Before we go down the road of thinking that this is a dumb premise for an article I want to say that I want Steven Jackson to continue to be one of the top five running backs in the NFL for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to run Jackson out of St. Louis nor do I wish any harm for him. Now, with all that being said I believe that the Rams owe it to themselves to not rule out the possibility of selecting a running back with their first pick in the NFL Draft and more importantly to position themselves for the future without Steven Jackson, because I believe it is coming faster then a lot of people want to acknowledge.
The Rams obviously have a ton of holes to fill on their roster. The wide receiver position is a mess. They don’t have any significant players playing the outside linebacker position. They could use another defensive tackle. They could use a guard. So clearly there is plenty of positional selections they could make with the 14thpick overall. What I believe though is that they would not be out of line in selecting a running back with that pick IF they grade someone that highly and that player is significantly better than some of the players in their need positions.
Here is the reason why. Traditionally running backs break down right at or near 30. It is not in every case, but that is the traditional barometer for when a running back can’t carry the whole load like he used to. Steven Jackson will be 28 years old when they kick off the 2011 season meaning we are getting close to that number.
Just because Jackson is turning 28 is not the main reason though. It is not only Jackson’s age that is becoming an issue, but the fact that he has had a HUGE workload during his time in St. Louis. Jackson was 2nd in the league in touches in 2006, 2009 and 2010. In addition he would have been among the top 5 in the league in touches in 2007 and 2008 had he not been hampered by injuries during those seasons. The fact is Jackson has a ton of miles on him and he is not going to be getting healthier as he gets older. The cold hard reality is that Jackson will start breaking down soon. Whether it is in 2011, 2012 or 2013 should not matter for the Rams. It is coming.
So what could the Rams do? I think we all assume that Kenneth Darby is not the ideal number two running back for this team. Darby is a good guy to have on the roster, but is not going to relieve Jackson at anywhere near his level of play. Then you really have two options this off-season, find a free agent to fill the gap for the next couple of seasons or draft for the future.
The Rams have tried to find that free agent stop-gap type of free agent running back the past few seasons but have not succeeded for various reasons. Realistically though it was not as high of a priority as some of the other issues. Now that the program has advanced to the stage where you are becoming a near playoff team the priorities can change.
The other option is to go the draft route. It appears in this year’s draft that Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, will be the top running back selected in the 2011 NFL Draft. If the Rams test him out and grade him out as a top 5 caliber pick and he winds up falling to them at #14 then they should pull the trigger.
If they believe that Ingram is a running back who will be an All-Pro for them and will be a type of back who can touch the ball 30 times a game then it would be in the Rams best interest to select him and have him in the stable for the inevitable time that Jackson begins to wear down not to mention to take some of the workload off of Jackson.
It is not as if this is unprecedented. The Indianapolis Colts did this when Marshall Faulk was entering his prime with the team. Faulk was unhappy and they feared that Faulk was going to diminish. Faulk didn’t diminish that quickly, as we know, but they did select Edgerrin James who was a dominant running back for many years with the Colts to keep the franchise moving forward. The Colts were proactive and continued to have success while making sure to keep focusing forward.
It has been no secret that Steven Jackson does not like to hear talk like this. He wants to be the guy and he has no interest in having another running back taking away touches. While that is to be admired, it is not in the best interest of Jackson or the Rams to continue doing business this way. They both need to maximize what is left of his career and to blow away whatever amount of touches he might have left in two seasons instead of being able to use him for the next five or six seems short sighted.
The Rams have always been deferential to Jackson on this subject and when you are the team’s heart and soul, not to mention their only star, you get that sort of treatment. The Rams cannot fear Jackson’s ego going into the 2011 season. If Ingram is that sort of guy then the Rams have to do what is right for the player and the team.
It would be a move that would probably shock a lot of people and probably not make Jackson happy immediately, but if the Rams did draft a running back of that supposed caliber then it would be what a responsible organization would do. As hard as this is to believe it might be more important to have security behind Steven Jackson then it is to get the second or third best wide receiver in the Draft. Losing Jackson and having no viable backup ends your season. Not having a number one quality receiver might only mean you lose in the first round of the playoffs.
The Rams are playing with fire by not fixing the Jackson situation. At the very least this has to be one of the highest needs in the off-season.
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