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At What Age Do Running Backs Decline? (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 16, 2021

Derrick Henry is likely nearing the end of his elite production

There are things you’re told when you start playing fantasy football that you believe to be true. I mean, why would anyone want to lie to you? One of those things was the age that fantasy players stop producing. What would they have to gain by telling you a player falls off a cliff at a certain age?

When I became a full-time analyst and had time to research things like this, I wanted to give you concrete answers. When does a fantasy player stop producing like an elite option? When does he stop offering top-12 upside? Top-24? You’ve stumbled upon the correct article.

We’ll go position-by-position to answer that question, as it varies. Today, we’ll talk about the running back position. Most know 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 the majority of touches (these are becoming increasingly rare by the year)? 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 14-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 1,089 individual seasons, more than enough for a conclusion.

Here are the links to the study on other positions:
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends

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 top-five? This chart identifies when a player may lose some of that elite potential. Maybe even more importantly, it identifies when they’re most valuable.

Sample Age Top-5 Finish
32 21 9.4%
110 22 5.5%
142 23 7.0%
154 24 9.1%
153 25 7.8%
115 26 9.6%
104 27 2.9%
90 28 7.8%
74 29 1.4%
45 30 4.4%
30 31 3.3%
24 32 4.2%
11 33 0.0%
5 34 0.0%

If you’ve listened to the FantasyPros Football Podcast, you now know why I try to explain that running backs are in their prime the moment they enter the league. Nearly 10 percent of 21-year-old running backs have finished as a top-five fantasy running back. If there’s a running back coming out of college early, his ceiling is as high as anyone’s. It’s why you should never fault a running back for exiting college; the miles on their bodies are limited. This year’s class of rookies includes Najee Harris (23 years old), Travis Etienne (22), Javonte Williams (21), Michael Carter (22), and Trey Sermon (22).

This chart also shows a steep drop-off once a running back hits his age-27 season. Sure, there’s a blip on the radar at 28, which tells us that not every 28-year-old needs to be avoided, but you’d better make sure he’s a can’t-miss player if selecting him near the first round. The running backs who are quickly approaching the steep drop-off in elite production include Derrick Henry (27), Aaron Jones (27), Kenyan Drake (27), Chris Carson (27), Todd Gurley (27), Melvin Gordon (28), and Mike Davis (28). It seems like the trend of aging running backs falling off continually gets worse. The last running backs who finished top-five after the age of 28 were 32-year-old DeAngelo Williams, who finished as the No. 4 running back in Le’Veon Bell‘s absence in 2015, and 30-year-old Adrian Peterson finished No. 2. The only others to accomplish this in the 14-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 over that barrier in 2021 include David Johnson, Giovani Bernard, 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
32 21 15.6%
110 22 18.2%
142 23 12.7%
154 24 16.9%
153 25 14.4%
115 26 18.3%
104 27 11.5%
90 28 18.9%
74 29 10.8%
45 30 13.3%
30 31 3.3%
24 32 16.7%
11 33 9.1%
5 34 0.0%

We have what I’d call a solid sample size of data from age-22 to age-29, but it’s a bit too small to form any concrete opinions outside of there. It does highlight that there is less of a drop-off at age 28, though it’s important to remember that only the best of the best play into that territory, which can slightly inflate the numbers.

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 still a couple years away, you may want to look at moving on from guys like Derrick Henry (27), Aaron Jones, (27), Chris Carson (27), and Melvin Gordon (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
32 21 40.6% 53.1%
110 22 30.9% 42.7%
142 23 28.9% 44.4%
154 24 30.5% 51.9%
153 25 30.1% 45.1%
115 26 36.5% 52.2%
104 27 32.7% 42.3%
90 28 35.6% 48.9%
74 29 27.0% 48.6%
45 30 28.9% 42.2%
30 31 26.7% 36.7%
24 32 20.8% 29.2%
11 33 18.2% 45.5%
5 34 20.0% 40.0%

It’s widely accepted among the public that youngsters have more upside, but that veterans may be the safer bet. This study disagrees with that. Like the elite upside and RB1 potential, there’s a drop-off after the age-28 season in top-24 production. Once again, this chart shows that running backs are in their prime once they enter the league, as a whopping 40.6 percent (the highest number on the chart) of 21-year-old running backs have finished as a top-24 option.

What We Learned

Stop saying you can’t trust rookies or young players. If they’re both guaranteed 50-plus touches, a 21-year-old 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.

Dynasty, Featured, Featured Link, NFL