Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
St. Louis Rams halfback Steven Jackson belongs to a unique fraternity in professional football. The three-time Pro Bowler has produced seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, a feat that even the great Walter Payton and Marshall Faulk never accomplished.
It remains to be seen whether Jackson can break Emmitt Smith's record of 11 straight 1,000-yard campaigns, but even if he doesn't, it's been quite a run for the former Oregon State star. Only seven active running backs have crossed the goal line more often than Jackson since 2004 (52 rushing scores in 115 games) and none has rushed for as many yards as him (9,093 yards).
Jackson has been one of football's most reliable and enduring sources of fantasy success over the past decade. Yet heading into this season, the fanfare that used to surround the Rams' all-time rushing yards leader seems to have disappeared.
Jackson appears at No. 25 on Fox's player rater while Jamey Eisenberg from CBS Sports has him at 22 in his preseason rankings. Both Fox and CBS have 10 running backs slotted ahead of Jackson, including injury-prone Darren McFadden of the Oakland Raiders and unproven Dallas Cowboys back DeMarco Murray.
Jackson's fantasy prospects heading into 2012 have been met by a cloud of doubt. But is the doubt warranted?
I think it is. That doesn't mean I expect Jackson to tank this season. I'm just saying that all the warning signs are there.
There's a reason most running backs only last in the NFL for a few seasons: they take a beating. Shaun Alexander and Terrell Davis both won MVP awards during their time in the NFL. Neither one lasted more than eight seasons in the league.
With 2,138 career carries under his belt, Jackson has about as much wear and tear on him as any runner in the sport. Only Atlanta's Michael Turner, Tennessee's Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings have taken more handoffs than Jackson since 2008 (1,167 carries in 58 games).
This will be Jackson's ninth season in the league and, unfortunately, there's a precedent for decline at that stage in a running back's career. LaDainian Tomlinson collected 1,110 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns with the San Diego Chargers in his eighth season back in 2007. The following year, Tomlinson's yardage total slipped to 730 and his yards per carry dropped from 3.8 to 3.3.
Jamal Lewis, one of just six players in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, experienced a similar decrease in productivity in his ninth year in the league. As a Cleveland Brown in 2008, Lewis tallied a modest 1,002 yards on 279 carries. The next year, Lewis was limited to 500 yards on just 3.5 yards per carry, his lowest average in four years. Lewis scored four times the previous year but he didn't find the end zone once in 2009.
Age has always been a running back's worst enemy. But a strong set of blockers who can open up holes and shield runners from big hits can make things a lot easier for an aging back. Unfortunately for Jackson, the Rams have one of the weakest offensive lines in football. Last season they allowed a league-worst 55 quarterback sacks. For Jackson, there will be no rest for the weary in 2012.
Part of the reason Jackson stayed afloat in fantasy last season was because of the Rams' dormant passing game. With quarterback Sam Bradford sidelined half the season with an ankle injury, St. Louis produced the third-fewest passing yards (2,870) in the NFL. When struggling journeymen A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens were under center last season, Jackson wasn't just the team's best option on offense: he was their only option.
This year, the 2010 Rookie of the Year Bradford is healthy again and I'm sure he'll be eager to resurrect the St. Louis passing game after a lackluster 2011. That could mean fewer carries for Jackson and hence fewer opportunities for him to contribute in fantasy.
There will be many obstacles standing in the way of Jackson's road to fantasy success this season. It may seem like a tall mountain to climb, but, remember, Jackson hasn't gotten to where he is today without overcoming some challenges along the way. That's why I believe Jackson will still be fairly effective in 2012.
Jackson has taken a lot of punishment over the last decade, but at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he's also better at absorbing hits than many of the shorter, sleeker backs we see in the NFL nowadays. Even at age 28 last season, the muscular halfback ran for 1,145 yards. I'm guessing Jackson's impressive physique had a lot to do with that.
Speed is the first thing to go when a runner gets older. Luckily for Jackson, his game isn't built on speed. Even in his prime, he only ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash, which is fast but it's nowhere near as quick as Chris Johnson and some of the league's other lightning-quick halfbacks. Jackson is more of a cerebral runner who waits for his holes to open up before dominating opponents with his superior size.
Smart, strong runners like Jackson tend to be successful for a much longer period of time than backs who rely heavily on speed. Johnson, who is 5-11 and weighs only 190 pounds, is already on the decline as he enters his fifth season of pro football. After blowing up for 2,006 yards in 2009, the 26-year- old finished with only 1,047 yards last year.
Jackson is also excellent at protecting the football (one lost fumble in his last two seasons), another reason why he will continue to be an asset to fantasy owners next season.
The cloud of doubt remains, but I think Jackson still has a few more sunny days to look forward to in 2012.