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At What Age Does A Running Back Decline? (Fantasy Football 2020)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 13, 2020

Running backs have a shelf life in fantasy football

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 set the record straight. I’ll either debunk them as something someone made up one day that everyone believed to be true, or I’ll prove they’re right. 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?

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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 who’s expected to get plenty of touches (think about someone like Mark Ingram)? 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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The only way to test whether this was true was to go through a large sample size of data. I’ve accumulated a 13-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 1,011 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
28 21 10.7%
101 22 5.9%
130 23 6.9%
148 24 9.5%
133 25 7.5%
106 26 8.5%
99 27 3.0%
86 28 8.1%
68 29 1.5%
44 30 4.5%
29 31 3.4%
23 32 4.3%
11 33 0.0%
5 34 0.0%

 

This is my fourth season doing these articles, and I’m legitimately shocked every time. Nearly 11 percent of 21-year-old running backs finish as a top-five option, the highest percentage on the entire chart. If there’s a young running back coming out of college early, his ceiling is as high as anyone’s. That’s quite different from the wide receivers, as there’s yet to be a 21-year-old top-five wide receiver. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jonathan Taylor, Cam Akers, and D’Andre Swift will all be playing at age 21 this season. A running back’s prime is the moment they walk onto the field.

The chart clearly shows a point of no return at age 29, where a running back essentially loses that top-five potential. We all know the NFL is changing, right? Well, the last running back who finished top-five after the age of 28 was in 2015 when 32-year-old DeAngelo Williams finished as the No. 4 running back in Le’Veon Bell‘s absence, and 30-year-old Adrian Peterson finished No. 2. The only others to accomplish this in the 13-year sample size were Thomas Jones (No. 5 in 2009, No. 4 in 2008) and Matt Forte (No. 3 in 2014). Some players who are hitting that barrier in 2020 include Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Devonta Freeman, Carlos Hyde, and Latavius Murray.

RB1 Numbers (Top-12 Upside)

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
28 21 14.3%
101 22 16.8%
130 23 13.1%
148 24 17.6%
133 25 12.8%
106 26 17.9%
99 27 12.1%
86 28 19.8%
68 29 11.8%
44 30 13.6%
29 31 3.4%
23 32 17.4%
11 33 9.1%
5 34 0.0%

 

We have what I’d call a solid sample size from age-22 to age-30, but it’s a bit small to form any concrete opinions beyond there. What this does show that running backs can still provide RB1 value beyond the age of 28, even if it is a smaller sample size. However, even if the percentages look solid, you must remember that only the best running backs get to play into that territory, so knowing just 11.8 percent of 29-year-old running backs have hit RB1 numbers, it’s not great.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Judging by the sample size, you can see that running backs are having shorter and shorter careers (see sample size), with many falling off after that age-28 season. It’s nearly impossible to trade running backs in dynasty because everyone wants the young potential workhorses, while only the competing teams want the aging starters. But if you’re building a team that’s two-to-three years away, you may want to look at moving on from guys like Derrick Henry (26), Chris Carson (26), Todd Gurley (26), Melvin Gordon (27).

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
28 21 35.71% 50.00%
101 22 29.70% 42.57%
130 23 29.23% 43.85%
148 24 31.08% 52.70%
133 25 30.83% 45.11%
106 26 35.85% 50.94%
99 27 31.31% 41.41%
86 28 37.21% 51.16%
68 29 27.94% 48.53%
44 30 29.55% 43.18%
29 31 27.59% 37.93%
23 32 21.74% 30.43%
11 33 18.18% 45.45%
5 34 20.00% 40.00%

 

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. Like the elite upside and RB1 potential, there’s a drop-off after their age-28 season. There’ve been 35.7 percent of 21-year-olds to finish top-24, 35.9 percent of 26-year-olds, and 37.2 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

Stop saying you can’t trust rookies or young players. If they’re both guaranteed 50-plus touches, a rookie running back has a better chance at being elite than a 26-year-old proven starter. We all know that players lose upside the older they get, but there seems to be a clear stopping point for running backs, which occurs after their age-28 season. 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 on. If you need running back help on your roster, don’t be afraid to spend up in order to acquire a young running back.


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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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