The Beginning of the End; Running Backs & Age
There comes a time in a running backs career where he’s not as serviceable as he used to be. Running Back has become the most expendable position in possibly all of sports as of late, and this is due to the emergence of talent in each and every draft. At what age, though, is it time to “fade or trade” a running back? I’ve seen a lot of nonsense regarding trading or fading Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook, to name a few, because of their age (they’re only 25), but that seems far too young for me. The obvious fade or trade candidate that happens year in and year out is Derrick Henry, who is now 27. But when is the right time to trade him? Is it now after his 2,000-yard season? With that production and workload, how many more elite years does he have left in the tank? Can he defy the studies that have unfolded over the years, or is he doomed to follow the same path as one of many fellow greats such as LaDainian Tomlinson? Let’s dive in.
LaDainian Tomlinson is one of the greatest running backs of all time, but as aforementioned he began to fall off in his late 20’s. You see, during LT’s age 27 season, he recorded 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns on 348 carries - which is 5.2 yards a carry. During the following season, there was a drastic drop-off in performance. While Tomlinson still led the NFL in rushing, he only averaged 4.7 yards a carry on 315 attempts, garnering him 1,474 yards. Obviously, that’s still VERY impressive, but there was a decrease nonetheless. The next season, when Tomlinson was 29, he averaged only 3.8 yards a carry on 292 carries, netting him 1,110 yards. After a semi-rough final year in San Diego at the age of 30, Tomlinson looked to revive his career in New York. After 2 years there, he decided to call it quits, and rightfully so.
My favorite running back of all time; Shaun Alexander was an absolute animal on the field and an alma-mater to my Crimson Tide. In 2004 when Alexander was 27, he recorded 1,696 yards on 353 carries - averaging 4.8 yards a carry. Now, contrary to LaDanian Tomlinson’s age 28 season, Alexander actually had a much BETTER year, where he won MVP and recorded 1,880 yards on 370 carries, which was 5.1 yards a carry. But after that? Alexander broke his foot in 2006 at the age of 29 and was retired by 31. These two smaller sample sizes came from 15+ years ago and outside of the previous decade, so what if we were to look at some players from 2010 onward? Would we notice a similar trend?
As you’ll see below, I compiled a chart of 10 of the most prolific and best-running backs of the 2010s, and some of all time. I did this so you wouldn’t have to endure countless paragraphs of players from the last 10 years and what their later years looked like.
Before we dive into the data above, I would like to note the asterisks and that these fantasy points and finishes were in PPR leagues because standard scoring is boring and I want nothing to do with it (sorry if you play standard, just a personal opinion). Now, the singular asterisks attached to DeMarco Murray is to represent that his “Age 27” year was actually noted down as his age 26 years. This is due to the fact that Murray only started 8 games during his age 27 season, and for whatever reason, I can’t find why, so instead of skewing the data I figured I would follow the trend of great age 27 seasons and use his age 26 season instead. The Double asterisk attached to Steven Jackson signifies that his Ages 27 and 28 seasons are from 2010-2011, and Fantasy Pros doesn’t allow you to go back past 2012 for fantasy data. Now that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the data.
Realistically, the data speaks for itself. You’ll see that everyone listed had a top 15 season at 27 years old, and they all had a top 10 season at 28 years old. Similar to that of Alexander, 50% of the listed running backs, had better seasons when they were 28, while the other 50% saw a decrease in performance but still performed at an elite level. When you look at their age 29 seasons, only one had a top 10 finish, but most didn’t even play a full season. What about after age 29? Did any of the 10 listed have better seasons?
At the age of 30, Adrian Peterson produced another top 10 seasons. He finished as the RB2 with 260 Fantasy Points and a stat line of 327/1485/11. After a few hard years for Peterson, he finished as the RB19 in 2018 at the age of 33, once again achieving 1000 yards rushing. Now, Matt Forte on the other hand had a pair of 1000 total scrimmage yard seasons in 2015 and 2016, when he was 30 and 31 years old. Those two seasons Matt Forte finished as the RB7 and RB21 greatly owed to his receiving stat-lines.
To back this claim that running backs begin to exit their prime around ages 27 and 28, here’s a chart from ESPN that shows similar correlations to the data I myself gathered.
Now, the chart is from 2014, but that’s around the time most of the players in the data I gathered were hitting their prime. Obviously, my data is a much smaller sample size than that in the graph, and mine includes only some of the best running backs we have ever seen whereas the graph includes much more, which could possibly even include non-fantasy relevant players.
Long story short, yes, there is a certain number where you should look to trade or fade a player based on age. After finding convincing evidence, I believe it’s 28. I say that I believe it’s 28 because the chart that ESPN provided back in 2014 suggests that it’s 27, which could be the case for running backs as a whole, but for fantasy-relevant running backs it’s 28 (See the first chart created by myself). Now, that doesn’t mean to trade a running back as SOON as they turn 28. It means that after they play a full season at the age of 28, depending on if it’s another good season or not, you should look to move that running back. Of course, every piece has a price and if you can move them sooner for an absolute haul, you do it. But what I’m getting at is you shouldn’t actively seek to trade a running back who is 25/26 because of their age, you have to be strategic about it. Based on the data gathered and presented, running backs such as Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook have 3-to-4 years of their prime left (closer to 3 because though they are 25 as I’m writing this article they turn 26 before the season starts). Derrick Henry, as the data suggests, still has 2 years of his absolute prime left, since he turned 27 this year.
In conclusion, the end of a peak for a running back is on average 28 years old. This isn’t me saying that 28 is the end-all-be-all age, but it is me saying that it is the final year of most running back’s prime. Each running back is different, though. Just because the peak age/beginning of the dropoff is 28 doesn’t mean they won’t be fantasy relevant afterward. Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore are just a few examples of running backs who were fantasy relevant after their peak. All-in-all, the perfect time to trade or fade most running backs is after their age 28 seasons, and I say most running backs because every athlete is different. There are different factors that need to be weighed before we can write somebody off due to their age. For instance, Derrick Henry didn’t see 200+ carries until he was 24. The majority of the charted players either saw 200+ carries as a rookie, or they saw the bigger workload in their second year. So who knows, maybe Henry becomes an outlier, maybe Kamara and Cook become an outlier. It’s up to you as fantasy owners to make that decision for you, I’m just here to help it be an educated decision.