The obvious wall that Michael Turner hit in 2012 was depressing. The chunky plodder was one of fantasy football’s best assets over the last five seasons, but watching him this past season was like seeing your favorite actor appear in a Lifetime movie.
It was sad.
There were zero eyebrows raised when he was released from the Falcons at the beginning of the month, considering his yards per carry average went from a solid 4.5 on over 300 carries in 2011 to a dismal 3.6 on 222 touches in 2012. And while he still tallied eleven scores, including his first career receiving touchdown, Turner’s 30-plus year-old body was clearly not the same. The Falcons had to move on.
They wasted no time in finding a replacement (sorry, Jacquizz Rodgers hopefuls), as Steven Jackson – formerly with the Rams – inked a three-year contract with the team. And although Jackson has endured over 750 more carries than Turner over the course of his career, the signing made sense. The Falcons need to win now, and Jackson can help them do that.
But really, it’s the fantasy impact that really matters to us. And to me, there may be no other free agent signing that altered the fake pigskin lanscape more than this one did.
A Look at Jackson’s Numbers
Steven Jackson isn’t flashy. He’s never been flashy. He’s averaged just 4.2 yards per carry over the course of his nine year career, and, discounting his rookie season, has never rushed for over 4.4 yards per carry in a single season. He’s been consistently solid, showing, statistically, few signs of regression while playing in a mediocre offense.
His fantasy value is multi-dimensional, as Jackson has shown to be a threat catching the ball out of the backfield. Since becoming an NFL full-time starter, Jackson has averaged 48.5 receptions per season. To put that into perspective, Arian Foster has averaged 53 per year since becoming the Texans’ starter.
If there’s been one disappointing statistic on Jackson’s resume, it’d probably be his touchdown production. Though he’s received a multitude of touches in St. Louis, Jackson reached double-digit all-purpose scores in just two seasons and has gotten into the end zone more than six times just three times. Michael Turner, as I mentioned above, scored at least ten touchdowns each season in Atlanta.
And that’s great news for Jackson.
Taking Turner’s Role
It doesn’t take a football guru to see the upside to playing in Atlanta compared to St. Louis. The Falcons offense should certainly bring more opportunity for Steven Jackson, and with more opportunity comes more fantasy potential.
Michael Turner scored a grand total of 60 rushing touchdowns over his five seasons in Atlanta. Over that same time period, Steven Jackson scored just 26. Does that make Michael Turner the better scoring back? Not at all. The main reason Turner was successful at finding the end zone was because he had such an enormous amount of carries in the red zone. Take a look at the chart below comparing the two backs since 2008:
In total, the numbers above reflect 74 games from Jackson and 75 from Turner. The only season in which Turner received less red zone carries than Jackson was in 2009 when Turner played four fewer games. Clearly, Turner’s near-double red zone touches didn’t occur simply because Jackson couldn’t stay on the field. They occurred because the Falcons’ offense created more opportunities for the bruising back.
It shouldn’t be out of this world to think that Jackson can post a touchdown total in the teens in 2013. He’s made a living working within the red zone, scoring 19 of his 26 rushing touchdowns since 2008 within his opponents’ 10 yard-line. That’s 19 touchdowns on 73 total touches from that distance. If he were to obtain that same scoring percentage, 26% (19/73), on a reasonable 35 carries within the opponents’ 10 yard-line, Steven Jackson would already see close to ten touchdowns. And that doesn’t even include longer touchdowns or ones through the air.
That’s also assuming Jackson continues to see the same defenses he did in St. Louis. Given the presence of red zone threats Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White, it’d make sense to believe he won’t. Against Atlanta, opposing defenses must keep the passing game honest. It’s what allowed a 3.6 yards per carry back to score 11 touchdowns in 2012.
Age is the Easy Way Out
Plenty of experts will look at Jackson’s age and conclude that he won’t be fantasy worthy. As I said, he’s seen a lot of touches over the course of his career and will reach the dreaded age of 30 in July. But if there’s a running back who can withstand the torture of hit after hit in multiple NFL games, it’s Jackson.
Known as a gym rat, many have pointed out that his yards per carry averaged dipped to 3.8 during the second half of contests in 2012, making it appear as though he ran out of gas during the tail-end of games. If that’s a metric for wear and tear, then maybe we should rethink drafting Arian Foster in the first round of our fantasy drafts, who finished with a 3.6 yards per carry average in the second half of games in 2012. Or maybe Ray Rice, too, who rushed for just 3.9 yards per carry during the second half of contests last year.
I’m not one to say this, but watch the tape. Jackson’s second half of 2012 saw little regression. In fact, to quote my article on some of the unsung heroes of 2012, Jackson scored no fewer than eight fantasy points in a given week from Weeks 10 to 17 last season. To put that into perspective, he was producing at a Doug Martin or Frank Gore level throughout the second half of 2012.
Rotoworld.com pulled a great quote from NFL Films’ Greg Cosell on Steven Jackson: “He’s still a very, very good player,” said Cosell. “He may not be a guy who you’re gonna give it 280, 300 times anymore … but he’s still got some quickness. You don’t call him a speed back — he’s not that guy — but he still has some ability to get outside. He’s always been a finisher. He’s a guy with natural power. He’s both strong and physical.”
Jackson Could be a Top 10 Back
Jackson should see at least 200 carries in 2013, which is an important number to reach as a fantasy back. There were just 23 200-plus attempt runners in 2012, and 21 of them comprised the top-21 of fantasy running backs. You need touches to be effective, and given Atlanta’s investment in Jackson, we should assume a healthy Number 39 means a hefty amount of carries.
As Cosell said, he may not get 300, but he doesn’t need 300 to be a top fantasy back. The diminishing Michael Turner received 222 last season and still finished as the 17th best running back option. Not only does Jackson look more promising at this point in his career, but he’s a massive threat in the passing game.
Couldn’t we consider Turner’s 2012 Steven Jackson’s floor?
When we select early round draft choices, we look for players who don’t bust. We have a generous sample size of Jackson’s play, and he’s motivated on a Super Bowl contender who should, for the first time in his career, consistently see two deep safeties staring at him on defense. What’s not to like?
Michael Turner was more than fantasy relevant in this offense over the last five seasons. Steven Jackson could be – at the age of 30 – a fantasy superstar.