Deep Historical Analysis on the Peak and Decline of Running Backs

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Running Back Analysis

I’m a big fan of statistical analysis and using numbers to validate opinions. If you enjoy number-based facts, you’ll love the results of my research. I looked at the career performance breakdown of the best backs over the past 10 years to verify if running back production declines considerably at age 30. The data sample was limited to running backs that finished in the top 10 between 2003-2013 for any single season over the course of their career.

Setup:

  • Data sample of the top 10 RBs for each season from 2003 to 2013
  • Statistical categories included; calendar year, rank, date of birth, number of years pro, rushing attempts, rushing touchdowns, rushing yards, YPC, receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, total touchdowns, total number of touches, and total yards from scrimmage.
  • 53 Players (25 active, 28 inactive)
  • Observations (total # seasons observed) =401
  • Careers spanning 1995-2013
  • Where applicable, only inactive players were used in the formula.
  • Stats pulled from MyFantasyLeague.com and cross-referenced to NFL.com

Method:

First, I compiled a unique list of the top 10 ranked running backs for every season from 2003-2013.

Fantasy Football Rankings
Fantasy Football Rankings

 

Fantasy Football Rankings

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Next, I looked at the career stats for each of the 53 distinct RBs.

Fantasy Football Running Backs

Fantasy Football Running Backs

 

 

 

 

 

I then add a few derived fields, such as whether or not the player is still active, TotalTouches, TotalYdsFromScrimmage and TotalTDs.

Fantasy Football 2014

Fantasy Football 2014

 

 

 

 

I then compiled an average for all categories, by the number of Years Pro for all of the players.

Player Rankings

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Finally, the results are generated in the form of a neat little graph. The Y-axis is the number of yards and the x-axis represents the number of years pro.

Fantasy Football Rankings

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Observations:

  • Fred Taylor was the longest tenured player on the list with a 13 year career, retiring at 34.
  • Adrian Peterson and LaDanian Tomlinson finished in the top 10 the most times (6).
  • Running Backs peaked for rushing yards, total TDs, rush attempts, rushing TDs and total touches in year 6 or age 27 on average.
  • On average, running backs produced best in years 3 through 6 or age 24-27
  • Year 7+ (or age 28) was a considerable drop-off (13%) from year 6
  • Year 8 was a 25% drop-off, on average, in total yards from scrimmage from the peak in year 6.
  • Production drop-off was due to fewer touches more so than a drastic reduction in yds/att.

Statistical Analysis:

  • Average career of a top 10 RB is 9 years
  • 63.6% of RBs made top 10 during their 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th year as a pro.
  • Only 17% of RBs made the top 10 after season 6.
  • 29 RBs out of 53 made the top 10 just one time. (One hit wonders)
  • 24 RBs out of 53 made the top 10 two or more times.
  • 19 RBs out of 53 made the top 10 three or more times.
  • 8 RBs out of 53 made the top 10 four or more times.
  • 4 RBs out of 53 made the top 10 five or more times (Peterson, Tomlinson, CJ2K, Jones-Drew)
  • For RBs that had at least one top 10 finish in their career, only 110 of 401 seasons or 27.4% were top 10 finishes
  • For RBs that made the top 10, there’s just a 14.2% chance that they will do it again.
  • Age 27 and 1471 cumulative touches marked the peak of career on average.
  • Only 10 rookies of the 53 (18.9%) players made the top 10 from 2003 – 2013

Conclusions:

From these numbers we can safely conclude that the theory of RBs declining at age 30 is not exactly true. It begins much sooner at age 28. So how can you use this information to better prepare for a 2014 fantasy football draft? Hopefully, this data will highlight players who are poised to take the next step into the top 10 and also point out past performers who might be subject to an unexpected drop in performance this year. To better illustrate this, I compiled a list of the top 30 running backs based on last year’s finish and looked at how many seasons each running back has been in the league.

Fantasy Football Running Backs

Fantasy Football Running Backs

It’s worth pointing out that the top 4 RBs in 2013 were all in their 5th and 6th years as a pro, which aligns closely with the results of the historical exercise.

Who is set to fall off?

Players who have peaked are listed in red text. As you rank your running backs for this season’s fantasy football draft, expect Charles and Forte to drop off slightly (13%) from 2013, but still maintain enough elite productivity to finish in the top 10 and maybe top 5. Based on this revelation, I’m pushing McCoy to the top spot in my 2014 RB rankings and moving Charles down to #2. Lynch, Peterson and Bush should drop another 13% in production from last year’s totals. They may still be productive enough to finish in the top 10, but history shows us that these RBs have peaked. Likewise, Chris Johnson, Fred Jackson and Frank Gore have all peaked. It’s probable that none of these three will finish in the top 10 in 2014. Chris Johnson also finds himself with a new team, the NY Jets, which could make matters worse.

Who is set to peak this year?

Remember, we want to target RBs entering their 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th season. The potential peaking players are highlighted in yellow. Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson will be entering their 3rd season. DeMarco Murray will be in his 4th

Joique Bell, Ryan Matthews, Ben Tate and C.J. Spiller will be entering their 5th year. LeSean McCoy, Knowshon Moreno, Rashad Jennings and Donald Brown will be entering their 6th season, which is usually the peak of a running back’s career. Lastly, I like to mention that Doug Martin will be entering his 3rd season. Even though he failed to crack the top 30 in 2013, due to injury, he might be a good bet to finish as a strong RB1 in 2014.

Moreno may slip some because he has switched teams. Consider the 2014 Dolphins a slight downgrade from the 2013 Broncos. Donald Brown, Ben Tate and Rashad Jennings have all landed in favorable situations with new teams and all have extra tread remaining on the tires compared to most backs with the same years of experience.

Be sure to view our complete, 2014 running back rankings to see how this study impacts them. Lastly, Pro-Football-Reference is a great source of statistical data on fantasy sports. Although it wasn’t used in this article, I often reference the site when conducting in-depth statistical research.
 

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