The Age of Decline – Running Backs (Part 1)

| July 16, 2012

Adrian Peterson in Pain

In part one of my Age of Decline series, we studied quarterbacks and how consistent their fantasy production is well into their 30s. In part two, let’s jump to the other end of the longevity spectrum to analyze the short-lived career of running backs. It’s a common perception that running backs in their 30s are at risk for sharp decline, but is this really how it plays out?

As we did with quarterbacks, we’ll be using data since the 1970 merger and limiting our sample size to fantasy-relevant players. For the purposes of this analysis, “fantasy-relevant” is any running back who has finished in the top 30 at their position at least twice in their career. This will provide us with plenty of game data from hundreds of players without watering down the trends with one-year wonders or players that are rarely fantasy starters.

I also removed Marcus Allen and John Riggins from this data. Their impressive stats late in their careers create a misleading upswing at ages 36 and 37 as the sample size diminishes.

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Studying the Trend

No one should be surprised that quarterbacks and running backs have highly contrasting rates of decline, but the divide in their productivity is even wider than I would have guessed. I’m not seeing the infamous 30-year-old wall that many people think running backs hit. Instead, their decline is pretty dramatic and consistent after 26.

Fantasy Output of RBs as They Age

In redraft leagues, owners pay a premium for rushers who aren’t members of a committee backfield. However, if you’re fairly new to dynasty leagues, you’ll quickly realize that you have to weigh the scarcity of featured backs against their short-lived productivity. This is why running backs have less value in leagues that carry players over from year to year.

It’s also critical in dynasty to successfully scout rookie running backs. Capitalizing on those early years of production can really give your team a boost.

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Breaking Down the Decades

If we break down the decades, the graphs are even more tightly clustered than they were with quarterbacks. The average variance from the composite is only 0.53 points from ages 23 to 32, further supporting the idea that the impact of Father Time has not been affected by the evolution of the game.

PPG of RBs by Decade as They Age

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Specific Examples

It’s easy to find high-profile rushers with long careers whose best years were behind them by 28 years old. Studs like Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson had their best five years behind them before 28. Like many other players, their early and mid 20s were significantly more productive than their late 20s and 30s.

In a vacuum, we wouldn’t turn our noses up at some of the numbers in the chart below scored by players in their late 20s, but that’s not the point. The point is that in many cases these players were overvalued on draft day, falling short of expectations as they entered their age of decline.

PPG During Each Year of Life (Top Three in Bold)

22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34
Emmitt Smith 15.8 20.3 18.6 20.3 23.0 15.8 9.7 14.7 15.4 11.4 9.4 8.5 4.8
Herschel Walker 15.1 17.4 15.2 11.7 10.2 10.9 11.3 10.0 9.4 2.6 1.7
LaDainian Tomlinson 13.8 19.2 21.5 18.8 19.8 26.9 17.1 13.8 10.9 11.0 6.5
Ahman Green 0.8 15.7 16.4 14.7 21.4 12.9 8.0 12.8 8.4 6.3 2.7
Deuce McAllister 2.1 16.9 16.9 12.0 14.1 12.4 8.7 6.9 8.1
Terrell Davis 13.3 16.6 19.2 22.8 17.9 3.3 13.7 9.5
Rudi Johnson 1.3 1.8 12.5 14.6 14.8 12.5 6.6 2.2

Terrell Davis is an extreme example. After his MVP season in 1998, fantasy owners understandably made him the top pick in 1999 according to My Fantasy League (MFL) average draft position (ADP). Unfortunately, he tore his ACL and MCL in week four and finished the season 77th at his position.

What’s most interesting to me about Davis’s situation is how confident people were about his ACL/MCL injury recovery. Because he was only 27 and the injury happened so early in the season, fantasy owners made him the fifth running back taken in drafts in 2000. Sound familiar? After battling a variety of issues with his foot, ankle, and lower leg, he finished 58th in scoring that year and eventually retired after a third disappointing season in a row in 2001.

Similar to Davis, 27-year-old Rudi Johnson was selected 10th in 2007, but he finished 48th. His slide continued the following year when he finished 74th, well below his ADP of RB33.

Ahman Green eased into decline a bit more gracefully in 2004, only finishing 10 spots below his selection as the third best back. However, he disappointed fantasy owners in 2005 when they got RB70 production from their 28-year-old RB14 draft pick.

I could continue to rattle off examples, but I think you get the point. Just like some of today’s players, people thought they could count on players like Davis, Johnson, and Green as they entered their late 20s. They were incredibly reliable during their years of peak production, but like so many players before them, they succumbed to the historical trend.

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Applying What We Have Learned

Because of the position’s sharp drop off, it’s critical to identify running backs before they enter decline. Calling out 29-year-olds like Steven Jackson and Frank Gore, who have declined in each of the past two years, isn’t earth shattering. The risk of their decline is already built into their ADP. The real challenge is predicting the beginning of the end for players who have consistently performed at a high level and are about to turn 27 or 28.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, and Adrian Peterson will all be 27 for the majority of this season, are overvalued, and are at high risk for decline. During their remaining time in the NFL, they will be unable to outperform their current top three years. In other words, their best years are already behind them.

