Fantasy Football: At What Age Does A Running Back Decline? (2019)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 17, 2019

David Johnson will turn 28 years old in 2019

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There are certain topics that come up throughout a fantasy owner’s lifecycle that force him to question everything he’s heard. If you don’t know what I mean, I’m talking about a stereotype that’s associated with fantasy players in which you don’t particularly believe to be true.

Whenever I hear such stereotypes, I want to do my best to try and debunk them to prove whether they’re right, or if someone just made it up one day and everyone else believed it to be true. One of the biggest ones I’d questioned was the timeline in which a player declined. At what age do certain positions start falling off?

Read about the wide receivers here
Read about the tight ends here

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.

The only way to test whether this was true was to go through a large sample size of data. I’ve accumulated a 12-year sample size with only one requirement to be included. The running back must have had 50 or more touches to be included in the sample, as this will eliminate players who never get a shot at a young age, and those who fizzled out of the league after a few years. After removing the players with less than 50 touches, we’re left with a total of 937 individual seasons, more than enough for a conclusion.

Upside (Top-Five Potential)

When drafting a player in the early rounds, you want to ensure they can not only live up to their draft position, but hopefully exceed it. Is there a player falling down draft boards due to his age and perceived drop-off? Just how young are some running backs who’ve finished in this area? This chart identifies when a player may lose some of that elite potential.

Sample Age Top-5 Finish
25 21 12.00%
91 22 6.59%
121 23 6.61%
129 24 9.30%
123 25 6.50%
99 26 9.09%
96 27 3.13%
80 28 8.75%
65 29 1.54%
43 30 4.65%
27 31 3.70%
23 32 4.35%
11 33 0.00%
4 34 0.00%

 

If you’ve checked out the wide receiver piece, you’d know that no wide receiver has finished top-five at younger than 22 years old. It’s not that way with running backs, as three of them have accomplished that feat over the last 12 years. While wide receivers get better with age, running backs are essentially the opposite. There have been 116 running backs who’ve taken the field at age 22 or younger, and nine of them have finished as top-five options, or 7.8 percent. Judging by the chart, a running back should be considered “in his prime” from the time he enters the league until age-28.

There’s a steep cliff that running backs fall off once they turn 29 years old, though. There has been just 5-of-173 individual seasons that have netted a top-five finish among running backs who are 29 or older. That amounts to just 2.9 percent. And it’s important to keep in mind that only the best-of-the-best are still playing at that age. The carries eventually take a toll and the players lose their upside. Some big-name players who have already hit the dark side (or will in 2019) include: Dion Lewis (29), Mark Ingram (30), LeSean McCoy (31), and Adrian Peterson (34). Over the last two years, this exact article warned you about Latavius Murray in 2017 and then LeSean McCoy in 2018, who were both tremendous busts.

RB1 Numbers (Top-12 Potential)

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
25 21 16.00%
91 22 17.58%
121 23 13.22%
129 24 15.50%
123 25 11.38%
99 26 19.19%
96 27 12.50%
80 28 21.25%
65 29 12.31%
43 30 11.63%
27 31 3.70%
23 32 17.39%
11 33 9.09%
4 34 0.00%

 

This chart doesn’t look nearly as bad for aging running backs, but it also doesn’t look great. From the time a running back enters the league until the time he hits 28, it seems like a somewhat level playing field, with 28 being the peak age of his fantasy career as an RB1 performer. Again, it’s important to keep in mind that only the best running backs are playing beyond the age of 28, so to see just 19-of-173 (10.98 percent) running backs have been able to finish inside the top-12 is notable. 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). Gore was the only one able to finish inside the top-24 the following season. Aging running backs are a dying breed.

The takeaway here is to unload your running backs before the steep decline starts in their career, which is immediately after their age-28 season. Here’s a list of players who are coming up on that territory in 2019: David Johnson (28), Lamar Miller (28), Latavius Murray (28), and Carlos Hyde (28). If you’re in a dynasty league and aren’t in the position to win this year, it’s a good time to see what you can get for them.

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
25 21 36.00% 52.00%
91 22 30.77% 41.76%
121 23 28.93% 44.63%
129 24 31.01% 53.49%
123 25 28.46% 43.90%
99 26 37.37% 51.52%
96 27 30.21% 39.58%
80 28 37.50% 50.00%
65 29 29.23% 50.77%
43 30 27.91% 41.86%
27 31 29.63% 40.74%
23 32 21.74% 30.43%
11 33 18.18% 45.45%
4 34 25.00% 25.00%

 

It’s probably accepted among the public that while the youngsters may have more upside, the veterans are the safer bet. This chart disagrees with that. Similar to the elite upside and RB1 potential, there’s a drop-off after their age-28 season. There’ve been 36.0 percent of 21 year olds to finish top-24, 37.4 percent of 26 year olds, and 37.5 percent of 28 year olds, yet no age beyond 28 posted higher than a 29.6 percent mark. It’s also important to note that Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore have contributed to a lot of those numbers over the last few years, so it looked even worse before the future Hall of Famers boosted the percentages.

What We Learned

Do not worry about a running back being young. Instead, worry about them being old, as they lose any upside they once had. There’s always going to be an exception to every rule, but in fantasy football, you play for the rule, not the exception. From a per-touch standpoint, running backs tend to decline beyond the age of 26, which is why we’ve started to see running backs have a hard time getting a big contract once their rookie deal is over. 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.

Read about the wide receivers here
Read about the tight ends here


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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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