I’ve been playing fantasy football so long, I can remember when age 30 was the danger zone for running backs, the red lights blinking, the warning sirens. The rules are obviously different today. And forget age 30, we have to worry much earlier. Of course, much of this is tied to the shape of the college and pro games these days. Many talented skill players don’t hang around college for four years; talent heads to the NFL sooner.
With that, all the timetables are sped up. Workloads start quicker, and so does attrition.
Nonetheless, I think you might be surprised when you examine the aging patterns of backs the past decade or so, and how quickly the windows slammed shut on some elite runners.
Let’s consider how the last seven overall RB1s followed up their great year (Todd Gurley, take note, finished first twice).
• Derrick Henry outscored everyone in 2020. Last year he got hurt and missed nine games, though impressively he still checked in at RB14.
• Christian McCaffrey was the yellow jersey in 2019. He’s played 10 games since.
• Gurley outpaced the field in 2017 and 2018. He’s apparently done with football now. Last year would have been Gurley’s age-27 season; he did not play.
• David Johnson was the 2016 cheat code. Since then: RB10, RB37, RB19, RB67. He’s currently without a team.
• Devonta Freeman broke fantasy in 2015. He was an NFL spare part by age 26.
• DeMarco Murray grabbed the stats in 2014. His follow-up: RB17, RB5, RB23, retired.
• Jamaal Charles was the RB winner in 2013. He charted RB7 the following year, then fell off a cliff.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to the overall RB1s, obviously. Consider Le’Veon Bell’s curious career. He was the RB2 at age 22, the RB4 at age 24, and the RB2 at age 25. After that, it got messy: holdout, RB21, RB62, RB85. He looked washed up last year.
What can we learn from age data for running backs?
I was curious where running back production tends to cluster by age, so I ran the numbers on the past five years. If we looked at the top-20 backs in each season (so, 100 runners over five years), this is how their ages chart:
• Age 21: 6 players
• Age 22: 14 players
• Age 23: 17 players
• Age 24: 15 players
• Age 25: 16 players
• Age 26: 14 players
• Age 27: 9 players
Note the gap that follows:
• Age 28: 2 players
• Age 29: 2 players
• Age 30: 2 players
• Age 31: 1 player
• Age 33: 1 player
• Age 34: 1 player
The “old guys” who have beaten this trend, the 28-and-ups, deserve mention by name. Here they are, in order: Melvin Gordon, Mark Ingram, David Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Cordarrelle Patterson (if you even count him), Ingram again, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson and good old Frank Gore.
Maybe top-20 finishes don’t matter much to you — perhaps you’re keener on a back who can finish top 10, truly move that needle. Here’s where youth is even more important.
The last five years, only four backs age-27 and up have cracked the top 10 (DJ, Ingram, McCoy, Ingram). It’s a young man’s game, man. And let’s not forget the last nine running backs who were No. 1 at the position were 25 or younger.
This data discussion doesn’t have to lead to stern, rigid conclusions. The league is constantly shifting and evolving. Teams are more platoon-centric these days. And there are some uber-talented backs who are ready to meander through their late 20s. Consider this list of fun-to-draft runners:
• Age 26: Joe Mixon, Christian McCaffrey
• Age 27: Austin Ekeler, James Conner, Ezekiel Elliott, Nick Chubb, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette
• Age 28: Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry
• Age 29: Melvin Gordon
• Age 31: Cordarrelle Patterson
You’d be foolish to simply discount the entire list — some of those backs are going to have good seasons. And maybe the rookie class of 2017 deserves mention as a historic group. I’m on record with Jones being a perfect second-round pick, and he’s one of the older backs. I’m partly encouraged by his heavy role as a receiver, which tends to add less wear-and-tear on a back.
Conversely, interior pounding is why I’m almost certain to avoid Henry in all of my drafts.
That said, this is always a position where I like to side with youth, when possible. And consider some of the backs who are 25 or younger: Jonathan Taylor, Najee Harris, D’Andre Swift, Saquon Barkley, Javonte Williams. I’m taking JT immediately when I draw the No. 1 overall pick. And with Williams, I can’t ignore that he’s seven years younger than Gordon. I’d rather be a year early than late to the Williams party.
And I’d rather be a year early than a year late if it’s finally the collapse year for Elliott, or Henry, or Gordon.
I'm not saying you can't draft these guys; it's always about the ADP relative to the player anyway. I'm not saying some of them won't be great. I'm not making any hard rules here, except for this: in most RB cases, it gets later earlier than you think. Call it The Rule of Todd Gurley. Or maybe it's The Bellwether of Le'Veon Bell. I'm not hung up on cute names and branding.
Back to the draft table.