Steven Jackson went from the outhouse to the penthouse of offenses when he joined the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. In St. Louis, his teams won 31% of their games (44-100) while he was there, while the Falcons have won an almost mirror opposite 70% of their games since Mike Smith became head coach. When the apparently ageless Tony Gonzalez also opted to return to Atlanta after his sixth all-pro season, following early whispers of retirement, it meant that Matt Ryan would have it pretty good again in 2013.
When you look back at the careers of these players a decade from now, where will this group rank historically on career achievement? Think about how many teams could imagine them. The key here is Julio Jones, who looks to be on his way to being one of the best receivers of his generation and gives this group the dynamic playmaker entering his prime. Who will be considered the worst player of the group? Jackson? By the time his career is over, he should be past 15,000 career yards from scrimmage, which would place him somewhere in the top 15 all-time. Roddy White? Even if he never does anything else, he will have had a career at least as good as Wes Chandler.
Here are my thoughts on other teams in the running for the best historical combination of two receivers, a tight end, and running back.
1963 to 1966 Colts: Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Jimmy Orr, and the young all pro tight end in John Mackey. You can also throw in Tom Matte as the fifth, who had a better career than many other guys showing up here.
2003 to 2005 Colts: Dallas Clark is the least accomplished member of the group, but was still one of the top 5 tight ends in the league in his prime. The Wayne/Harrison/James trio was one of the best of all-time.
1981 to 1983 Chargers: Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, Kellen Winslow and Chuck Muncie, with a young James Brooks also.
1992 to 1994 49ers: Jerry Rice, Ricky Watters, Brent Jones and John Taylor.
1996 to 1998 Broncos: Terrell Davis, Rod Smith, Shannon Sharpe and Ed McCaffrey, who had a fairly underrated career.
Depending on how great Julio Jones becomes, and whether this group can stay healthy and productive in 2013, they have a chance to be considered among the top five skill position quartets.
Here are the rankings for the rest of the NFL teams by looking only at their offensive skill players. The top 5 to 6 players for 2013 are listed with each team. This is not a look forward beyond this year, and is meant only to evaluate where teams are for this season (including injuries).
#1 Atlanta Falcons (Julio Jones, Roddy White, Steven Jackson, Tony Gonzalez, Jacquizz Rodgers): When you are this good, you are experienced, not old. Jones has flashed enough potential in his first two seasons to think he could join the game’s best receivers
#2 Denver Broncos (Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, Jacob Tamme): Question marks begin right away for Denver in the backfield, and the Ball/Hillman combo will determine how good this group can be. Not bad when you can add Wes Welker to an already stout receiving group.
#3 Green Bay Packers (Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jermichael Finley, Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin): Like Denver, Green Bay will rely on young running backs to emerge, while depth is plentiful at the receiver positions.
#4 Seattle Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch, Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, Golden Tate, Robert Turbin): The addition of Harvin to go along with Lynch has the makings of an explosive offense. Zach Miller is a tough tight end, and the depth at running back is among the best in the league.
#5 New Orleans Saints (Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Lance Moore, Pierre Thomas): With Gronkowski coming back from multiple surgeries, Graham occupies the top tight end slot. Add in the always solid Colston, and diversity and depth at running back, and the Saints should again be explosive in Sean Payton’s return.
#6 Houston Texans (Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Owen Daniels, DeAndre Hopkins, Ben Tate): The big issue for Houston has been lack of a quality second wide receiver to go with Andre Johnson. If rookie DeAndre Hopkins emerges, this group soars even higher.
#7 Dallas Cowboys (Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, Miles Austin, Joseph Randle): Dez Bryant emerged as a star over the second half of last year, while Witten is still a top five tight end. Can Murray stay healthy this year? The running game really suffered when he was out.
#8 Minnesota Vikings (Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph, Greg Jennings, Cordarelle Patterson, Jarius Wright): Peterson alone shoots the Vikings up the list, Rudolph is a solid tight end, and the Vikings tried to upgrade their poor receiving group (once Harvin was hurt last year) by going both the veteran (Jennings) and rookie (Patterson) routes.
#9 New York Giants (Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, David Wilson, Brandon Myers, Andre Brown, Rueben Randle): David Wilson could be huge this year, after leading the NFL in kick return yards as a rookie and showing big play ability in smaller doses. The team also added a pass catching tight end in Myers, who led Oakland in receiving a year ago, in place of the departing Bennett.
#10 Indianapolis Colts (Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Ahmad Bradshaw, Coby Fleener, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Vick Ballard): Indianapolis really needed to upgrade the skill group around the veteran Wayne a year ago, and added Hilton, Allen and Fleener. This is the year we see how much they are improved, and I look for Dwayne Allen to be the guy that many don’t know–yet–but will make waves in 2013. Ahmad Bradshaw upgrades the running backs, if he can stay off the injury report.
#11 Baltimore Ravens (Ray Rice, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, Bernard Pierce, Jacoby Jones): The defending champs will need to continue the offensive surge that came during the playoff run, once Jim Caldwell took over as coordinator.
#12 Philadelphia Eagles (LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Bryce Brown, James Casey, Brent Celek): The first year of Chip Kelly should be fun, and depth like Brown and Casey should find prominent roles in 2013.
#13 New England Patriots (Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Aaron Dobson, Donald Jones): I’ve written about the turnover in New England, and we also don’t yet know about Gronkowski’s health. Amendola could be in line for a lot of targets, and Vereen may also have to play a large role in the short passing game.
