The year was 2004. Blink 182 and Green Day were all the rage. Lance Armstrong became a national hero winning his sixth Tour de France title, and Ken Jennings won the intellectual crowd’s envy earning over $2.5 million on Jeopardy. Mark Zuckerberg’s trendy new website Facebook was gaining steam in pop culture, and the NFL was reeling from Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. It was in this era that Steven Jackson was drafted to the St. Louis Rams in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft.
Fast forward 11 years and the dominant force that was Steven Jackson is fading into the twilight of a prolific career. Jackson has 2,743 professional carries, earning him 11,388 yards and 68 touchdowns in the process. Included in this span is an eight-year stretch of 1,000-plus yard seasons, solidifying Jackson’s space amongst the game’s greats.
What today’s Steven Jackson has lost in athleticism he has made up for in intelligence. Now a tremendous blocker with an exceptional football IQ, Jackson may no longer be one of the best athletes on the field, but he is now one of the more brilliant.
The days of Jackson eclipsing 20 carries in a game are long gone, as is the relative certainty of 100 yards per contest. In 2015, Jackson didn’t post more than 18 carries in a game, and broke the 100-yard barrier just once. The Atlanta Falcons’ running back has seen his yard per carry average drop from his career level of 4.2, to 3.6, and only played 50 percent or more of his team’s snaps three times in 16 appearances.
The veteran rusher’s days as a workhorse back are long gone, raising questions about his worth to the Falcons. Jackson’s 2015 cap hit will come in at $4,916,668, earning him more this season than Mark Ingram, DeMarco Murray, and Justin Forsett made in 2014 combined! Murray, Ingram, and Forsett all had over 950 yards, and a combined cap hit of $4,526,500, where Jackson notched just 707 yards.
Jackson’s financial burden would have been gladly eaten by the Falcons if there were no other options on the roster. However, Atlanta’s fourth-round pick out of Florida State University may make Jackson’s cap too much of a hit for a team in a rebuilding process.
Devonta Freeman is set to make $631,106 in 2015, accounting for just %0.44 of his team’s total cap hit. In comparison, Jackson takes up %4.53 of the team’s total cap. While Freeman certainly has some learning to do as far as blocking schemes are concerned—an area Jackson excels—the former Seminole brings an element to the Falcons’ offense Jackson no longer can: versatility.
Despite a lack of usage in 2015, Freeman’s stats speak volumes about the young rusher’s potential. Freeman carried the ball just 65 times in 2015, but gained 248 yards and a touchdown in the process. Freeman also had a better yard per carry average, 3.8, than Jackson’s 3.6. Where Freeman further widens the gap is in the receiving game. Freeman was targeted 37 times last season, catching 30 passes with only one drop. The significance here is that six of Freeman’s targets were deemed uncatchable by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). On those 30 receptions, Freeman tallied 225 yards and one touchdown earning him a 7.5 yard per catch average.
At just 22 years old, Freeman is locked up until 2017 on a rookie deal and is built like an Olympic athlete . The Falcons’ rookie measured five feet eight inches and weighed 206 pounds, and was clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.58 seconds in last season’s combine.
The Atlanta Falcons have a decision to make: Is Steven Jackson worth it? Is Jackson worth the financial hit to either stand in the way of the team’s future, or serve as a backup? Devonta Freeman’s versatility, speed, youth, and minimal-financial burden make him the best choice to lead the Atlanta Falcons backfield in 2015. A fact signifying that Steven Jackson is expendable.
Just as the Ipod replaced the Walkman, Facebook retired Myspace, and Miley Cyrus transposed the youth music scene from the 1990’s punk-rockers, it is time for Freeman to supplant Jackson in Atlanta.