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Ten Bills To Decide 2010, No. 7: Fred Jackson

As far as great stories in the NFL go, there aren't many that rank ahead of the twisting tale of Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson. The little-recruited Jackson attended Division III Coe College, and began his professional football career with the Sioux City Bandits of the National Indoor Football League, where spent two outstanding seasons before moving on to NFL Europa's Rhein Fire in 2006. At that time, Buffalo - whose GM at the time, Marv Levy, is a Coe College alum himself - owned Jackson's rights, and in 2007, he cracked Buffalo's 53-man roster as a (very) deep reserve.

After injuries sidelined Marshawn Lynch and Anthony Thomas that season, Jackson made his first career start in a Week 13 win over Washington, gaining 151 critical yards on 20 touches. Jackson was the first Division III running back to start an NFL game since Chris Warren did it, and he's only gotten better since that point in time. As a legitimate weapon in Buffalo's offense over the next two seasons (2008 and 2009), Jackson carried the ball 367 times, added 83 receptions, totaled 2,321 yards, and scored seven touchdowns. His 2,516 all-purpose yards (including return yardage) in 2009 was the fourth-highest total in NFL history.

Still, Jackson will play in a crowded backfield that includes 2007 first-round pick Lynch, as well as 2010 first-round pick C.J. Spiller. The latter of those two figures into the team's long-term plans of fielding an explosive offensive attack, but in order to reach that goal, you first need to establish some consistency. As it stands right now, Jackson is the only consistent offensive threat on Buffalo's roster.

Perhaps the most astonishing statistic to keep in mind when discussing No. 22 is the fact that he's never averaged below 4.4 yards per carry in his three years in the league. Considering the fact that the Bills have fielded approximately several hundred different starting offensive line quintets during that time frame, that is a remarkable feat. Just last season, when injuries ravaged Buffalo's line for a full 16 games, Jackson still averaged 4.5 yards per rush despite that inconsistency up front, and despite defenses keying on him to some degree as the starting running back.

Jackson's running style is difficult to describe. He's not a power back. He's not a home run threat. As a result, Jackson must rely on outstanding vision, top-notch quickness, and excellent cutting ability to pick up chunks of yardage. He's not the type of player that will put up a lot of points for an offense, as his seven career touchdowns will attest to. He'll never be a star, because his running style, while obviously effective, is rarely highlight-reel-worthy. Jackson is what he is - an extremely versatile, intelligent player capable of doing a lot of damage to defenses between the twenties. He'll be at his best when opposing defenses have better players to worry about.

That, in part, is why a player of Jackson's caliber (relative to the rest of Buffalo's skill position depth, anyway) ranks so low on a list like this. Fred Jackson, at the moment, is my absolute favorite player on this team. But at the moment, he has the look of being a "bridge player" - a good player whose importance dwindles as the team builds talent around him. As good as Jackson has been, if Spiller lives up to his immense promise, he'll be getting the lion's share of touches by year's end. That's the reality that Jackson has fought against his entire career, so while we clearly can't count him out, he's just not the game-breaking type that the team so desperately needs to find and develop.

This list relates directly to 2010, however. Jackson is a bridge player, at least in my humble opinion, and 2010 is a bridge season. As stated previously, the Bills, behind the efforts of head coach Chan Gailey and his coaching staff, can't become the offense they want to be until they develop some consistency. The inherent youth of players like Spiller, second-year tight end Shawn Nelson, and the team's large crop of young receivers - not to mention the continued offensive line upheaval and the quarterback competition - means that the Bills are likely to be desperate for consistency during the 2010 season. That's why Jackson's presence is so critical to this team in the short term.

Jackson's got three years remaining on a four-year extension he signed in 2009. At age 29, no one's quite sure how much tread is left on his proverbial tires, given his unique career track. Until Buffalo's young talent develops, Jackson's pretty much all the team has offensively, however, and if he's proven anything to this point, it's that he can put up very solid production in less-than-ideal circumstances. He's in line for another excellent season as the team's primary running back.

Ten Bills To Decide 2010
10. G/C Eric Wood
9. ILB Andra Davis
8. CB Leodis McKelvin