The Inevitable Decline of Running Backs

A top tier running back in fantasy football is about as hot of a commodity as you will find. In redraft and dynasty leagues alike, around 60% of the picks in the first two rounds of drafts will be running backs. Making sure that you nail your running back picks is essential to being successful in any fantasy football league. Part of nailing those picks is understanding how age and mileage correlates with the production of every running back. 

I have taken a sample of 21 running backs since the early 2000s that have had multiple 200+ point fantasy football seasons (Half PPR). With those 21 RBs I charted the majority of their stats, but the major focus was put on fantasy points, age, and touches. Running backs rarely gradually decline like wide receivers do so it is important to understand how quickly a running back can go from being a RB1 to a middling RB3-4.

Old School Running Backs

I started with some of the top running backs from the 2005 season, since this was one of my first years actually playing fantasy football. This list will bring back some memories for those of you who were in the game back then.

Shaun Alexander

LaDanian Tomlinson

Clinton Portis

Thomas Jones

Willis McGahee

Brian Westbrook

Edgerrin James

Marion Barber

All of these guys hit the end of their prime in 2005 or at some point over the next 5-6 years and my goal was to find some kind of correlation between all of them.

End of their primes

Here are the ages and how many touches each of these running backs had when their primes ended (last season of 200+ points):

Shaun Alexander was an ANIMAL scoring 87 TDs in a 5 season span between 2001 and 2005.

2005

Alexander-28 years old/1,905 touches

Edgerrin James-27/2,544 

2007

Willis McGahee-26/1,273

2008

LaDanian Tomlinson-29/3,167

Clinton Portis 27/2,285

Brian Westbrook 29/1,648

Marion Barber 25/852

2009

Thomas Jones 31/2,569

These running backs, at the end of their primes, averaged a total of 2,030 total touches at the 27.75 years old. Even if you think there are some anomalies in there (Barber at 25, Jones at 31, Lt at 3,100+), the numbers don’t change much when you take out the highest and lowest totals for each of those averages. Without Jones and Barber, the average age is still just 28, and without Barber and LT the average amount of touches was 2,037. 

All of these running backs saw their primes end due to various different reasons, but their primes were still essentially over nonetheless. Most of these RBs also saw somewhat of a massive drop-off in fantasy production the following season:

Alexander -228.9

James -99.7

McGahee -70.9

LT -75.2

Portis -162.9

Westbrook -172.8

Barber -35.9

Jones -92.2

LT set the single season TD record for running backs with 28 in 2006.

The issue is that most of these guys were still going in the 1st round of drafts the following year. RotoWire has a mock draft from 2006 with Alexander and James in the 1st round. After 2008 Bleacher Report listed their top 150 fantasy football players for 2009 and had LT, Westbrook, Portis, and Barber all in their top 17 overall. The only problem is that none of them finished in the top 60 the following year.

The entire point of this is to try and figure out when this inevitable decline will happen. Getting ahead of these drop-offs can be the difference between a first or last place finish in your fantasy leagues. Not gauging these correctly can also put you in dynasty purgatory where you are not competitive, but you are also not rebuilding. Nobody wants to be in that position.

New Class of Running Backs

Moving on to the next batch of running backs in this study, we have 13 running backs, all with multiple 200+ point seasons since 2010. This list consists of quite a few successful backs during this decade.

Arian Foster

Jamaal Charles

Michael Turner

Chris Johnson

MJD

Adrian Peterson

Steven Jackson

LeSean McCoy

Matt Forte

Marshawn Lynch 

DeMarco Murray

Le’Veon Bell

Mark Ingram

Some of these guys are still playing today, but some of them fell off of cliff at some point in their careers. Running backs have one of the youngest retirement ages amongst all positions in any sport. Understanding how and when they break down can help you win a couple of your leagues.

End of their primes

Of the backs here who no longer play, here are their ages and touches at the end of their primes:

2011

Michael Turner-29/1,468

MJD-26/1,561

Steven Jackson-28/2,507

2013

Chris Johnson-28/2,014

2014

Arian Foster-28/1,582

Jamaal Charles-27/1,511

Marshawn Lynch-28/2,272

Matt Forte-28/2,260

2015

Adrian Peterson-30/2,619 (Yes, he’s still playing, but he has not put up 200+ points since this year and he will not do it this year)

2016 

DeMarco Murray-28/1,635

2017

LeSean McCoy-29/2,626

Le’Veon Bell-25/1,541

2019

Mark Ingram-29/1,777

Again, all of these guys had their primes end for different reasons, and some of them may still have something left in the tank, but for the most part, their best football is behind them (Ingram/Bell being the only possible exceptions). 

The average amount of touches for this group at the end of their primes was 1,951. The average age for this group was 28 years old. 

Those numbers are very similar to the averages from the group above. The touches are only off by an average of 80 and the age is only about 3-4 months off from the original group. The average drop-off in fantasy points from the last season of their prime to the next season was 126.5 points. 126 AND A HALF POINTS! That is also excluding Peterson who tore his meniscus in his team’s third game of the season. I know there were some other injuries, but those injuries were not a freak accident like Peterson’s. Most of those injuries could actually be attributed to over usage. I’m not saying that that is the case, but it is within the realm of possibilities.

Verdict

Obviously, not every running back is built the same. There are very few RBs who can withstand a workload leading to over 3,100 career touches by age 28. There are also some RBs who peak extremely early and then fizzle out over time. The reason I chose the RBs I did for this study was because of their consistency over a multiple year period. One hit wonders like Peyton Hillis were not going to make this list as his season was more of an anomaly than anything. 

These 21 running backs were chosen because they are all different in their own ways, they all dominated at some point in their own ways, and for the most part all fell off a cliff at some point for various reasons. 

My goal was to help you realize that not all RBs are productive up until the day they retire. Most RBs actually don’t make it to 2,000 carries or past the age of 28, which is exactly where my verdict would be.

Redraft

When drafting running backs this year, be weary of anybody older than 28 with 2,000+ carries to their names. This year, there are two RBs going in the first few rounds that fit into that category: Mark Ingram and Le’Veon Bell. I’m not saying that either will fall off a cliff, but I am saying that it wouldn’t be a complete surprise for either of these two to bust in comparison to their ADPs this year.

Dynasty

When drafting running backs for dynasty, you’re playing the long game. That is why Jonathan Taylor and CEH are creeping up into the first rounds of startups. Based on season averages, there are a few RBs that will hit that 2,000 touch mark within the next 2 years: Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, and Mark Ingram. The only ones I would really stay away from as RB2s in dynasty are Le’Veon and Ingram.

I think 2-3 years of production is more than enough to make Zeke worthy of a top 5 pick, but you have to keep in mind by the end of the 2022 season he will be 28 years old with around 2,400 career touches. He may be one of those anomalies, but he may also be another RB who hits the end of his career after a crazy amount of touches. Just something to keep in mind. 

Now I know most of you will probably read this article and think how this is nonsense and every RB is different, but statistics are facts, and facts are undefeated. Your opinion will not make someone go over 2,500 touches just because you think they should.

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