In the NFL, no matter the position, the one common goal for all personnel departments and head coaches is to achieve depth behind the starters. Not just depth, but the best players they can stack together, because competition breeds success. When athletes, especially football players, are pushed by their peers of equal talent, not only does the cream rise to the top, it also creates a heightened sense of urgency from within to perform at your best on the field, and in the classroom.
While Steven Jackson’s shoes are extremely hard to fill, aligning suitable backups to bring a similar style in case of an emergency, or a change of pace runner with a different style not only helps Jackson, but also can make the new offense of Josh McDaniels more dangerous.
Jackson has ranked as one of the most productive runners in the NFL from the line of scrimmage since 2006. The following chart shows where Jackson ranks among active players. Age is as of the start of the 2011 season.
1. LaDainian Tomlinson (32) 3,099 2001-2010 2 Teams
2. *Fred Taylor (35) 2,534 1998-2010 2 Teams
3.Thomas Jones (33) 2,525 2000-2010 5 Teams
4. *Ricky Williams (34) 2,323 1999-2010 2 Teams
5. *Clinton Portis (30) 2,230 2002-2010 2 Teams
6. Steven Jackson (28) 1,878 2004-2010 Rams
1. LaDainian Tomlinson (32) 13,404 2001-2010 2 Teams
2. *Fred Taylor (354) 11,695 1998-2010 2 Teams
3. Thomas Jones (33) 10,113 2000-2010 5 Teams
4. *Clinton Portis (30) 9,923 2002-2010 2 Teams
5. *Ricky Williams (34) 9,565 1999-2010 2 Teams
6. Steven Jackson (28) 7,948 2004-2010 Rams
1. LaDainian Tomlinson (32) 144 2001-2010 2 Teams
2. *Clinton Portis (30) 75 2002-2010 2 Teams
3. Thomas Jones (33) 68 2000-2010 5 Teams
4. *Fred Taylor (35) 66 1998-2010 2 Teams
5. *Ricky Williams (33) 64 1999-2010 2 Teams
7. Willis McGahee (29) 55 2004-2010 2 Teams
8. Maurice Jones-Drew (26) 54 2006-2010 Jaguars
9. Adrian Peterson (26) 52 2007-2010 Vikings
10. Brandon Jacobs (29) 49 2005-2010 Giants
11. Steven Jackson (28) 47 2004-2010 Rams
Rushing Yards Per Game
1. Chris Johnson (25) 97.8 2008-2010 Titans
2. Adrian Peterson (25) 94.8 2007-2010 Vikings
3. *Clinton Portis (30) 87.8 2002-2010 2 Teams
4. LaDainian Tomlinson (32) 85.9 2001-2010 2 Teams
5. Steven Jackson (28) 79.5 2004-2010 Rams
*Player is currently a free agent
Currently, the player slotted as the No. 2 running back behind Jackson is second-year pro Keith Toston. He is a solid player that had very good production coming into the league from Oklahoma State, where he split time with two other running backs.
When given a chance during the 2010 season, Toston flashed the ability to gain yards between the tackles. An upright slashing type runner, he has no wasted motion while moving north and south, with good pad level and yards after contact finish. He has soft hands and natural receiving skills. While with the Rams last year, I pushed hard for Toston, along with running backs coach Sylvester Croom, because of the level of toughness, competitiveness and production he brings to the table as a runner and receiver.
Toston is receiving most of the reps in the full-contact drills early in training camp, keeping Jackson fresh and injury-free, and he has looked good thus far. There are two other running backs behind him on the depth chart: Chauncey Washington, who has struggled to distinguish or separate himself from the pack and Eddie Wide, a rookie free agent from Utah), who has flashed some quickness with burst, acceleration and change of direction. He has had some mental errors, which is normal for a rookie.
I believe Toston is a mirror image of Kevin Faulk, who has had a good career with the New England Patriots. Toston has that same build, thick frame cut high with large bubble and good toughness with the skill-set to be the No. 2 man behind Jackson.
