last season in no small part because he's an excellent receiver and pass blocker. Jackson should see 10%-15% more snaps as he'll be a 3-down back.
- The Falcons love to throw screens and behind the line of scrimmage -- Atlanta attempted 97 passes behind the line of scrimmage last year, which plays perfectly into the hands of Jackson -- an able receiver and fluid runner after the catch
- Apples to Oranges -- Jackson will have more room to run -- It's unfair to compare Jackson's numbers in St. Louis to Turner's in Atlanta. The Falcons have had a more cohesive, talented offensive line throughout Turner's tenure and have developed a dynamic, potent passing attack. Jackson has routinely been the best player on the field and a steady diet of run blitzes and stacked fronts. Now Jackson will have room to run for the first time in years.
The TD Conundrum
Michael Turner managed to sustain fringe fantasy RB2 value in spite of a massive erosion in skills thanks to his ability to sustain double digit TD production. Meanwhile even in Jackson's best years he's failed to be a truly elite RB1 because of a lack of TD production. The question we can't answer yet is whether Jackson's lack of TD productivity was a byproduct of his supporting cast (or lack thereof) or simply an indication that he lacks the short yardage vision and patience that we know Turner displayed in his prime.
- Michael Turner -- 46 TDs in 111 attempts within the 5-yard line (41.4%)
- Steven Jackson -- 31 TDs in 90 attempts within the 5-yard line (34.4%)
Turner has been more successful, but not by that wide a margin. Where Turner has shined is his number of opportunities. In his five seasons in Atlanta, Turner led the league with 105 rushing attempts at the goal line. If Jackson gets 21 red zone attempts this year (Turner's per season average) and simply maintains his career TD rate of 34.4%, he would equate to 7 rushing touchdowns. Now let's say the improved offensive line, play-calling and supporting cast allow Jackson to improve his TD rate...suddenly he's looking like a very good bet to finish with double digit scores.
- Jackson remains in phenomenal shape, and hasn't shown the signs of deterioration that Turner displayed in recent seasons
- Jackson's abilities as a receiver will allow him to stay on the field for the majority of snaps
- The superior supporting cast in Atlanta will give Jackson more room to run as defenses have to defend against Ryan/Gonzalez/White/Jones and will also provide more trips into the red zone and, therefore, goal line attempts
- Jackson has struggled at the goal line in recent seasons, and if the change of scenery doesn't reverse that trend, it will be difficult for Jackson to live up to the high end RB2 expectations we've set for him
- Although the Falcons appear set to make Jackson the bell cow, Jacquizz Rodgers remains a viable alternative in obvious passing downs
- The Falcons lost two of their long-time starting offensive lineman this offseason (Clabo and McClure) which could be cause to reset our expectations for the line's run blocking proficiency
Steven Jackson will be 30 years old this season, and is arguably past his prime. However, it's hard to argue that Jackson isn't a significant upgrade from Michael Turner (at least the 2012 version of Turner) in every facet of the game. Jackson is a far better receiver, stronger, and has maintained more strength and burst. In the simplest terms, Michael Turner managed to deliver fringe RB2 numbers last year in spite of a significant erosion in his skill set -- now Jackson gets to step into that role only he'll also play the majority of passing downs (something Turner didn't do). Jackson hasn't been on a winning team in his NFL career, and will be motivated to provide Atlanta with the missing piece to the Super Bowl puzzle. If Jackson merely maintains his St. Louis per touch averages in Atlanta, he's going to deliver solid RB2 numbers. Yet, if we make the very logical leap to think Jackson will see his per touch metrics improve thanks to a better supporting cast, he could give fantasy owners a Top 10 fantasy finish. I would happily target Jackson at his current ADP, as an elite fantasy RB2 with RB1 upside.
Thoughts from Around the Web
Kyle Sopp of ProFootballFocus discusses Jackson in his RB Tiers of Joy article:
Steven Jackson – The Falcons, unlike the Bears, will not lack balance at all, as they have arguably the most dangerous receiving duo in all of football. I like the fact that the aging Jackson will be kept fresh, thanks to both the explosive pass game and the emergence of Jacquizz Rodgers. He started his career as an injury prone workhorse (only played all 16 games once in his first six seasons), but he’s been more durable of late (has appeared in 47 of 48 games over the last three seasons). I’m not reaching on Jackson in a keeper format, but he’s got at least one strong season left in the tank and should benefit greatly from changing uniforms.
Jarrett Bell of USA Today says Steven Jackson is not a typical 30-year old RB:
Sure, the Falcons still have issues to address on defense — most notably with a pass-rush that is light on proven performers — but adding Jackson to a key complementary role at 30 is a lot different than asking him to tote the football 25 times per game. Add the NFL's continual evolution into a pass-happy league, less contact in practice and the year-round training that exists in the NFL and, well, 30 might be the new 28 for NFL running backs.