When the Atlanta Falcons signed Steven Jackson to a 3 year, 12 million dollar contract prior to last season, it seemed to make perfect sense for all sides. The Falcons were able to move on from Michael Turner following a failed physical in March, and Jackson was finally able to play for a contender. After amassing over 10,000 career rushing yards for the St. Louis Rams, with only one playoff win during his rookie season to show for his efforts, it was clearly time for Jackson to move on.
Jackson looked like a strong candidate to put up massive fantasy numbers in Atlanta. After all, if he could grind out over 1,200 yards from scrimmage a year from 2005-2012 with Marc Bulger (career record: 41-54), Sam Bradford (career record: 18-30), Jaime Martin, Keith Null, Kyle Boller and Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, just imagine what he could do with a QB like Matt Ryan to keep defenses from loading the box.
Sound logic, but from the looks of it, Jackson has become a victim of the curse that seems to sap a RB's speed and power once they hit the age of 30. Since arriving in Atlanta, he's suited up for 15 games out of a possible 19 and has only toted the rock more than 20 times in a game on one occasion. He has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game for the Falcons and 4 of his 7 TDs in a Falcons uniform came in 2 late season games against the Bills and Redskins. The Falcons limped to a 4-12 record as the injury bug bit Atlanta hard, leading to shortened seasons for Jackson, Julio Jones and Roddy White.
Now, the Falcons are at 2-1 and are beginning to look like they've regained the form that led them to within a Harry Douglas slip and fall of reaching the Super Bowl. After losing carries to Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling during the 2013 campaign, Jackson now has Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith breathing down his neck. Freeman was a popular draft and stash player in several leagues this year, as experts have predicted an expanded role for the rookie as the season wears on.
Freeman has already received 18 touches in the first 3 games, producing a mere 74 yards, but has shown a willingness to run between the tackles and also catch passes out of the backfield, an aspect of Jackson's game that has slipped since signing with Atlanta. Meanwhile, Smith embodies the cliche of "players making plays". Drafted in 2010, Smith began to see playing time during the lost 2013 season, delivering 145 rushing yards and 2 TDs on just 5 touches.
Determined to prove this was not a fluke, Smith has become a more regular part of the Falcons' attack this season. Despite only receiving 9 touches over the first 3 games, he has consistently delivered, producing 130 yards and 2 TDs.
So what does this mean going forward?
If you own Steven Jackson and are using him as anything other than an insurance policy in case one of your undisputed top RBs goes down, chances are you're reaching a point of exasperation. At this point in his career, he's good for 10-15 carries, 50 yards and the very occasional TD. Freeman and Smith are clearly the future and Smith's production begs for more playing time.
Those who chose Freeman as a late round sleeper should continue to stash him if they have the roster space. Jackson is not a safe bet to make it through the entire season, which would make Freeman the Falcons' unquestioned feature back. Smith is also a candidate to be stashed, he has the ability to become Atlanta's version of Danny Woodhead or Darren Sproles, a speedster who can make plays on the ground and in the passing game.
Steven Jackson has had a storied career. He is 138 yards away from passing Warrick Dunn for 19th on the NFL's all time rushing list and 170 away from cracking the elusive 11,000 career rushing yards club. However, his best days are behind him and it seems like only a matter of time before Freeman and Smith are the new status quo in the Atlanta backfield.
With the lack of quality running backs available in most fantasy leagues, those who've stashed Freeman or Smith should continue to monitor their progress, while Steven Jackson owners may want to consider giving his roster spot to a younger, more promising player.
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