For nine years, the running back position in St. Louis has been one of the only things that can be counted on when it comes to Rams football.
Sure, there have been years, many years in fact, where the Rams needed some depth at the position but as far as the top spot on the depth chart, one name has remained constant.
In the era of the timeshare at running back,
Through those nine seasons, Jackson has rewritten franchise record books, staking his claim to nearly every major rushing record in team history and carving out his place in the pantheon of Rams greats.
But as with most things in football, or in sports really, the Rams and Jackson have arrived at a crossroads that will ultimately decide whether or not Jackson is able to finish his career where it started.
With free agency set to begin on March 12, Jackson is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract, a year with a $7 million price tag that the Rams likely wouldn’t have met anyway.
In other words, when free agency begins next Tuesday, Jackson will become a free agent for the first time in his career. And for the first time in his career, the possibility of a departure from St. Louis will materialize.
To this point, both the Rams and Jackson have made it clear they would love to continue their relationship to allow Jackson to retire a Ram. At the NFL Scouting Combine, coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead expressed their admiration for Jackson and re-iterated their desire to have Jackson back in the fold.
For his part, Jackson made it clear when asked multiple times near the end of the season that he liked the direction of the team and would want to remain a Ram.
If only it were that simple. Nine years into his career, Jackson has only been to the playoffs once and he’d like to have a shot at the Super Bowl, a shot he might believe he can get in a place like Atlanta, for example.
In addition, Jackson will likely be the top running back on the free agent market and command a fairly sizable contract.
For Jackson to re-sign in St. Louis, he’d likely have to be willing to play for a salary well below the $7 million figure, perhaps on a two-year deal. Many believe teams like the Falcons or Denver could view Jackson as one of the final pieces to their championship puzzle and be willing to meet the asking price while providing a Super Bowl opportunity.
Should Jackson and the Rams part ways, the need for another running back would likely move way up the list of the team’s offseason priorities. While Pead and Richardson need their touches and chances to prove themselves, it’s likely the Rams would want to replace Jackson’s bruising style with another big, powerful back that can help in pass protection as well.
This year’s free agent market doesn’t appear to provide many solutions to replace Jackson, should he depart. In fact, given the requirements and shelf life of running backs in today’s NFL, you’d be hard pressed to find much of a long term solution at the position anyway.
Beyond Jackson, the top backs on the market figure to include Miami’s Reggie Bush, New York’s Ahmad Bradshaw, Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall and Green Bay’s Cedric Benson.
Bush wouldn’t seem to be a fit as his style is similar to Richardson and Pead. Bradshaw could be of interest depending on the cost since he’s only 26 and has experience in a timeshare. Mendenhall is intriguing but has had injury and off the field issues.
The restricted free agent list provides other alternatives depending on if they receiver tenders that would require compensation. Guys like New Orleans’ Chris Ivory and Tampa’s LeGarrette Blount would seem to be fits in terms of style but it remains to be seen if their current teams will cut them loose.
Most likely, if the Rams and Jackson can’t come to an agreement, the team will not look to free agency for a quick fix. Instead, it would stand to reason they’d be far more inclined to find a powerful back that could step in right away but also serve as a long term solution at the position.
Meanwhile, at fullback, it remains to be seen if the Rams will look to add a true lead blocker back into the mix. The team carried Brit Miller in that position for the first nine games of 2012 but parted ways with him and used tight end
Kendricks could resume that role or the team could potentially look to find a true fullback in free agency or the draft.
1. Steven Jackson, Rams: Will explore his options as he enters his 10th season in the league. Rams want to keep him and he’d like to stay but remains to be seen if those desires will match up in terms of a contract.
2. Reggie Bush, Miami: Had some of his best seasons after going to South Beach. Maybe not an every down back but still capable of producing.
3. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants: Has dealt with injuries but proved to be a talented back when healthy. Has never been more than part of a timeshare but still only 26.
4. Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh: Injuries have kept him from reaching potential showed early in his career. Probably destined for a one-year deal to prove his health.
5. Cedric Benson, Green Bay: Showed he still has some tread on the tires before injuries hit him again. Could be a solid one-year option again for some team.
Restricted Free Agents to Watch: Chris Ivory, New Orleans; Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh; LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay.
Others to Watch: Mike Goodson, Oakland; Rashad Jennings, Jacksonville; LaRod Stephens-Howling; Felix Jones, Dallas; Danny Woodhead, New England; Michael Turner, Atlanta.
Rams Free Agents: Jackson.
1. Jerome Felton, Minnesota: Dynamic lead blocker who opened holes for Adrian Peterson all season.
2. James Casey, Houston: Not a true lead blocker but an excellent athlete who can present a variety of matchup problems.
3. Greg Jones, Jacksonville: At 32, he’s no longer a spring chicken but he takes incredible care of his body and is still productive.
4. David Johnson, Pittsburgh: Talented lead blocker coming off an ACL injury.
5. Quinn Johnson, Tennessee: Has helped open holes for Houston’s tough running game but also has had some inconsistent moments.