The Risk of Drafting Older Running Backs: Part 1

By Nick Weimer

Often times in the fantasy industry, fantasy “experts” try to predict the future based off the general consensus, generalizing about a time when they saw a player break six tackles en route to a touchdown, or otherwise their gut feelings. They have little to no supporting details, which could lead your fantasy draft astray. I have good news and bad news (as usual, as all you “First and Ten” podcast listeners know). The good news is that at TopTeamFantasy, we strive to make our predictions only after we have found evidence that backs up our rankings. The bad news is that I am about to throw charts and prediction models at you that require a thinking cap, but they will be highly useful nonetheless.

Unfortunately, all bodies deteriorate with time, and NFL running backs are (surprisingly) human. But is it possible to decipher when this deterioration will occur? If we could do so, fantasy football fans alike would have much fewer headaches. Perhaps by looking at trends from the past, we are able to do ourselves such a favor.

Running Back is the most physically taxing skill position in the NFL. As a result, in this study were going to take a look at three older RBs, Adrian Peterson (1st in RB points), Frank Gore (10th in RB points) and Steven Jackson (17th in RB points), who were all among the game’s best last year.

First, let’s take a look below at a list of 28-Year-Old Running Backs in the last ten NFL season whom the previous year received at least 330 carries, just as Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson did last year.

We expect that Adrian Peterson’s statistics will decrease in 2013 after such a remarkable year last season. But given this decrease, the question remains: Will his numbers still warrant the first selection off the board on Draft Day? Coming off his rookie season, Doug Martin (262.6 fantasy points last year) has low mileage at the age of 24. His total fantasy points are much more likely to increase in 2013, as are other young running backs that are going in the first round of typical fantasy drafts like Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller (212.3 fantasy points last year), Cleveland’s Trent Richardson (203.7 fantasy points last year), and Washington’s Alfred Morris (241 fantasy points last year).

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Among the fourteen situations listed in the table above, the mean change in fantasy production was a 28.3% decrease. This projects Peterson 216.1 fantasy points for 2013. Major injuries on the list like Clinton Portis’s (’09) concussion and Shaun Alexander’s foot (’06) heavily affect the mean, but even using the median percent change on this set of data predicts an even worse 29.1% decrease in production.

Of course, every player is different and the case can be made that Adrian Peterson has a pristine athletic build that lowers his risk of such a statistical drop-off. But, he already has three seasons of more than 300 carries and ACL Reconstructive Surgery is not helping matters. Furthermore, the only players to ever improve after such seasons were Shaun Alexander and Edgerrin James. “Edge” improved on a mediocre fantasy season in 2006 of 167.6 fantasy points. When Shaun Alexander improved from 2004 to 2005, he was entering his fifth season as a full workload back. Peterson will be entering his seventh.

Given the phenomenal season Adrian Peterson had last year, an increase in fantasy production is highly unlikely. Also, seeing the trends of similar running backs in the past ten NFL seasons, Peterson’s numbers should decline to a point that Doug Martin is a safer fantasy draft choice at first overall. If Peterson drops in production as predicted, several running backs such as Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Washington’s Alfred Morris, Cleveland’s Trent Richardson and Houston’s Arian Foster (who, by the way, is 27 this year and may be on the above list next season) have potential to finish ahead of Peterson by season’s end (if healthy of course). I’m not advising to drop Peterson below all of these mentioned players, but instead hoping you understand my skepticism to why Adrian Peterson has been the “consensus number one pick” all offseason. You are drafting him for his production this year, not last year.

Next, we look at a slightly older age group who received less of a workload the previous year. Below is a list of 30-Year-Old running backs whom the previous season received at least 250 Carries in the last ten NFL seasons as San Francisco’s Frank Gore and Atlanta’s Steven Jackson did last year.

This situation also a concern for statistical decline because when players find themselves late in careers, they most likely have wear and tear on their bodies already, yet were still given a significant workload the previous season. This generally leads to an injury or at least a drop-off in production. Another trend is that retirement usually follows within zero to two years after this late-career, heavy workload.

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Many of these injuries are related to the lower extremities, which is understandable as running backs rely on their legs most. But some of the injuries listed, like Emmitt Smith’s shoulder injury in 2003, were not related to the lower extremities. “Wear and tear” eventually surfaces in the form of injury whether it is to the lower extremities or not. This is the “tax” that playing in the NFL has on the athletes.

The mean change in fantasy production for the above table is a 28.7% decrease, while the median change in fantasy production is a 43.9% decrease. Tiki Barber and Thomas Jones were two of the three players that saw an increase in their statistics in the above table. While both production increases late in their careers were impressive, it should be noted that these two players averaged 115.8 carries per season (Barber) and 124.8 carries per season (Jones) through their first four NFL seasons. In other words, they had relatively low mileage on their bodies. The other player who saw a statistical increase was Curtis Martin. Martin bucked the trend and proved to be one of the most durable backs in history starting 166 of 176 NFL games in his Hall-of-Fame career.

Frank-Gore-injury[1]Using the lesser of the two evils above, a 28.7% decrease from the previous year would predict 114.3 fantasy points for Steven Jackson and 125.9 fantasy points for Frank Gore in 2013. Of course, this does not factor in the change of scenery that Steven Jackson may benefit from in Atlanta this season. Backs with greater upside and less injury risk than Jackson (drafted 13th at RB) and Gore (drafted 17th at RB) include but are not limited to New England’s Steven Ridley (age 24, 14th) Detroit’s Reggie Bush (age 28, 16th), New York Giant’s David Wilson (age 22, 19th), and Miami’s Lamar Miller (age 22, 22nd).

Steven Jackson also has the most career carries among active players with 2,395 attempts. Frank Gore ranks third on the list with 1,911 attempts. Between these two is Willis McGahee (1,957) who would have been on this year’s list had he not suffered a torn MCL and broken leg last season. Not to our surprise, Adrian Peterson has the fourth-most carries among active players (1,754). In Part 2 of this analysis, coming next week, we will look at RBs with similar career rushing attempts and what their careers can tell us about these three players.

With the above data, Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, and Frank Gore are three running backs that I feel are going too early in drafts this year. These players should significantly drop in dynasty leagues rankings also, as all three players most likely have their best days behind them from a fantasy football perspective. Note that running backs are generally in the prime of their career from their third to sixth seasons in the league. Use this as a rule of thumb when deciding between guys like Stevan Ridley or Steven Jackson, for example. If you still can’t decide, always remember that Running Back rankings are updated frequently on TopTeamFantasy.com. Also, it is possible for running backs to be highly productive late in their careers, especially if they did not carry the full workload early on in their career (Tiki Barber, Thomas Jones, see Maurice Jones-Drew).

If you have a feeling any of these running backs will buck the trend this year, just remember your fighting with a long list of history.

All NFL data from previous seasons was acquired from website http://www.pro-football-reference.com.

Follow us on Twitter @BustaWeims and @TopTeamFantasy to get the latest fantasy news and advice.

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