Steven Jackson is likely to find himself in a familiar position this year, albeit one with the roles reversed. The St. Louis Rams are almost guaranteed to draft a running back next week in the 2012 NFL Draft. That rookie may Alabama's Trent Richardson or one of the other options likely available early in the second round.
In 2004, Jackson was the talented newcomer, selected by the Rams with the 24th pick in the first round of the draft that year. Jackson, a rookie out of Oregon State, joined a team that already had a running back, a pretty good one at that in Marshall Faulk, now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tension marked their relationship.
Jackson described the conflict between the future and the present in a 2011 interview with the Post Dispatch.
"Of course, you saw two great runners," Jackson said. "One toward the end of his career; one starting his career. And I think the friction people may have assumed was there - was competitive spirit. One not really wanting or knowing how to let go; and one not being humble enough to let him go out gracefully."
Asked at Wednesday's mini-camp about the looming possibility of being the veteran super star tasked with grooming his replacement, Jackson drew from his own experience eight seasons ago.
"The Rams are going to do what's best for the Rams," Jackson said. "I understand that. It's a business. All I can do is through my own lessons, replacing another legend, is try to be there for the young guy. If he's receptive, I'll try to help him and do the world for him. If not, he's just got to compete, and I'm not backing down."
Unlike Faulk, Jackson has carried the Rams team mostly by himself in the last five years. Coaches and draft picks floated through, almost anonymously, but Jackson provided desperate fans with a stone foundation to cling to while the rest of the franchise rotted out from the inside.
Now things are, hopefully, different. Next week, the Rams will try to find the next great running back for a team with a long history of rushing royalty.
Jackson is hardly ready to be put out to pasture or see his workload reduced mostly to mentoring.
"I feel that I'm a better running back since I was a rookie," Jackson explained. "I think now I'm at the point where my physicality has not fallen off and now my mental [ability] has really taken leaps and bounds in understanding the game of football, understanding how to work through the long seasons ... As a maturity level, mentally and physically, I'm right there. I feel like I'm in my prime."
Jackson's goal now is to add his name to list of running backs whose careers have lasted into their 30s.
"I set my sights out to accomplish a lot of great things, but nearing the age of 29, you do hear the echoes and the whispers," Jackson said. "Very few people have had success over 30, but I think about guys like Emmitt Smith that played a long time, Marcus Allen, even Thomas Jones recently. So, it's doable. I've just got to make sure that I continue to take care of myself the way I have and continue to believe in myself."
Number 39 had the tone of man renewed, someone who seemed even more excited about football again this year than in years past. And why shouldn't he be? For the first time in a long time, the Rams are an organization focused primarily on the business of football. And Jackson will be part of that turnaround, both on the field and as a veteran presence on the team, someone for the younger players to look up to and see how the game is played.
"When people fall is when they start letting the outside inflict their mentality and their confidence," Jackson said about himself. It will be a good lesson to impart on the next generation too.