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Should Steven Jackson be the NFL's Highest Paid Running Back?

In recent years, Steven Jackson has been the meat, the potatoes, and…well…pretty much everything on the plate except for the garnish on top of the Rams’ sizzling filet. He has had a considerable number of carries in that time, and is likely once again expected to grind and cut through defenses at least twenty times per game this year.

Not many teams employ the "workhorse running back" method and have moved towards running backs by committee. Some workhorse running backs have stuck around for years in committees, while others serve as mediocre backups, and yet others fall off the face of the earth in terms of production. Running backs simply do not carry the ball as much anymore, and even the new breed of "workhorse backs," like the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, don’t touch the ball like the older guys used to.

In 2009, it seemed as if the last of the workhorse running backs were finally dying off, and the ones that were still around were pushed into committees (Larry Johnson) or were skeletons of their former selves (LaDainian Tomlinson). The one exception? Steven Jackson.

Steven Jackson has been through a lot, but is hitting what could be the peak of his career, before he begins the precipitous fall that almost inevitably happens to running backs at age 30. My question to you: how good ishe? He is the top paid running back in the league (unless Chris Johnson gets his dream payday) but is he really worth the top salary?

Argument against:

Jackson has some mileage on him right now. While he doesn’t have the 3,000+ touches of LaDainian Tomlinson, he has touched the ball over 1,800 times, much greater than many players in the NFL. Additionally, he has suffered several injuries in recent years, playing only 12 games in 2007 and 2008. The latest injury to his spine could possibly be a chronic injury that threatens his ability to play professional football, especially at the level he has played in the past.

Additionally, he averages 4.4 yards per carry over his career, and his YPC was showing a trend of diminishing until this year. His YPC is still very good, but does very good warrant the highest contract in the NFL? Probably not. Proven veterans like Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner (despite his injuries last year) have a 4.9 YPC average for their careers.

I won’t say it is his fault that he didn’t score (the Rams didn’t give him many red zone opportunities anyway), but the biggest issue I have with him is that his numbers are certainly inflated. We can look at 2009, yet another futile year for the Rams, as a good example. Jackson was pretty terrible in the red zone. He had a 2.5 YPC average within the enemy’s territory. Additionally, his yards per carry were higher in the second half of games. This is after the Rams were already 14 points down in most cases. To highlight this, Jackson’s YPC in the 1st quarter were, on average, 3.7 while in the second half, they were almost 4.5. Therefore many of his yards came in the second half, once we already were hoping for a mercy rule.

Argument for:

Are you kidding me? This guy has raked in the yards by the hundreds on one of the worst teams in the league. For the past five years, facing stacked boxes, fighting through injuries, and providing leadership to his entire team, he has led the Rams. He also provides a focus of attention for the defense, enhancing our passing game (oh wait, we don’t have one). With a solid line, he will be the key to giving comfort to Sam Bradford in the future.

Admittedly, Jackson is somewhat injury-prone. This may be a result of the constant pressure he faces, however. Give him a good backup and you’re set. Surprisingly, in those two years that he missed 4 games apiece, he still broke the 1,000 yard mark.

In case you didn’t know it, he just set a career high in 2009 for runs of 20+ yards, with 10 runs. Certainly not bad, especially when he averaged about 22 touches per game. He is only getting MORE explosive.

The thing that differentiates him from many other running backs is that he only fumbled twice last year. That is TWICE, in 324 attempts. That is one fumble every 162 rushes. Ask Adrian Peterson or Steve Slaton how much they’d pay for those hands.

His career yards per carry are pretty amazing considering he has been significantly injured three seasons in a row. The guy doesn’t slow down, with a 4.4YPC average for carries 1-10, 11-20, and 21-30. Additionally, while his 4th quarter YPC is lower than his average, (1) it is not bad and (2) that was only in games where he was losing badly. When the Rams were down by seven or less in the 4th quarter, his YPC was 4.9. When the games are close he performs better. If ahead by 8 or less points, his YPC was 5.4, if behind by 8 or less points, his YPC was 4.4. That’s what you want in a player.

Jackson is only getting better in my opinion. Every other quality running back in the league has other threats on his team. Chris Johnson had a mobile Vince Young last year, Adrian Peterson has an army of quality wide receivers, a Pro-Bowl QB, and a Pro-Bowl line, Michael Turner has young, explosive players around him. Obviously Jackson’s touchdown count is deceiving, since he faces stacked boxes every down and the Rams’ impotent offense gets in the red zone about every time Haley’s comet passes. If we get some free agent to back him up, and his body doesn’t act up too much, I strongly believe his next year can be better than his 2006, 2300+ yard performance. Here's to optimism!

Best running back in the league? Let me hear your thoughts.