Here are other running backs that I felt would have been great pickups for the Rams. That would have moved Toston to No. 3 where he could make a living as a third-down back because of his hands and special teams play.
Darren Sproles (San Diego) – The Chargers franchised him last seasons, but after the drafting of Ryan Mathews and the emergence of Mike Tolbert, this jack of all trades and master of a few, was expendable. I thought this would have been a classic fit with the Rams behind Jackson where he could have contributed as a punt and kickoff return man taking some pressure off Danny Amendola. Signed by Saints.
DeAngelo Williams (Carolina) – I helped draft this playmaker. Skill-set, speed and production over the years is good while splitting time with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. The Panthers took him off the market before former head coach John Fox could snatch him up. Re-signed by Panthers.
Ahmad Bradshaw (New York Giants) – Still young in age (25) and not rattled by a list of injuries. I liked his production while in a rotation with two other running backs, which is really unheard of in this era of football. He has size, speed and a competitive running style that would have been inviting to the Rams. Re-signed by Giants.
Ronnie Brown (Miamia) – This aging running back might have some gas remaing in the tank if he landed on the right team. He brings the wildcat option, soft hands and when he and Cadillac Williams both came out of Auburn University, I chose Brown over Williams. Injury history is a major concern for a contract over one year. Signed by Eagles.
Cedric Benson (Cincinnati) – He was not a good fit for the Rams for two reasons: 1. He still wants the No. 1 slot and he is not better than Jackson. 2. Too many off-field issues over the years with a few recent problems that sends a red flag. Re-signed by Bengals.
Tim Hightower (Arizona) – With power back Beanie Wells on the roster, but struggling to stay healthy for a complete season, Hightower’s production against the Rams every year was an attractive piece for me to consider him for the backup position to Jackson. The No. 1 priority for the Cardinals was securing quarterback Kevin Kolb and the rest was secondary. Traded to Redskins.
Jerious Norwood (Atlanta) – Speed, speed, speed if the knee is healthy. Generally a knee injury for a skilled player takes two full years before speed and flexibility returns to the joint and surrounding muscles. He would bring value as a kickoff return man and a third-down back. Career backup with descending production after his rookie season in 2006. Signed by Rams.
Other Notable Free Agents
Cadillac Williams (Tampa Bay) – Presently rumored to be headed to St. Louis. Didn’t look good in several games I watched when evaluating Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. Injury history, mainly major knee issues, would be a no for me. He has lost a step and lateral change of direction and burst to escape.
Mike Bell (Cleveland) – Inconsistent production over his career.
Laurence Maroney (Denver) – Shoulder may be worse than talked about, not to mention too many off-field issues.
Kevin Smith (Detroit) – Long strider has off-field issues and past history of injuries.
Fred Taylor (New England) – A productive runner with a lot of tread off the tires.
Julius Jones (New Orleans) – Change-of-pace back that never lived up to the hype.
Jerome Harrison (Philadelphia) – Best production came on a losing team in Cleveland a few years ago. Might have a chance as a change-of-pace back, would struggle as every-down back because of size. I like his toughness and skill-set.
Brian Westbrook (San Francisco) – Should have retired after leaving the Eagles. Father time is knocking on the door and injury history is too much to over come
Kenneth Darby (St. Louis) – Try-hard player, smart and tough but lacks speed. Rams have seen enough the past few seasons.
Tiki Barber (New York Giants 2006) – Has not played for four NFL seasons; nothing else to say!
Jason Snelling (Atlanta) – A fullback with receiving skill set, pass protection and short-yardage and red-zone production. Playing speed 4.8-4.9 and would not be a good fit for Rams. Media and agent hype pushed his target salary out of range and while a productive player, he still sits on the sideline waiting for a team.
I firmly believe the Rams currently have the No. 2 running back on the roster in Keith Toston. His experience last season and the approach he has brought to the table in training camp thus far has been impressive. He will need to remain consistent and put up some good numbers in the preseason.