Is This the End of the Trail for Steven Jackson?

Does this 32-year-old back have a chance of being an NFL or fantasy contributor anymore?

We all remember playing the Oregon Trail computer game as kids, right? Most of my generation, at least, has had the experience “back in the good ol’ days,” when you had to make sure to avoid taking the Donner Pass during the winter (because you learned that from history class), figure out the best way to cure snakebites, and learn to mourn and move on when your best friend died of dysentery.

And this was all before I even got “The Talk” from my parents. Childhood was tough for us.

One of the worst choices I can remember having to make was what to leave behind when fording the Snake River. We can recite the process: you had to caulk your wagon so it didn’t leak (mercy on your soul if you didn’t bring caulk), then you had to dump some of your possessions so your wagon could float, if it was overweight.

If your fantasy football team was that wagon, and the Snake River was the 2015 season, would you be carrying Steven Jackson with you or dumping him in the wastelands of Wyoming? After being cut by the Falcons this offseason, can this soon-to-be 32 year old still be a viable NFL or fantasy option, or has he reached the end of his football journey?

Oregon State or Bust

The St. Louis Rams drafted Jackson -- an alumnus of Oregon State University -- at 24th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft at age 20. He found great prosperity and health there, despite many labels of injury-proneness early in his career. Really, he was just working the Oregon Trail backwards -- from the Pacific Northwest back to Missouri. Seriously, I thought long and hard about this analogy, and it connects in so many ways. (You’re welcome.)

Since earning the starting gig for the Rams in 2005, up until his release following the 2012 season, Steven Jackson never had a season with fewer than 12 games played, fewer than 1,200 total yards, or fewer than 230 carries. He was the face of the Rams franchise for nearly a decade. He was never flashy and always seemed to be playing through some ailment, but he averaged more than 14 games played a season and had a yards per carry of at least 4.0 for eight of his nine years with the team. His other year: still 3.8 yards per carry.

Then he joined the Falcons.

In his two seasons with Atlanta, Jackson’s carries dropped from an average of 266 per season to 174. His targets in the passing game dropped from an average of 68 with the Rams to 49 in 2013 and 27 in 2014. His yards per carry plummeted to 3.6 during his Falcons tenure. Jackson went from a plug-and-play workhorse runner to a short-yardage scrap-heap option in the blink of an eye.

But was he used less because his ability has started to drop off, or has his production plummeted because of fewer opportunities and a bad offensive line, as he is claiming? One thing we know for certain: S-Jax is not planning to walk off into the desert and retire, so we’ve got to figure out what to do with this old man in our expeditionary party.


How will we assess the value of our party member? Since we can’t quantify weight allocation properly in fantasy football, we’ll have to rely on our tried-and-true method, called Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a metric that assigns a contextual value to production on the field based on how much a player’s contributions affect his team’s chances of scoring. This better represents what really happens in each game over basic box scores. For instance, a three-yard run up the gut is nice on first-and-ten, but it’s even better on fourth-and-three. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

The table below shows his year-by-year career NEP production and ranks among other backs in terms of Rushing NEP (all NEP gained on rushing plays), Rushing NEP on a per-play basis, and Reception NEP (all NEP gained on successful receptions). Remember, because rushing plays are much less efficient at increasing the probability of scoring than plays involving passing, a low or slightly negative Rushing NEP isn’t necessarily bad.

How has Steven Jackson’s career looked when put under the microscope of NEP?

YearRush NEPRush NEP/PRec NEP
200410.24 (11th)0.08 (11th)9.75 (23rd)
2005-19.55 (44th)-0.08 (38th)23.32 (6th)
200610.05 (15th)0.03 (15th)42.69 (2nd)
2007-15.00 (47th)-0.06 (36th)13.40 (17th)
2008-17.43 (55th)-0.07 (46th)24.05 (7th)
2009-19.68 (57th)-0.06 (37th)7.36 (37th)
2010-26.56 (56th)-0.08 (43rd)17.42 (18th)
2011-0.52 (28th)0.00 (25th)10.19 (29th)
2012-11.46 (41st)-0.04 (29th)20.58 (10th)
2013-12.67 (42nd)-0.08 (43rd)2.67 (42nd)
2014-4.25 (28th)-0.02 (19th)6.98 (33rd)
Average 2004-09-8.56-0.0320.10
Average 2010-14-11.09-0.0411.57

As we can see from the numbers, Jackson has never been a particularly effective rusher throughout his career, his rookie 2004 and his 2006 campaigns being by far the best by Rushing NEP. Since then, he’s been a plodding, churning back in the run game. He’s a “steady Eddie” type who, when you need him to get you one yard will get you three, and when you need him to get you five, he’ll get you three. His efficiency on a per-play basis, however, is much better than his raw Rushing NEP annually; it seems that he’s never as inefficient as his totals suggest, but it’s still not pretty. Oddly, this fairly low rushing efficiency has sustained from the beginning of his career until now; not much has changed with his rushing production except for volume.

Where Jackson’s value on the whole has come from is his reception abilities. Throughout his entire time in the league, he’s ranked outside the top 30 among running backs in Reception NEP just three times, and he’s been a top-25 option seven times in this category. As we can see, however, his contributions by Reception NEP -- his one remaining strength -- have been practically reduced to none by his usage with the Falcons. As recently as 2012, Jackson was 10th among all running backs in Reception NEP.

If we look at his averages between his first six years in the league and his last five, however, we do see some contrast. His Rushing NEP -- both raw and on a per-play basis -- has dropped off to an extent, and his Reception NEP value has been nearly halved. To my mind, though, this kind of decline is to be expected for a back between the ages of 20-25 and 26-31.

Well Met, Valley

So, do we float him or do we leave him? Jackson’s had a fairly consistent career arc when it comes to his production by Total NEP during these 11 years. In my article yesterday, I discussed running back production over the course of a career, and Jackson’s falls into a fairly typical pattern: he had a very good early career from Year 1 to Year 3, then Year 4 saw a sharp drop-off for him which sustained into Year 5, and then he had another drop from Years 6 to 7.

What differs slightly for Jackson is that he had a brief resurgence in Years 8 and 9, but on the whole he’s been around the same level of production for the past six years.

I don’t believe he will ever be “the guy” again in a backfield, but I think he still has some NFL value as a solid contributor for a team’s receiving game as well as a rotational back. With that said, he shouldn’t be anywhere near your fantasy teams until we know what his situation going into 2015 is. Could he be a useful RB4 for you? Absolutely, but I might prefer to fill that slot with a player who has more upside.

If you can wait for him, let’s save the old man. If not, send him right back out onto the Oregon Trail; someone will come by to pick him up, I’m sure.