ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 18: Steven Jackson #39 of the St. Louis Rams eludes a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals at the Edward Jones Dome on December 18, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Bengals beat the Rams 20-13. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
The St. Louis Rams will have to replace their running back soon. They'll have to deal with the decreasing role the position plays in an NFL offense while they're at it. Where does this leave Steven Jackson and Trent Richardson?
It's the big 2012 NFL Mock Draft question of the moment: Will the St. Louis Rams select Trent Richardson at No. 6 overall, if they get the chance? Steven Jackson is 29, and—terrifyingly enough—this is considered very old among starting running backs. The Rams have other needs, but Richardson is a top rushing prospect and there's a large subset of fans who'd rather see Jackson supplemented a year too early than a year too late.
Lost in all these questions was a strong bounceback season from Steven Jackson. A year after setting a career low in yards per carry with 3.8 Jackson was back up to 4.4, averaging nearly as many yards per game on three fewer carries per game than he did in 2010.
The message seems clear enough, to me: Whatever his stated desire remains, Steven Jackson shouldn't be an every-carry back anymore. Even with his reduced workload, Jackson was 10th in the NFL in rushing attempts in 2011, in only 15 games. Carries are down everywhere, except Jacksonville; what it means to be Steven Jackson, starting runningback in 2012 is just different than what it meant in 2007.
All of this might sound like it points to Trent Richardson as the Rams' third-generation star running back, but I see the opposite pattern forming. In 2006 it took 19 carries a game to finish in the Top 10 in the NFL. In 2011 it took 16. Individual running backs are less important now than they've ever been, and with the NFL moving toward safer, more exciting, higher-reward passing offenses—and teams becoming more aware than every of the risk of concussions and ineffectiveness as workloads increase—they're only going to become less valuable in the future.
For some teams, the chance to get a fresh pair of legs into their rushing platoon will still be worth a first-round pick. Running backs offer the potential for immediate reward; they peak the day they arrive in the NFL, and at 22 they're more likely to survive a 300-carry workload than they will be at 27. They're the perfect infusion of talent for a team that already has some to work with.
A team in the second half of the first round—a nine or 10-game winner—with a hole at the position could do much worse than trading up and drafting Trent Richardson instead of the nearest project quarterback or slow-developing wide receiver, if they want to be 10 or 11-game winners next year.
As for the St. Louis Rams—last year Steven Jackson carried the ball 260 times for 4.4 yards per carry. They lost 14 games anyway. They'll need a running back to spell Jackson again next year, but they'd be foolish to spend their first-rounder to get him.