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What Can We Expect from Steven Jackson?

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Steven Jackson is one of the older running backs in the NFL and has endured a lot of wear and tear over the years. Does he have much left in the tank?

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Read one of Steven Jackson's blog posts or listen to any of his interviews, and it becomes clear the veteran is a confident individual. And why shouldn't he be confident? His 10,733 career rushing yards are tops among active NFL players and rank 19th in the history of the league. Of those ahead of him on the all-time list, 14 are in the Hall of Fame, and two more (LaDainian Tomlinson, Jerome Bettis) will be inducted at some point.

This information should be enough to one day immortalize Jackson in Canton, Ohio, but it also gives us reason to be concerned about his future in Atlanta. Those reps, those yards, those collisions -- they came at a price.

Jackson, who amassed his 2,565th NFL carry on Sunday, has endured an incredible amount of wear and tear since going pro. Undoubtedly, Father Time and the sport have done permanent damage to his body, as they have done to so many.

Running backs who have carried heavy workloads tend to hit a "brick wall" in their early 30's -- see: Holmes, Priest; Alexander, Shaun; Johnson, Chris; Turner, Michael -- and some believe Jackson is about to make that proverbial crash.

Among those is Football Outsider's Vincent Verhei.

Verhei and his cohorts put together extremely useful Similarity Scores at FO, which help us predict outcomes based on historical data from comparable players. According to Verhei, the 10 RBs who were most similar to Steven Jackson over the last three years are as follows:

  • Mike Pruitt, 1982-84 (prorating the 82 strike year stats to a full season)
  • Jamal Lewis, 2007-09
  • Edgerrin James, 2006-08
  • Antowain Smith, 2001-03
  • Thurman Thomas, 1995-97
  • Franco Harris, 1978-80
  • Roger Craig, 1988-90
  • Garrison Hearst, 2001-03
  • Kevin Mack, 1990-92
  • Tony Dorsett, 1984-86

Says Verhei:

That list includes a lot of great names -- at the exact moment they stopped being great. These 10 running backs, one year later (so Pruitt in 85, Lewis in 10, Smith in 04, etc.) averaged just 355 yards rushing. Only one went over 600 yards: Harris had 987 yards in 1981, and then two more productive seasons. He had 604 yards in the strike year of 1982 (which works out to 1,074 over a full season) and 1,007 in 1983. Otherwise, though, none of these ten were ever particularly effective again.

This analysis paints a grim picture for Jackson, though it's hardly surprising Verhei reached such a conclusion: Jackson struggled last season, and his decline has followed a similar path as many workhorses before him.

Additionally, there's little evidence to suggest Jackson is due for a big revival. NFL running backs usually begin sharp, irreversible declines in their mid-20's, as seen in the Pro Football Focus graph below:

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This would be worrisome if the Falcons didn't have so much depth at the RB position. While none of Antone Smith, JacQuizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman are capable of being feature backs -- at least not yet, in Freeman's case -- they, along with Jackson, can collectively produce a lot of offense on the ground.

This was apparent in last Sunday's victory over the Saints, when the Falcons' quartet all made positive contributions. Jackson, who received 12 carries, racked up 52 yards for a 4.3 average. Rodgers rushed for 34 yards and found the end zone, Smith had a 54-yard TD catch and Freeman gained 33 total yards on two runs and two receptions. Not bad.

Jackson probably can't keep that pace if used in a traditional starting role, but there's a good chance he can stay above 4.0 YPC while sharing the ball. This strategy, which is rather unconventional in this day and age, may be the best course of action for the Falcons. Not only can Atlanta give its talented backups some well-deserved opportunities, it can keep the eldest RB fresh, as well.

In this writer's opinion, it's reasonable to expect Jackson to earn somewhere between 550-750 rushing yards this year -- as long as the injury bug is avoided. This estimate puts him ahead of most of the aforementioned comparables, but these numbers feel right: he remains in tremendous shape, the offensive line is much-improved and he has a great supporting cast in the backfield. The Falcons' lethal passing game doesn't hurt, either.

What kind of stats do you think Jackson will put up in 2014?