Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 4/18/12
ST. LOUIS Questions follow Steven Jackson. They're never far behind with the St. Louis Rams' all-time leading rusher climbing in age, and they can't be avoided like the many defenders he has stiff-armed throughout his accomplished eight-year career. The questions remain close, because even great personal eras must end at some point, and franchises must prepare for a future that doesn't include their star. There's no denying Jackson's mark on an otherwise forgettable period in Rams history 9,093 yards rushing and 52 touchdowns with just 18 fumbles. But the questions came last fall, they were there after a veteran minicamp Wednesday at Rams Park, and they will be asked again when the latest season for the rugged 28-year-old runner draws near. Do you feel fresh? Do you want to prove that you can last longer than the perception suggests? Are you open to mentoring a possible successor? "I feel like I'm in my prime," Jackson said. "I feel like I'm there right now, and I'm excited about what I can do in this offense. Coach (Jeff) Fisher has a track record of having some great running backs, and I hope to add my name to it. "The Rams are going to do what's best for the Rams. I understand that. It's a business. All I can do is, through my own lessons replacing another legend (Marshall Faulk), is try to be there for the young guy. If he's receptive, I'll try to help him and do the world for him. If not, he's just got to compete, and I'm not backing down." Eight days before the NFL Draft, Jackson's future was revisited for intrigue. He's one of the most introspective personalities in the NFL, and he's a rare symbol of consistency within a franchise that has been anything but stable since he entered the league in 2004. He has seen six head coaches counting interims walk through the doors at the Russell Training Center. He has lived four seasons with three victories or fewer. He never has been part of a team that has finished with a winning record. Still, Jackson has spoken about the legacy he hopes to leave behind one day. He has spoken about his goal of being named to the Hall of Fame like his predecessor. He has spoken about providing an example for a young running back when the time comes when he must prepare to step aside. Will the process start next week? It could. The Rams have many needs to address in the draft, namely their lack of a deep wide-receiver threat. Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon a 6-foot-1, 215-pound specimen would be attractive if he's available at the No. 6 slot. But if Blackmon's gone by then and the Rams don't decide to trade the pick with Alabama's Trent Richardson unclaimed this draft could introduce a time when St. Louis plans for a post-Jackson era. Yes, the Oregon State product has been a constant presence throughout a period in which the Rams have gone a dreadful 37-92. He will be remembered as one of the best players in franchise history despite his teams' shortcomings when his career ends. Still, questions about how long he can continue to carry the Rams' rushing game are valid. There will be a time when the poundings become too much. There will be a time when St. Louis must make a change. "I think the Rams are still at the point where they can justify going the best-player-available route," Scott Wright, an NFL Draft analyst for DraftCountdown.com, told FOXSports.com. "I think if Trent Richardson from Alabama is there, he would be real difficult to pass on. One way or another, I think the Rams are going to draft a running back relatively early. At the very least, they need a backup and a change-of-pace option to Steven Jackson, who's getting a little older." Jackson is aging, but his workhorse mentality remains strong. He rushed for a team-high 1,145 yards and five touchdowns on 260 carries last season his seventh consecutive campaign with at least 1,000 yards. Consider the drop off behind him: Cadillac Williams was second on the Rams with 361 yards and one touchdown on 87 carries. And behind Williams, no other player rushed for more than Jerious Norwood's 61 yards on 24 carries. Jackson is approaching an age when most running backs hang up their cleats and prepare for life outside the hashes. He says he's in his prime, but the reality is he has few prime years left. He can draw inspiration from former greats such as Emmitt Smith (retired at age 35) and Marcus Allen (retired at age 38), but it would be unwise for the Rams to assume Jackson can last that long. "When a big back gets old, you look for one thing is he getting hit or is he getting tackled?" Fisher said. "Steven's still getting tackled, he's not getting hit, so he's still got a lot left." The Rams hope so, because Jackson should be a vital piece of their vision for the overhaul that has begun. Veteran leadership is crucial in this time, and he's one of St. Louis' most respected figures in the locker room. Sure, Jackson has seen plenty of change in his time with the Rams, but this offseason feels different. He called his first meeting with Fisher "unbelievable." He shares optimism in the new regime, a sense that was obvious this week as players spoke about the future. But in this era of new beginnings, Fisher and general manager Les Snead must ask themselves critical questions when preparing for the draft: How long can Jackson continue to carry the Rams? And how much more does he have left? Questions are never far behind when considering Jackson's future. The answers will reveal much about the Rams' direction.
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