Just because Steven Jackson is a couple of weeks away from being an unrestricted free agent, that doesn’t mean he won’t be back in St. Louis. But what if that’s the case? What if he signs elsewhere once his contract is voided March 12, and the Rams’ backfield is without Jackson for the first time in a decade?
The first thing that must be considered before the draft is what to make of their three rookies from 2012 — Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Terrance Ganaway.
At the NFL scouting combine last Friday, coach Jeff Fisher said Pead was drafted not just to be a change-of-pace back spelling Jackson, but because the Rams thought he could be “the guy.” The feature back. Fisher said he felt Richardson could be an every-down back as well. That’s debatable given their size, with Pead at 5-10, 197 and Richardson at 5-10, 196.
But the Rams obviously believe both players have potential to do a lot more than was the case in 2012.
“Pead toward the end of the year, Daryl at the beginning and middle, proved they can play in the league ...” general manager Les Snead said. “They will all have a role. Richardson is going to have a role. Pead is going to have a role. They are all going to have a role and we are going to utilize those roles.”
If that comes on a 2013 Rams roster that does not include Jackson, the roles will be much larger. According to the NFL statistical service, Jackson was on the field for 707 offensive snaps in 2012, or more than twice the amount of Richardson, Pead and Ganaway combined.
Richardson finished with 301 offensive plays, but his playing time and number of carries decreased dramatically over the second half of the season as Jackson’s playing time increased. As for Pead and Ganaway, predicting how they can contribute in 2013 is largely a projection because there’s a minuscule sample size of playing time to evaluate them as NFL players.
Pead had a few successful carries in the season finale against Seattle but participated in only 40 offensive plays and carried the ball only 10 times all season. As for Ganaway, who was claimed off waivers from the New York Jets at the end of the preseason, he was on the field for only five offensive plays last season and didn’t have a carry or catch.
So the question then becomes, should the Rams augment that trio by adding a running back in the draft? Given the Rams’ limited salary cap space and a less than stellar group of veteran running backs on the market, it seems unlikely they will go the free-agent route.
If it’s via the draft, how high are the Rams willing to go to get one? Alabama’s Eddie Lacy looks like the only sure first-round pick in this year’s draft class, and the Rams probably could get him with their second of two first-round picks — at No. 22 overall.
At 5-11, 231 pounds, Lacy would provide a big-back element that only Ganaway (6-1, 240) brings to the current backfield minus Jackson. Lacy made the most of his only year as an Alabama feature back, gaining 1,322 yards on 204 carries, an average of 6.5 yards a carry. In the BCS title game against Notre Dame, he looked like a man among boys, breaking tackles and running through the Fighting Irish defense.
There is some curiosity about his speed — is he a 4.5 guy or 4.6? Lacy says he can run 4.4. But he didn’t get a chance to run the 40 or participate in the workout at the scouting combine because of a hamstring injury during training. It’s not even a certainty whether Lacy will run at Alabama’s pro day March 13.
Lacy had a tendency to get nicked up over his Alabama career, including ankle and knee problems, plus a toe injury that required surgery. But there may not have been a better big-game back in college football last season. He had 181 yards and two touchdowns in the SEC title game against Georgia and rushed for 140 yards against Notre Dame.
“I was able to show up in the big games on the big stages,” Lacy said. “And in the NFL every game is a big game, no matter what. So if I was able to perform well in those games, you know it should be an indication that I can do the same thing in the NFL.”
Behind Lacy, as possible second- or third-rounders, are prospects such as Giovani Bernard (5-8, 202) of North Carolina, Joseph Randle (6-0, 204) of Oklahoma State, Stepfan Taylor (5-9, 214) of Stanford and local product Montee Ball (5-10, 214) of Wisconsin via Timberland High in Wentzville.
But no one in that group has great size, and no one in that group ran a sub-4.5 in the 40 at the combine.
Undoubtedly the Rams looked at Marcus Lattimore at the combine, particularly his medical reports after he suffered a season-ending knee injury for the second year in a row at South Carolina. Were it not for the injury, Lattimore probably would be the top running back in the draft. Now, it’s anybody’s guess as to where he will get taken, and even if he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season.
“The day after it happened, of course, I was thinking about what could have been,” Lattimore said. “What could have happened. But I don’t think about that anymore.”