The Age of Decline – Running Backs (Part 2)

| July 30, 2012

Fred Jackson Running

In the first two parts of my Age of Decline series, we compared the longevity of quarterbacks to the significantly shorter careers of running backs. In part three we’ll take an extended look at running backs, using career touches instead of age as our basis for decline.

We’ll pay special attention to Willis McGahee, Michael Turner, and Fred Jackson, who are the only running backs in their 30s that sit atop their teams’ depth charts. They’re trying to defy historical trends and prove that they deserve to be in your starting lineup. Let’s examine the reasons for the success they’ve had later in their careers, identify what they have in common, and predict their output for 2012.

Note: All scoring in this article is standard, non-PPR.

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Studying the Trend for Career Touches

Much like the other data we’ve looked at in this Age of Decline series, our sample includes fantasy relevant players from the past 42 years. This graph breaks up hundreds of players’ careers into 250-touch spans, which means that many of the data points represent a hefty sample of over 10,000 touches each.

Points Per Touch by Career Touch Milestone (1970-2011)

There’s a pretty clear downward trend as players march towards 3,000 career touches, and contrary to what the graph might indicate, a resurgence starting at 3,500 touches is extremely uncommon. Only 12 post-merger players have reached that milestone. Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame and two of them will eventually be enshrined in Canton (Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson). Relying on a player approaching the 3,000-touch mark is a risky proposition unless you think he is a future Hall of Famer.

Top 20 Running Backs by Career Touches (1970-2011)

Name Rush Rec Touch TPG PPT
Emmitt Smith* 4758 561 5319 21.89 0.66
Walter Payton* 4018 514 4532 22.77 0.66
Curtis Martin* 3700 521 4221 23.71 0.59
LaDainian Tomlinson 3305 649 3954 21.97 0.75
Marcus Allen* 3289 640 3929 16.51 0.74
Jerome Bettis 3678 209 3887 18.87 0.57
Marshall Faulk* 3001 819 3820 20.32 0.76
Thurman Thomas* 3216 548 3764 18.54 0.67
Edgerrin James 3246 468 3714 23.07 0.61
Franco Harris* 3349 358 3707 19.31 0.63
Tony Dorsett* 3238 444 3682 19.38 0.66
Barry Sanders* 3153 373 3526 22.18 0.72
Eric Dickerson* 3144 300 3444 22.51 0.65
John Riggins* 3167 256 3423 18.60 0.65
Eddie George 3071 291 3362 22.41 0.55
Warrick Dunn 2805 548 3353 17.55 0.60
Ricky Watters 2797 508 3305 21.32 0.67
Thomas Jones 2803 320 3123 16.61 0.57
Ottis Anderson 2663 382 3045 16.03 0.63
Corey Dillon 2738 256 2994 18.95 0.64

* Inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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Applying What We Have Learned

Now let’s look at the touch counts for this year’s more prominent rushers. Stephen Jackson is the only starter nearing the 3,000-touch precipice, adding to concerns about his age and three straight seasons of points-per-game (PPG) decline. Only five other backs on this list top 1,500 career touches.

Selection of 20 Current Running Backs by Career Touches

Name Rush Rec Touch TPG PPT
Steven Jackson 2157 372 2529 21.62 0.63
Willis McGahee 1901 186 2087 16.18 0.63
Frank Gore 1682 300 1982 19.43 0.68
Maurice Jones-Drew 1498 285 1783 18.77 0.79
Adrian Peterson 1477 140 1617 21.28 0.78
Michael Turner 1506 54 1560 12.48 0.69
Chris Johnson 1198 195 1393 21.77 0.70
Ray Rice 1066 279 1345 19.49 0.69
Marshawn Lynch 1160 143 1303 17.61 0.62
Matt Forte 1056 236 1292 20.84 0.64
Reggie Bush 778 362 1140 14.07 0.77
Fred Jackson 817 175 992 15.03 0.66
Ahmad Bradshaw 811 129 940 11.90 0.70
Arian Foster 710 135 845 22.84 0.82
LeSean McCoy 652 171 823 17.15 0.77
Shonn Greene 645 48 693 13.59 0.58
Darren McFadden 553 116 669 14.87 0.75
Jamaal Charles 508 118 626 12.52 0.86
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 557 31 588 10.32 0.74
Ryan Mathews 380 72 452 17.38 0.70

We’ve already discussed the age concerns surrounding five of the top seven on this list in my previous article. I mostly included this chart for reference as we discuss the oldest players on this list, Willis McGahee, Michael Turner, and Fred Jackson. However, it’s worth noting that Stephen Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, and Ray Rice are the only players with more than 300 touches in each of the last three seasons. Rice leads the pack with 1,201 over that span.

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Defying the Age Trend

Unlike most running backs, Willis McGahee, Michael Turner, and Fred Jackson have continued to perform at a high level over the age of 28. Many people attribute this success to the fact that they have all served in a multi-year backup role at some point in their careers, sparing their body the punishment of extra carries. Despite being in their 30s, they all have fewer 200-touch seasons than 27-year-old Maurice Jones-Drew.

Turner and Jackson have crossed the 200-touch mark only three times in their careers, and Willis McGahee has notched five such seasons. Breaking down their production by age, you can see just how different their production patterns are from the typical running back.

