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Thursday, August 13, 2009
Top-five upside, midround risk

By Ken Daube
Special to ESPN.com

32 Questions

Is Steven Jackson too risky to be picked in the top five?

It's hard not to be seduced by the memories of Steven Jackson circa 2006. With 2,334 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns, Jackson was nothing short of an absolute fantasy terror that season. Since then, Jackson has remained a fantasy force when he has been healthy, but at what point is it officially time to label him injury-prone? Consider this: During each of the past two seasons, Jackson has missed four games as a result of injuries. Meanwhile, Brian Westbrook, the poster child for the weekly injury report, has missed only four games over the past three seasons combined. Since they scored within about half a point per game of each other last season and Westbrook generally has been the healthier of the two, does it make sense that Westbrook is falling to the 22nd overall draft slot, while Jackson is being scooped with, on average, the fifth pick? Let's examine.

Marc Bulger
Don't expect the Rams' passing attack to take much heat off Jackson. The poor play of the team's offensive line has left Marc Bulger under duress.
According to the Scouts Inc. offensive line rankings, the St. Louis Rams have the NFL's 23rd-ranked line for rushing and 25th-ranked line for passing. These rankings include anticipated improvement as the result of the additions of rookie Jason Smith and veteran Jason Brown. However, one of the main problems for the Rams' line remains the inconsistent play of Alex Barron, and Barron now is being moved to left tackle, quarterback Marc Bulger's blind side. That doesn't exactly bode well for the prospects of an improved passing attack. Of course, the early training-camp loss of Donnie Avery doesn't bode well for the passing attack, either. The Rams are likely to open the season with Laurent Robinson and Keenan Burton as their starting wide receivers. Combined, Robinson and Burton have amassed 661 receiving yards in their NFL careers. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict that opposing defensive coordinators will be bringing an eighth man into the box when they face the Rams.

As our own Chris Mortensen reported earlier this month, new coach Steve Spagnuolo already has indicated that the Rams' offense won't be too different from the smash-mouth style run by Tom Coughlin's Giants. While on the surface, some might view this as a positive for Jackson, it isn't. In 2008, the Rams' quarterbacks targeted their tailbacks on 117 passing plays, while the Giants targeted their backs only 73 times. The news that Jackson will be depended on so much in the run game shouldn't provide a warm, fuzzy feeling for anyone expecting Jackson to be as heavily involved in the passing game as he has been in seasons past. Before anyone complains that Brandon Jacobs and Jackson have completely different skill sets, which drove that difference, check back to 2006, when the Giants had adept pass-catcher Tiki Barber as their primary back in Coughlin's system. They still had far fewer targets for their tailbacks than the Rams compiled last season.

That's two big negatives against Jackson, but the final one is perhaps the most important. In 2008, Jackson scored 175 fantasy points in 12 contests. If you were to prorate that performance over a full 16 games, his revised total would place him as tied for the third best running back in 2008. That's great, but if we are going to do that for Jackson, similar adjustments should be made to other backs as well. If we did that, Jacobs would vault ahead of Jackson based on his per-game averages. Similarly, if we were to adjust Maurice Jones-Drew and Steve Slaton for full seasons as primary backs, they would vault ahead of Jackson as well.

At the end of the day, at pick No. 5, you need to secure an elite back with minimal risk. Jackson's injury risk has been higher than Westbrook's over the past two seasons. His performance wasn't as good as Jacobs' or Slaton's, both of whom are being drafted in the second round. His surrounding cast looks more like a UFL roster than an NFL one. Because of all of these factors, Jackson is entirely too risky to be the No. 5 player off the board.

Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. Check out his ESPN.com fan profile here.