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Fantasy Football: At What Age Does A Running Back Decline?

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Apr 12, 2017

DeMarco Murray is coming off of one of his best seasons in the NFL, but NFL Writer Mike Tagliere says it’s time to sell the veteran running back.

We began a new series yesterday, breaking down the age that specific positions start to lose some of their luster in fantasy football. It varies by each position, which was the reason we broke everything into a series. To say that the results of the wide receivers was surprising would be an understatement, as it was generally accepted that they dropped off around the age of 27 or 28 (Hint: Not true at all). If you missed the wide receivers age of decline that went up, check it out here.

Today we’ll be focusing on the running back position, which comes at a perfect time with players like Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles still looking for work. Even if they find a team, how likely will it be that they post top-five, top-12, top-24, or even top-36 numbers? We’ll answer that question shortly.

In this study, there was just one requirement: Every player considered had to touch the ball at least 50 times in that particular season, otherwise they were not considered. If there’s a running back who touched the ball fewer than 50 times, he wasn’t fantasy relevant. That’s our attempt at removing the players who fizzle out of the league within a few years, and not allowing them to affect the data. After doing that, we wound up with 773 individual player seasons over the last 10 years, which is more than enough of a sample.

Upside (Top-Five Potential)

Similar to wide receivers, you want to own running backs that give you top-five potential. After all, nobody was winning their league with Shonn Greene or anything. Because of that, I wanted to give you an idea as to the age that a player may stop offering you that upside. On top of that, you probably want to know when they can start offering you immediate upside.

Sample Age Top-5 Finish
18 AGE 21 11.1%
70 AGE 22 4.3%
94 AGE 23 5.3%
101 AGE 24 9.9%
105 AGE 25 6.7%
85 AGE 26 10.6%
78 AGE 27 3.8%
72 AGE 28 9.7%
58 AGE 29 1.7%
38 AGE 30 5.3%
24 AGE 31 4.2%
17 AGE 32 5.9%
10 AGE 33 0.0%
3 AGE 34 0.0%

In our study of wide receivers, no player under the age of 22 finished top-five, but as you can see, two of 18 running backs were able to accomplish that. In case you were wondering, both of them came in the last two years (Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliot), which should give you an idea as to where the NFL is headed. If a team drafts a running back in the first or second round, they’re going to use him right away, so if you want to get him in his prime, trade for him right now. Don’t shy away from young running backs.

On the other side of the spectrum, the older running backs don’t hang around for nearly as long as the wide receivers do. There is a dramatic drop-off after the age of 28, where those who have played at age-29 or older have finished in the top-five just five times, and keep in mind that there’s been 150 individual seasons included in that sample. Some of the prominent names who are going to be 29 or older in 2017 include: DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy, Jonathan Stewart, Ryan Mathews, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, and Frank Gore.

RB1 Numbers

Upside can mean one thing and there are only certain players who can reach top-five potential, but what about finishing in the top 12? Do the numbers look any better for the aging running backs in this area?

Sample Age Top-12 Finish
18 AGE 21 16.7%
70 AGE 22 14.3%
94 AGE 23 18.1%
101 AGE 24 16.8%
105 AGE 25 11.4%
85 AGE 26 20.0%
78 AGE 27 12.8%
72 AGE 28 22.2%
58 AGE 29 12.1%
38 AGE 30 13.2%
24 AGE 31 4.2%
17 AGE 32 23.5%
10 AGE 33 10.0%
3 AGE 34 0.0%

It doesn’t look much better for the older bunch here, either. It appears that once a running back turns 29, his days are limited. You can see that there is a spike at the age of 32, which is quite odd, though it is a rather small sample size. Those who finished as RB1’s in their age-32 season were DeAngelo Williams (2015), Ricky Williams (2009), Frank Gore (2015), and Fred Jackson (2013). Of those running backs, only Frank Gore finished inside the top 24 the following season. Still, just 18 of 150 running backs that were 29 years and older were able to post RB1 numbers.

We can see a clear prime age range for running backs in this data, as it seems like age-26 through age-28 are the best years, which makes sense after we just saw Murray and McCoy shine in their age-28 season. Some of the biggest players headed into their prime years include: David Johnson, Lamar Miller, Carlos Hyde, C.J. Anderson, Eddie Lacy, and Mark Ingram. By some miracle, Le’Veon Bell won’t turn 26 until February of 2018, so his prime years are still ahead of him.

RB2 and RB3 Numbers

Some fantasy owners are okay with safety on their roster, as they just want someone who’ll continually post RB2 or flex numbers, looking to make up for upside with their wide receivers. Even if that’s the case, the trend continues with trying to avoid older running backs.

Sample Age RB2 Finish RB3 Finish
18 AGE 21 38.9% 50.0%
70 AGE 22 30.0% 41.4%
94 AGE 23 26.6% 41.5%
101 AGE 24 29.7% 55.4%
105 AGE 25 28.6% 42.9%
85 AGE 26 37.6% 51.8%
78 AGE 27 33.3% 42.3%
72 AGE 28 40.3% 52.8%
58 AGE 29 29.3% 50.0%
38 AGE 30 31.6% 44.7%
24 AGE 31 29.2% 41.7%
17 AGE 32 29.4% 41.2%
10 AGE 33 10.0% 40.0%
3 AGE 34 0.0% 0.0%

In this data, there is a lot of similarity between the ages, which makes plenty of sense. The reason is due to situation, as you do not need to be a very talented running back in order to finish inside of the top-24 or especially the top-36. All you need is to be on a team that is willing to give you 15 touches per game, because if they get that, they’re in this group by default.

What We Learned

From a per-touch standpoint, running backs tend to decline once they get past the age of 26, and it appears that NFL teams have taken notice, moving on from running backs faster than ever before. If you’ve got a running back who is 27 years of age, regardless of how great his season was, you need to consider moving him before it’s too late. We also learned that no age is too young to consider a running back among the elites. If you need running back help on your roster, don’t be afraid to spend up in order to acquire a young running back.

More Analysis
At what age do WRs decline?
At what age do TEs decline?

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