Looking for Steven Jackson’s backup: an updated shopping list

Steven Jackson #39 of the St. Louis Rams looks on against the Oakland Raiders during an NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on September 19, 2010 in Oakland, California.  Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images North America.
Whether he wants it or not, help for Steven Jackson may soon be on the way.

As a huge contingent of players and owners sit down to meet, ESPN is reporting that a basic framework of a deal is in place. Part of that deal? A return to a four-year path to unrestricted free agency, effectively opening the floodgates of available players to sign. 

And so, the biggest item on Billy Devaney’s offseason to-do list might finally be addressed: finding a legitimate backup for Steven Jackson.  

On the heels of this news, Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus (@PFF_MikeClay on Twitter) comes through big-time with an updated list of available skill position free agents. No longer do we have to be wearing beer goggles to find an attractive counterpart for Jackson in the Rams’ offense, squinting real hard at the likes of 80-year-old Darren Sproles or a constantly beat-up Cadillac Williams.

No, there is some real cream at the top. Here’s a look at the top three new candidates:

Ahmad Bradshaw

With 15 rushing touchdowns on only 439 carries over the last two seasons, Bradshaw is going to be a very popular target for teams across the NFL. He’s a strong straight-line runner, has good hands in the receiving game, and is a willing and able pass blocker.

As an added bonus, Bradshaw has spent his whole career in a two- or three-back rotation, and has proven the ability to be effective (career 4.8 yards per carry) without needing 15 or 20 carries per game to get warmed up.

As an added double bonus, Steve Spagnuolo’s New York Giants connex! Okay, seriously, can we stop looking now? This is our man.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Correction: he’s an RFA)

Bill Belichick brought this undrafted free agent along slowly, often as the fourth or fifth back in their seemingly endless rotation, but when he found time he managed to put himself on the radar. And not just because he possesses the best nickname in sports — “The Law Firm.” But last year, thanks to an injury-depleted running back corps in New England, he had a breakout season with 13 rushing touchdowns on 229 runs.

This not only places him on the radar, but probably drives up his market value to the point where the Pats — always economical — may not be able to keep him at the price they want.

Pros: Experience in the New England “amoeba” offense, including some direct experience with Josh McDaniels. Lots of wear still on the tires, with only 329 career carries. Probably cheaper than Bradshaw. Humble roots would prepare him to accept subsidiary role without rancor. Has dreadlocks.

Cons: Not utilized much in the passing game, and not well-ranked as a pass-blocker (PFF rates him 55 of 58 running backs in that regard).

Joseph Addai

Addai would bring championship luster to the Rams, but also brings a lengthy medical history including a bum shoulder that cost him most of the 2010 season. The Colts may be secretly happy to have him hit the free agency wires, as some other team might “overpay” for his services and spare the team a little face for wanting to move on to a younger or more durable player.

Pros: tons of experience in a pass-heavy offense, and rated as a top-ten pass-blocker in 2009 by PFF. An accomplished pass-catcher, perhaps more effective there than as a runner, though he has 38 career rushing touchdowns. Has dreadlocks.

Cons: Like Jackson, is used to being “the guy,” even if he has never been a workhorse. Played 811 snaps in 2009, his last healthy season; Jackson played 858 in 2010. Also, like Jackson, there are legitimate questions about how much he has left in the tank.

Correction: VanRam from TurfShowTimes helpfully pointed out that BJGE is a restricted free agent. He may be available next year, but not now, at least not without sacrificing a second-rounder for him, a hefty cost. That opens the door to another veteran of the running back platoon with injury concerns…

DeAngelo Williams

Williams is well known as a perennial “fantasy breakout” after an 18-touchdown 2008 season. However, his overall numbers slipped in ’09, and plummeted in ’10 as he spent most of the Panthers’ disaster season in the trainers’ room. However, he still sports a very healthy 5.0 yards-per-carry average.

Pros: Very effective as a part-time player, when he can get on the field. Runs hard out of the gate, averaging 4.8 ypc on carries 1-5, and 5.6 ypc on carries 6-10; does not require a “warm-up” period. Sprained foot that knocked him out of the 2010 season is not a chronic concern. Has dreadlocks.

Cons: Not much of a pass blocker or a receiver, which may seriously limit his touches in this offense. Injury history trending negatively. May have outsized contract demands.