One of the best parts of fantasy football is the overrated/underrated debate that accompanies that prelude to each NFL season. Everyone has their own perception of each player’s value, and no two draft boards are alike. Most often, these sorts of debates ultimately just boil down to personal preferences.
This is not one of those debates.
Steven Jackson is being criminally undervalued in fantasy drafts.
That is a fact.
Jackson’s average draft position is 26.84. That places him late in the third round of most drafts, as a real solid No. 2 back.
I’d certainly love to have Jackson as my third pick and second running back, but the fact that I can actually get him that late in the draft is ridiculous.
Let’s take a look at the six running backs being drafted immediately ahead of Jackson:
That list also doubles as a ranking of running backs that I’d pass on to take Steven Jackson.
Each of those runners would certainly be an asset to any fantasy team, but they each carry sizable risk. They might be a one-year wonder (Hillis and Blount), succumb to yet another injury (McFadden and Gore), not get enough carries (Bradshaw) or just not be any good (Forte).
Other than the widespread perception that Jackson is injury-prone (he has only missed one game during the last two seasons), where exactly is the risk with him?
Based on his career track record, the floor for Jackson’s 2011 production is 300 carries, 1,200 yards and six touchdowns.
For some perspective, only five backs delivered those numbers last season: Jackson, Arian Foster, Michael Turner, Chris Johnson and Rashard Mendenhall.
The other four players are all sure-fire first rounders this year. Why shouldn’t Jackson be in that conversation?
Jackson posted a career-low yards-per-carry average of just 3.8 in 2011, perhaps that’s the problem.
While it’s disconcerting to spend a high pick on a back who wasn’t able to crack 4.0 YPC last season, that stat alone doesn’t tell the whole story.
Examining his season on a per-game basis rather than a per-carry basis leads to a much better illustration of Jackson’s true production.
In 2010, he averaged just over 77 yards per game—good for ninth among all NFL backs.
In a league littered with backfield timeshares, Jackson is an outlier, an every down runner. He's the rarest and most valuable commodity in fantasy football.
The Rams did bring in Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams to fill out the depth chart, but neither player has the talent or durability to pose any serious threat to Steven Jackson’s job. On top of that, neither backup is a particularly talented short-yardage runner, which limits the possibility of vultured touchdowns.
Unless Jackson suffers a catastrophic injury, which is always a possibility in the NFL, there’s no reason to think that he won’t deliver a solid season.
So if he’s not falling because he’s risky, he must be falling because of a lack of upside, right?
I don’t see it.
The idea of upside is most often linked to youth. Jackson, at 28, would seem to be past the point of a talent growth spurt. But simply looking at a player's age really isn’t the best way to determine potential.
Upside is the intersection of talent and opportunity.
There’s no denying that Jackson certainly has the talent and it looks like 2011 will provide him every opportunity to enjoy a career year.
The Rams offense was nothing special last year, but all of the pieces are in place for a big improvement. With a corps of healthy receivers at his disposal, Sam Bradford will almost certainly lead a passing attack that can actually take some pressure off of Jackson.
The defenses in the NFC West are certainly nothing scary. If anything, each divisional opponent got worse on defense during the abbreviated offseason.
Arizona traded away their best corner (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), which won’t directly impact their run defense, but could have a ripple effect across the entire unit. Seattle cut ties with their middle linebacker (Lofa Tatupu) and haven’t replaced him. San Francisco, which actually had a very good run defense in 2010, let their best defensive lineman (Aubrayo Franklin) walk out the door.
It seems that these circumstances are conspiring in Jackson’s favor.
Steven Jackson is a proven superstar in his athletic prime. He has consistently delivered excellent numbers since he entered the NFL. He plays on a good offense, in a division filled with bad defense.
Grab him in the second round of your draft, and thank me later.