#14 Cincinnati Bengals (AJ Green, Giovani Bernard, Tyler Eifert, Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham, Benjarvus Green-Ellis): Andy Dalton should have no excuses this year, as the Bengals have looked to upgrade their athleticism at both running back (Bernard) and tight end (Eifert) to complement the acrobatic A.J. Green.
#15 Detroit Lions (Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Brandon Pettigrew, Ryan Broyles, Joique Bell, Mikel Leshoure): Calvin Johnson had a ton of yards last year, but faced a lot of defensive focus in the red zone. This group depends on whether additional targets emerge to take that pressure off. Reggie Bush may be the second best receiving option on the team, and Bell should be in front of Leshoure for touches.
#16 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Brian Leonard, Luke Stocker): Martin/Jackson/Williams give the Bucs a pretty good trio that would rank higher if we were looking at just the top three; the concern here is depth and production at tight end.
#17 San Francisco 49ers (Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, LaMichael James, A.J. Jenkins, Kendall Hunter): This group would rank much higher with Michael Crabtree, but it is very questionable whether he can make any meaningful contribution in 2013. The running back position is stocked, and they may need to get creative with James to counter what looks like a receiver group with a lot of question marks.
#18 Chicago Bears (Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett). Will Alshon Jeffery (or someone else) emerge opposite Marshall? Brandon Marshall had more receiving yards than the next four Bears, combined, in 2013. The upgrade from Kellen Davis to Martellus Bennett is huge, mainly because Davis was not good.
#19 Carolina Panthers (Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Brandon LaFell): Steve Smith continues to get it done, and Greg Olsen had a very good year last season. After that, the team has not done a good job developing receiving talent, and the running back situation is not as good as it should be based on the amount of money invested in the position.
#20 Arizona Cardinals (Larry Fitzgerald, Rashard Mendenhall, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, Rob Housler, Ryan Williams): Will Larry Fitzgerald bounce back? the team added Mendenhall to what was an injury filled mess a season ago. The quarterback play was so dismal a year ago, and this group should be motivated to improve.
#21 Washington Red Pandas (Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon, Fred Davis, Santana Moss, Evan Royster, Leonard Hankerson):
#22 Pittsburgh Steelers (Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Emmanuel Sanders, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Jonathan Dwyer): Probably the least explosive group that Pittsburgh has had during Roethlisberger’s career as a starter, though the team will surely benefit from better health at the running back position this season. Bell could be in line for a large amount of touches as a rookie.
#23 Buffalo Bills: (C.J. Spiller, Stevie Johnson, Fred Jackson, Robert Woods, Scott Chandler): C.J. Spiller will try to do it all in 2013, and the Bills should let any remaining reins off. The team needs one of the unproven players opposite Stevie Johnson to take advantage of the opportunity.
#24 Miami Dolphins (Mike Wallace, Lamar Miller, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Dustin Keller): The Dolphins have upgraded their offense, with additions of Wallace and Keller. The emergence of Lamar Miller will be a big
#25 San Diego Chargers (Antonio Gates, Danario Alexander, Ryan Mathews, Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd, Danny Woodhead). An aging star tight end, a lead receiver who can be great but has dealt with several knee injuries, and back that has not stayed healthy. Vincent Brown missed last season and is the X-factor.
#26 Cleveland Browns (Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Davone Bess, Jordan Cameron, Greg Little): Can Trent Richardson have a huge year after playing through a lot of injuries? Josh Gordon was explosive, but needs to stay out of trouble.
#27 St. Louis Rams (Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Zac Stacy, Isaiah Pead): the Rams added Tavon Austin after trading up in the first round, while signing the athletic, but inconsistent, Jared Cook at tight end. The running backs are very young now that Jackson is gone, and the opportunity is there. This group has potential to shoot up higher on this list.
#28 Jacksonville Jaguars (Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Blackmon, Cecil Shorts, Marcedes Lewis, Justin Forsett, Denard Robinson): Blaine Gabbert gets one final shot, with Jones-Drew returning from injury, and Justin Blackmon entering his second year. Denard Robinson is the highest ranked Offensive Weapon.
#29 Kansas City Chiefs (Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, Dexter McCluster, Anthony Fasano, Travis Kelce): Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe would rank much higher, but there are a lot of question marks in this group. I didn’t even list Jon Baldwin (1.6 receptions per game for career) among the group, though he’ll get a (final?) chance to compete with Avery to start opposite Bowe.
#30 Tennessee Titans (Chris Johnson, Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Delanie Walker, Shonn Greene): If I knew for sure that Chris Johnson would rush for 2,000 yards for the fifth year in a row, I would rank this group higher.
#31 Oakland Raiders (Darren McFadden, Denarius Moore, Rod Streater, Marcel Reece, Jacoby Ford, David Ausberry): McFadden was dreadful last year, Denarius Moore was inconsistent, and if those two do not have much better years, the quarterbacks (whomever it may be) will struggle.
#32 New York Jets: Chris Ivory, Jeremy Kerley, Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill, Mike Goodson, Jeff Cumberland): Chris Ivory finally gets a shot as a starter. Jeremy Kerley is underrated but is miscast as the best receiver on a team, so it falls to Santonio Holmes to come back in good form for this group not to finish as the worst in the league.