Top 15 fallout: Why Gore, but no Jackson

The third in a series of items examining what Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. was thinking when he ranked the NFC West's 15 best players recently.

Not long ago, Frank Gore and Steven Jackson would have ranked among the top five players in the division by any measure.

Gore vs. Jackson

Williamson ranked Gore only 13th in his Top 15 analysis. Jackson missed the cut entirely. Both are getting a bit older by running back standards. Injuries have slowed them recently. But Jackson is slightly younger than Gore. Jackson has played more games than Gore over the past two seasons. Jackson has more rushing yards than Gore over the past three seasons.

Shouldn't Jackson rank higher than Gore based on these key factors?

Perhaps. While Jackson missed the Top 15 cut, he did not miss it by much. Williamson had Jackson 16th on an expanded, unpublished list he put together before narrowing the field to 15. Ranking Gore 13th and Jackson 16th suggests Williamson views them similarly. And he did express fears that Gore was declining.

Still, it's fair to ask why Jackson wouldn't rank higher. Gore was the one, after all, who finished last season on injured reserve after suffering a broken hip. Jackson's injuries generally haven't kept him off the field.

The way St. Louis and San Francisco proceeded in the 2011 draft helps explain Williamson's rationale. The Rams did not draft a complementary back to take pressure off Jackson. The 49ers used a fourth-round choice for Oklahoma State running back Kendall Hunter.

"Hunter could pay huge dividends for Gore and the San Francisco offense if it helps to keep the star back fresh for an entire season," Williamson wrote.

Gore's production as a receiver also factored into Williamson's thinking. Gore matched Jackson in receptions with 46 last season despite playing five fewer games. Williamson also pointed to a young, emerging offensive line as another factor that should help Gore in the future.

The Rams have also invested heavily in their offensive front, but Jackson averaged only 3.8 yards per attempt last season, easily the lowest average of his career.

Free agency will give the Rams another opportunity to find backfield relief for Jackson. His prospects could change if St. Louis finds legitimate help for him.