The St. Louis Rams passed on a clear heir to running back Steven Jackson in the 2011 NFL Draft. It was by far the biggest surprise of the draft for the Rams. They had Mark Ingram high on their board in the first round, but Robert Quinn was the highest ranked player available and too good to pass. In the second round, Mikel Leshoure was a very distinct possibility, sitting considerably higher on their board than TE Lance Kendricks. They didn't even pick up a complementary or backup option in the later rounds. Setting aside the strange draft decisions, the move signals that Steven Jackson is still the man in St. Louis, but it doesn't end questions about his future with the team.
In the days before the draft, Jackson expressed some feelings about sharing carries with a rookie. It was an unusual move for Jackson to be so public with his opinions about the team's potential roster decisions. Even as his role in the offense declined last season and the coaches quit using FB Mike Karney (or any other lead blocker), Jackson made a public issue about the changes.
How exactly Jackson figured into the Rams' decision about running backs is unknowable. His long term future with the team is cloudy too, but the writing's on the wall. The Rams didn't draft a running back, but they'll be spreading the ball out plenty more with the number of targets they'll have the field for any given snap this year.
There's also the little matter of Jackson's contract. He's due $7.2 million this year, and, like I said above, the Rams draft choices virtually guarantee that Jackson will be here this year. However, the last two years on his deal, 2012 & 2013, are voidable if he reaches some key milestones. If Jackson averaged 1,200 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving over the first four years of his deal (this is the last of those first four) he can be a free agent. As we mentioned back in March, Jackson's averaging 1,233 rushing and 361 receiving yards through three years. McDaniels' offense and Jackson's skill as a receiver almost ensure that he'll hit those milestones, if he can stay healthy.
If he voids the final two years of his deal, the Rams will save on the $7 million he's due in salary each of the final two years. It's hard to imagine him staying in St. Louis if that happens, when he'd likely get one more lucrative free agent deal.
Whether they plan to keep Jackson beyond 2011 remains to be seen. Even if they don't, wouldn't that be even more reason to try to find a successor?