Fantasy Football: At What Age Does A Running Back Decline? (2018)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 18, 2018

Marshawn Lynch is among the oldest running backs in the league, as he turned 32 years old in April

Throughout the offseason, we’ve posted plenty of articles on how to value a dynasty draft pick, how coaching changes affect fantasy players, how team-scoring should change the way you draft, among other things. But what about the players themselves? When do they start to drop-off in production?

When it comes to the running back position, most know that it’s a young man’s game, but what if there’s an aging running back still on an NFL roster and expected to get plenty of touches (think about someone like Marshawn Lynch). Most believe that those who have produced at an advanced age are just outliers, but I’m not the type to just accept things as they are without doing research, so I wanted to see if the fantasy results matched what everyone essentially believes.

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Now look, I’m not telling you that a player’s body doesn’t start to fatigue once he gets past the age of maybe even 25 years old, but it doesn’t mean they don’t find their way into more fantasy points due to their experience in the game, getting better as a route-runner, etc. The only way to test this was to go through data over the last 11 years (started the process last year, hence the odd number), look at players of all ages, with just one requirement to be included at the running back position – minimum of 50 touches in that particular season to be included. By doing that, we’re removing the players who fizzle out of the league after a few years and not letting them affect the data. After removing them, we’re left with a total of 856 individual seasons, which is more than enough of a sample size.

Upside (Top-Five Potential)

When drafting a running back and hoping to get top-five potential, most would assume that it’d be an established player like Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell, but just how young are some of the running backs who’ve finished inside this area? The same question can be asked about when a running back loses his upside and should no longer be considered capable of producing at such a level.

Sample Age Top-5 Finish
23 21 8.7%
81 22 6.2%
106 23 5.7%
113 24 9.7%
114 25 7.0%
95 26 9.5%
84 27 3.6%
76 28 9.2%
63 29 1.6%
39 30 5.1%
27 31 3.7%
21 32 4.8%
10 33 0.0%
4 34 0.0%

Based on the results, you can see that age plays almost no factor in a young running back’s success. From the age of 21 through 28, they have a clear window to finish in the upper echelon of fantasy running backs. There’ve been 104 running backs who’ve taken the field at age-22 or younger, with seven of them finishing as top-five options, or 6.73 percent. If there’s one thing you should learn from this chart, it’s that you should never fear drafting a rookie running back, as they have just as much shot to succeed as the veterans do.

On the flip side, there is a clear cliff for running backs when they hit the age of 29, as there’s been just 5-of-164 running backs who’ve been able to make it into elite territory (3.05 percent). Some players who have already hit the dark side (or will in 2018) include: Mark Ingram, Doug Martin, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, Bilal Powell, Marshawn Lynch, LeGarrette Blount, Frank Gore. The only players in this list who are highly sought-after are Ingram and McCoy, two running backs you should approach with caution. This article warned you about Murray last year, as there was too much risk built into his cost, which was a second-round pick.

RB1 Numbers (Top-12)

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
23 21 13.0%
81 22 17.3%
106 23 11.3%
113 24 15.9%
114 25 11.4%
95 26 18.9%
84 27 13.1%
76 28 22.4%
63 29 12.7%
39 30 12.8%
27 31 3.7%
21 32 19.0%
10 33 10.0%
4 34 0.0%

This chart doesn’t look as bad for aging running backs, but it also doesn’t look good. It’s pretty much a mixed bag from 21 through 27 with a running back hitting his peak RB1 days at age-28. The decline is steadier here, so you can try to make the case for an older running back, though you must remember that the only running backs still playing at the age of 29 and up are typically the best of the best, so the numbers are more telling than you’d think. The only running backs who finished top-12 at the age of 31 and beyond include: DeAngelo Williams (2015), Ricky Williams (2009), Frank Gore (2015), Fred Jackson (2013), and LeSean McCoy (2017). Only Frank Gore was able to finish inside the top-24 the following season.

It does appear that there’s a prime age for running backs, which falls in-between the ages of 26 and 28, which makes sense why we saw Mark Ingram have a career-year in 2017, as he was 28 years old. Some of the big names about to hit their prime in fantasy football include: Le’Veon Bell (26), Devonta Freeman (26), Jerick McKinnon (26), Carlos Hyde (27), Lamar Miller (27), C.J. Anderson (27), Dion Lewis (28), and Rex Burkhead (28).

RB2/RB3 Numbers (Top-24 and Top-36)

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 Top-24 Finish Top-36 Finish
23 21 34.8% 47.8%
81 22 30.9% 42.0%
106 23 26.4% 41.5%
113 24 29.2% 54.0%
114 25 28.9% 43.0%
95 26 37.9% 52.6%
84 27 32.1% 41.7%
76 28 39.5% 51.3%
63 29 30.2% 50.8%
39 30 30.8% 46.2%
27 31 29.6% 40.7%
21 32 23.8% 33.3%
10 33 10.0% 40.0%
4 34 25.0% 25.0%

You might think to yourself, “Okay, the youngsters dominate the upside, but the veterans are likely the safer picks.” Again, that’s not the case at all, as running backs peak in the RB2 category at the same age as those who finish top-12, which is the 26- to 28-age range. A 21-year-old rookie running back historically has a better chance to finish as a top-24 running back than a 29-year-old veteran, so don’t think you’re playing it safe by taking someone like Marshawn Lynch over someone like Royce Freeman.

What We Learned

Stop being concerned with young running backs and saying things like, “Well, we’ve never seen him play a down in the NFL before.” 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 28 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 wide receivers decline?
At what age do tight ends decline?


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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