Is Steven Jackson Still an Elite NFL Talent?

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Is Steven Jackson Still an Elite NFL Talent?
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

New Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson has a lot in common with tight end Tony Gonzalez, and it has more to do than just sharing the same zip code.

Jackson is hoping to find that the Fountain of Youth Gonzalez seems to have found in Atlanta still has some magical powers left.

At the age of 33, Gonzalez was traded from the cellar-dwelling Kansas City Chiefs to the Falcons, a franchise on the rise with a new general manager, head coach and quarterback the season prior. Gonzalez’s numbers didn’t fall off as age set in. From age 33 to 36 the tight end flourished.

The last eight seasons for TE Tony Gonzalez

Jackson turned 30 on July 22 and landed in Atlanta after spending nine non-winning seasons in St. Louis with the Rams. Except for one season—his rookie campaign in 2004—he was the Rams’ bell cow, averaging just fewer than 283 carries and 1,183 yards rushing per season since 2005.

Part of the reason Gonzalez’s numbers didn’t fall off in Atlanta is because of the way he treats his body. He eats better than almost everyone in the locker room, works harder and smarter and even has his own line of all-natural sports nutritional supplements.

A new collective bargaining agreement that limits contact in practice and a head coaching philosophy that awards off time to veterans during the season (head coach Mike Smith gives players over the age of 30 Wednesdays off as the grind of the season wears on) didn’t hurt either.

Gonzalez also enjoyed not being the only focal point of the Atlanta offense. The Falcons were led by an emerging Matt Ryan at quarterback, a top receiver in Roddy White and a still-powerful and explosive running back in Michael Turner.

Jackson still has White on the outside, an even-better Ryan, one of the top No. 2 receivers in the game with Julio Jones and Gonzalez to take pressure off him in the running game. No more stacking the box with eight guys and not even trying to hide the fact like the Detroit Lions did in Week 1 of the 2012 season.

Courtesy of NFL.com.

No more sneakily sliding a safety down into the box as soon as the quarterback snaps the football like the Green Bay Packers employed in Week 7 last season.

Courtesy of NFL.com.

If opposing teams stack the box on Jackson, someone named White, Jones or Gonzalez will make the defense pay in single coverage. Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, Jackson faced a stacked box 14.63 percent of the time when the Rams had two receivers on the field. Only eight running backs in the NFL dealt with eight or more in the box more often.

Courtesy Pro Football Focus

But there’s more to Jackson’s future road to success in Atlanta as he ages. It’s not enough that he’ll enjoy one of the best offenses in the NFL. He, like Gonzalez, is one of those players who treats his body like a shrine. In addition to being a workout warrior with barely an ounce of fat on his body, Jackson recently swore off gluten, as Pete Prisco reported for CBS Sports, to aid the natural anti-inflammation process.

Jackson told reporters Monday, after Atlanta’s second padded training-camp session of 2013, he didn’t worry about the typical decline of a running back after the age of 30.

Typically, when you see numbers like that people are throwing out averages, scenarios that people are comfortable with going with because it’s a trend. Like I’ve said before on record, I think each and every generation has a guy that breaks the mold, and I truly believe that I’m that running back for this generation.

A quick look at every 2012 running back separated by age, using Pro Football Reference's “Player Season Finder,” shows that Jackson is going to have to break the mold to keep his numbers up in Atlanta.

Every NFL RB in 2012

As NFL running backs got past the age of 27, numbers declined rapidly. Only San Francisco running back Frank Gore and Jackson last season in St. Louis gained 1,000 or more yards and were older than 27.

The number of carries also plummeted among running backs last season older than 27. And the numbers get scary after 30.

Every NFL RB in 2012

Jackson is definitely a special running back in terms of longevity. Over the last five seasons, he’s carried the ball at least 253 times in every season and averaged 4.13 yards per carry during that span. But his yardage totals have declined in each of the last four seasons.

That trend will likely reverse in 2013.

While Jackson’s number of carries will probably be reduced with the Falcons because there just aren’t enough touches to go around, his role won’t be. Jackson’s reduced role in the run game (although I expect his yards-per-carry average to approach 4.5 in 2013) will be offset by his increased role as a receiver.

Atlanta plans to throw the ball to Jackson frequently, as evident by watching a Falcons training camp session where Ryan works on the screen pass to his new running back often (this didn’t happen when Turner was in Atlanta’s backfield). Jackson caught 38 passes last season and has averaged just over 43 receptions per season over the last five years. He should, at least, reach his five-year average in 2013 and possibly even approach 50 catches.

If Jackson catches 43 passes and stays close to his 8.17-yards-per-catch career average, and if he breaks the 1,000-yard rushing mark, a feat that is likely based on his history, he’ll land in a rare space.

In 2012 only three running backs gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground and 300 through the air: Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller and Baltimore’s Ray Rice. That sounds like elite status.

Jackson likely won’t gain enough rushing yards to land in the top 10 of NFL runners in 2013, but he’ll be close. He will, however, catch enough passes to make him a valuable multipurpose threat on offense. And in Atlanta’s offense with so many weapons, Jackson will look the part of an elite running back.

Even though he’s not supposed to be able to do so at the age of 30.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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