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

22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
Willis McGahee 4.5 16.2 9.1 11.9 11.7 10.2 7.4 6.9 10.0
Michael Turner 0.8 3.2 5.4 3.0 16.9 13.7 13.4 13.0
Fred Jackson 6.1 6.7 10.8 9.8 17.4

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Willis McGahee

McGahee didn’t play during his rookie year in 2003 after suffering from a gruesome knee injury in his final game as a Miami Hurricane. From 2004-2007 he was the lead back for the Bills and Ravens. He spent the next three years as a backup, battling Ray Rice, Le’Ron Mclain, and injuries for playing time. His resurgence in Denver last season was the fifth year he led his team in carries.

Despite some downtime in his career, McGahee is still one of only two starting running backs with over 2,000 touches. This high touch count, his age, and Denver’s shift to a pass-centric offense are already impacting his average draft position (ADP). He’s 25th according to FantasyPros.com, which puts him among three other low-end starters that I have ranked higher, BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Shonn Greene, and Isaac Redman.

The biggest wildcard impacting McGahee’s value is the potential emergence of rookie Ronnie Hillman. As with most first-year backs, if Hillman is quick to learn pro-level pass protection, he’s likely to supplant the veteran.

Because McGahee has a lot of red flags and not a ton of upside, he’s a flex option at best. Grab Hillman as your RB4 to give yourself a high-upside stash that’s likely to pay off by mid-season.

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Michael Turner

Turner spent the first four years of his career backing up LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego before leading the Falcons’ in touches for the past four seasons. He’s 30 years old, but his 1,560 career touches are comparable to that of most 27-year-old starters.

As we saw in my previous article, even 27-year-olds are at risk for decreased productivity. In 2012 Turner will continue his slow, downward PPG trend for the fourth consecutive year. In six of his last seven games, he had less than 3.63 yards per carry on 99 attempts. With new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, implementing a more pass-oriented offense, Turner will slowly get squeezed out over the next two years. He only has 42 catches in 62 games with the Falcons, leaving the door wide open for Jacquizz Rodgers to steal playing time, especially in passing situations.

Turner has an ADP of RB15, and he’s the ultimate “meh” RB2 for your team. His upside isn’t much better than his 2010 numbers, but his floor is higher than Cedric Benson’s plodding, flex-worthy effort last year. He’s a solid, unsexy pick that could be smartly paired with a riskier, high-upside RB1 like Darren McFadden, Jamaal Charles, or Adrian Peterson. Just be sure to bump his value down significantly in PPR leagues and wait to get him for a decent value in all formats.

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Fred Jackson

Jackson didn’t enter the league until he was 26 years old. He backed up Marshawn Lynch the first two years of his career before serving as Buffalo’s primary back for the past three. With only 992 touches in his NFL career, one could argue that he has “more tread left on his tires” and will continue to defy age trends. On the other hand, how do you account for his three years of professional play before coming to the NFL?

He had 547 touches during two seasons of indoor football with the Sioux City Bandits in 2004 and 2005. He added another 184 touches while playing for Rhein Fire in NFL Europe in 2006. That brings his professional touch total up to 1,723, which moves him up to fifth on the list of current touch leaders. He has more professional touches than Turner or Adrian Peterson and is only a season’s worth behind Frank Gore.

At 31 years old, Jackson is definitely in that “danger zone” for decline, but his upside is hard to ignore. He had the fourth highest PPG at his position last year before breaking his leg—an injury that he is fully recovered from. His ADP is 16th, which appropriately balances his risk and upside. I have him ranked a couple of spots higher than that, just ahead of Turner.

The most important thing to watch regarding Jackson’s value is how much C.J. Spiller eats into his playing time. Spiller had some success late last year when Jackson was out, and that will translate into more playing time this year. However, the Bills will find ways to get both backs on the field at the same time, yielding only a small per-game snap count reduction for Jackson.

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What’s Next?

Now that we’ve covered the extremes on the spectrum of decline by examining quarterbacks and running backs, we’ll turn to the wide receiver middle ground in my next article. After wide receivers, we’ll wrap up the series with an in-depth look at tight ends.

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

    Very interesting article. Based on the PPT graph it seems like the best strategy would be to target young RBs that are very likely to get a lot of touches (i.e. Trent Richardson & Doug Martin this year, kinda similar to when AP & Lynch were rookies) or older RBs that don’t have many touches. The Fred Jackson / CJ Spiller situation is very interesting, seems like either one could end up a stud if things fall right them.

  • Austin Lee

    Touches 0-500 may be inflated due to many rookies being used in a change of pace role. I didn’t get a chance to analyze it enough. I think it would be an interesting study to see what the PPT is for rookies and second-year backs who had the majority of their team’s touches. That number may not be as gaudy as the .74 PPT that rookies seem to have. Not sure though. Just a hunch.

    Not sure I understand what you’re saying about older RBs w/ fewer touches. Are you saying that might work out because of the spike from 2250-2500 touches? I wouldn’t count on that or the increase in PPT from 3500 on.

    Buffalo’s backfield is definitely valuable. If either FJax or CJ got hurt, the other’s value would jump. Even with CJ healthy, I think FJax has a shot at being a top-10 back.