Jackson's decision opened door for Lacy

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Sometimes, the deals a team does not make end up as the best ones.

The Green Bay Packers don’t often pursue big-name free agents, but they chased running back Steven Jackson last March only to see him sign a three-year, $12 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons.

Had general manager Ted Thompson landed Jackson, he not only might have been stuck with a high-priced veteran whose production has fallen off, but he probably would not have ended up with the Packers' running back of the present and future, rookie Eddie Lacy.

The Packers almost certainly would not have used a second-round pick on a running back, like they did with Lacy, had they signed a free agent like Jackson.

“Probably not,” Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “That’s a management question there, but I know going into the draft we were going to be looking for one, possibly two, and we ended up taking two.”

While Lacy has built a strong case for the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year award by rushing for 822 yards -- tops among all rookie running backs and eighth overall in the NFL despite missing nearly two full games because of a concussion -- the 30-year-old Jackson struggled to replicate the success he had during his long, productive run with the St. Louis Rams.

Jackson’s streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons will end this year. He missed four games because of an early season hamstring injury and has just 339 yards on 97 carries for the struggling Falcons.

Lacy and Jackson will be on the same field for the first time on Sunday, when the Falcons come to Lambeau Field.

Although Jackson wouldn’t say how close he came to signing with the Packers, he admitted he was intrigued by the possibility.

“Green Bay was in my possible [destinations], yes,” Jackson said. “Obviously, their quarterback is one of the best in the league. The tradition and history with that organization is one of the best.”

In fact, Packers defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, who played two seasons with Jackson in St. Louis, was with Jackson at NFL Players Association meetings in the Bahamas when the Packers were courting the three-time Pro Bowl back this offseason.

“He was telling me he wanted to come,” Pickett said. “But things didn’t work out that way, and he ended up going to Atlanta.”

Pickett sees some similarities between the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Jackson and Lacy, who is shorter at 5-11 but almost as well put together at 230 pounds.

“They’re similar in they’re big and explosive; that’s about it,” Pickett said. “I think they both have really great vision. They see things before it happens. That’s what makes Steven a good back. I remember he would read blocks very well, and Eddie has that same thing.”

Both also have shown an ability to withstanding the pounding that workhorse running backs take. Lacy’s 207 carries ranks seventh in the NFL, but he has a long way to go to match Jackson’s durability. From 2004 through last season, Jackson missed only 13 regular-season games. He had an eight-year stretch in which he carried at least 237 times in every season, including three seasons with 300-plus carries.

Since Lacy returned from his concussion in Week 5, only Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has more rushing yards. And Lacy actually held that distinction until last week, when the Detroit Lions held him to just 16 yards on 10 carries. Lacy also has more carries than any back during that stretch.

“I think he’s right where I thought he’d be,” Van Pelt said. “I thought he was a premier player, a premier runner. I’m a little more surprised by his ability to pass protect as well as he has. That’s the biggest thing. I saw it on tape but to translate it over to the NFL game, that’s probably the biggest surprise to me.”

ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure contributed.