PPG During Each Year of Life (Top Three in Bold)

22 23 24 25 26 27 28
Steven Jackson 13.1 20.6 14.0 15.8 13.2 12.4 12.3
Frank Gore 6.6 17.0 12.7 13.6 16.5 14.6 11.4
Maurice Jones-Drew 12.0 13.9 17.0 14.7 16.5
Chris Johnson 12.9 16.0 20.5 13.3 11.4
Adrian Peterson 17.1 15.8 18.3 16.1 15.7

Jones-Drew has been a popular target of decline predictions in previous seasons because of his high volume of carries. However, his Fantasy Pros expert consensus ranking (ECR) for 2012 is fifth among running backs despite holdout concerns. This scenario reeks with potential disappointment for fantasy owners. Don’t get me wrong. He’s still a viable fantasy option, but unless he slips several spots beyond the norm in your draft, he just won’t be worth what you’ll have to pay.

Much like MJD, Johnson will struggle to meet the expectations of owners drafting him at his current ADP of RB5. While I expect him to improve slightly on last year’s numbers, it’s hard to get excited about a player who has failed to best the PPG of a declining Frank Gore in each of their past two years. I don’t expect Johnson to surpass his 25-year-old 13.3 PPG for the remainder of his career. Don’t reach for him on draft day.

Peterson is the poster child for decline and disappointment this year. Even if he had outrun a wild pack of laser-guided, cybernetic cheetahs up a grassy hill in OTAs, his MFL ADP of RB9 would still be too high. Do people really think it’s a solid draft strategy to select a 27-year-old who tore his ACL and MCL in week 16 as their number one running back? Keep in mind that this season-ending injury came just 13 days after he missed three games due to a high ankle sprain.

I’m not saying Peterson is destined for the same fate as Terrell Davis, but owners are not going to get the same productivity that they have come to expect from him—certainly not this year, and maybe not for the rest of his career. Steer clear of him “All Day” on draft day unless you can get him as a high-end RB3.

Use your opponents’ perceptions about age to your advantage. Let them overpay for proven running backs on the brink of decline. Be willing to pay slightly above market price for Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, or Ryan Mathews, who are in their peak years of production. If you don’t land a top-four back, be on the lookout for high-risk, high-reward players, like Darren McFadden (injury concerns) or Matt Forte (contract holdout concerns), who may slip in your draft. When all else fails, focus on value and quantity while rostering your fantasy backfield, grabbing as many cheap, top-30 running backs as you can.

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What’s Next?

Now that we understand the historical age trends for running backs, in my next article we’ll dig into running backs’ touch counts and the impact this wear and tear has on a players’ productivity. We’ll pay special attention to 30-year-old backs who sit atop their teams’ depth charts heading into 2012, a couple of which have significantly fewer career touches than their younger contemporaries.

I may also write an article that digs deeper into the post-merger productivity of cybernetic cheetahs. Their ADP is way too low right now.

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Share your thoughts and chat with Austin on Twitter @AustinNFL.
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  • CaptainHuggyFace

    Hi PFF Gang,

    I took your dynasty RB rankings and added columns for each RB’s age at the start of the 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons. Then I color coded the spreadsheet based on 5 categories: pre-peak (younger than 23y6m), peak (24y0m to 25y11m), decline stage 1 (26y0m to 27y11m), decline stage 2 (28y0m to 28y11m), and decline stage 3 (29y0m and up) based on my interpretation of the first graph above.

    If you want a copy, text me your email address to 917-886-5862. I think it will come in very handy.

  • CaptainHuggyFace

    So far, two of you have asked for my spreadsheet, with rave reviews.

    I wonder if the PFF folks would like a copy.

  • CaptainHuggyFace

    FYI. I modified the “peak” category a bit, extending it through a players 26th year on this earth. So peak (to me, and this is based on the graph) is 23y6m to 26y11m.

  • CaptainHuggyFace

    While the article says Foster is entering his peak years of production, it is actually just the opposite. He is 26 at the start of the 2012 season, and should have just one year of peak performance left. Ride him this year, then sell high, since he will be entering his first year of decline in 2013. McCoy is the better long term dynasty RB.

  • Austin Lee

    Good point in your last comment, Captain. I was thinking more about redraft leagues with that statement, but “in” is a better word choice for what I was trying to communicate than “entering” so I changed it.

    I think of 25 and 26 years old as the peak for RBs even though 25 is higher. Foster turns 26 in Sept and Rice is only 4 months younger. McCoy just turned 24, so I could see an argument for making him the #1 fantasy RB in dynasty.

  • Faqiu

    wow, you were TOTALLY WRONG about Adrian Peterson, McCoy and Ryan Mathews in 2012. Needless to say, I will not be following any of your advice this year. LOL.

  • dec7td

    It’s funny to come back and read articles like these. Although I agree with your premise of RB decline with age being pretty consistent, sometimes you just have to make exceptions.