With the increasing popularity of dynasty fantasy football leagues, player age has become an even more important variable. While some players can fend off father time for an impressive amount of time (we’re looking at you, Tom Brady), most players tend to have similar timelines. Age can help us make knowledgeable predictions as to when a player will improve or regress.

Defining A Peak Season

To start this study, we must define a peak season for an NFL running back. In 2017, Christian McCaffery finished as the 10th best running back, scoring 229.6 PPR fantasy points. We’ll round up from there and include all running backs who finished with at least 230 PPR fantasy points since 2000. This gives us a sample size of 150. The list includes all individual running back seasons to meet the requirements and was generated by Pro-Football-Reference.com:

PlayerYearAgeTmGPPRTouchYScmTD
LaDainian Tomlinson200627SDG16481.1404232328
Marshall Faulk200027STL14459.9335218918
Priest Holmes200330KAN16446394211027
LaDainian Tomlinson200324SDG16441.8413237013
Priest Holmes200229KAN14441.7383228721
Marshall Faulk200128STL14422.7343214712
Steven Jackson200623STL16415.4436233413
David Johnson201625ARI16407.8373211816
Edgerrin James200022IND16398.3450230313
Chris Johnson200924TEN16395.9408250914
Arian Foster201024HOU16393393222016
Ahman Green200326GNB16388405225015
Todd Gurley201723LAR15383.3343209313
LaDainian Tomlinson200223SDG16383.2451217214
Jamaal Charles201327KAN15378329198012
Ray Rice201124BAL16374.8367206812
Shaun Alexander200528SEA16373.8385195827
Larry Johnson200627KAN16372.9457219917
Le'Veon Bell201422PIT16370.537322158
Brian Westbrook200728PHI15370.437221047
LaDainian Tomlinson200728SDG16367.6375194915
LaDainian Tomlinson200526SDG16365.1390183218
Ricky Williams200225MIA16363.6430221616
Larry Johnson200526KAN16363.3369209320
Tiki Barber200530NYG1636041123909
DeMarco Murray201426DAL16351.1449226113
Adrian Peterson201227MIN16347.4388231412
Charlie Garner200230OAK16347.327319037
Tiki Barber200429NYG16346.6374209613
Matt Forte201429CHI16346.636818466
Le'Veon Bell201725PIT15341.640619469
Matt Forte201328CHI16337.336319339
Eddie George200027TEN16337.2453196214
Priest Holmes200128KAN16334.938921698
LaDainian Tomlinson200425SDG15334.1392177617
Brian Westbrook200627PHI15332.632219167
LeSean McCoy201325PHI16330.636621469
LeSean McCoy201123PHI15329.4321162417
Jamal Lewis200324BAL16329.1413227114
Shaun Alexander200225SEA16327.5354163516
Ray Rice200922BAL16327.133220417
Frank Gore200623SFO1632737321808
Deuce McAllister200325NOR16326.742021578
Adrian Peterson200924MIN16325.9357181918
Domanick Williams200424HOU15325.6370177613
Ezekiel Elliott201621DAL15325.4354199415
Shaun Alexander200427SEA16324.6376186616
Tiki Barber200227NYG16324.4374198411
Maurice Jones-Drew200924JAX16323.5371176515
Ahman Green200124GNB16321.136619819
Ahman Green200023GNB16318.4336173410
Le'Veon Bell201624PIT12317.433618847
Curtis Martin200431NYJ16317.2412194212
Clinton Portis200221DEN16317.2306187215
Devonta Freeman201523ATL15316.4338163411
Alvin Kamara201722NOR16314.421215548
Deuce McAllister200224NOR15313372174013
Doug Martin201223TAM16311.6368192611
Clinton Portis200322DEN13311.5328190514
Edgerrin James200527IND15310.3404184313
Curtis Martin200027NYJ16309.938617129
DeAngelo Williams200825CAR16307.6295163618
Shaun Alexander200326SEA16307368173014
Matt Forte200823CHI16305.537917158
Edgerrin James200426IND16304.138520319
Arian Foster201125HOU13303.1331184110
Charlie Garner200028SFO16302.932617897
Marshawn Lynch201428SEA16302.3317167313
Shaun Alexander200124SEA16302.1353166114
Arian Foster201226HOU16302.1391164115
Maurice Jones-Drew201126JAX1630138619808
Curtis Martin200128NYJ16299386183310
LeSean McCoy201628BUF15298.3284162313
Tiki Barber200631NYG16297.738521275
Ricky Watters200031SEA16297.534118557
LeSean McCoy201022PHI15297.228516727
Peyton Hillis201024CLE16296.9331165411
Knowshon Moreno201326DEN16296.6301158610
Kareem Hunt201722KAN16295.232517828
LaMont Jordan200527OAK14294.834215889
DeMarco Murray201628TEN16293.834616649
Willie Parker200626PIT16291.6368171613
Travis Henry200224BUF16290.7368174713
Melvin Gordon201724LAC16288.134215818
Tiki Barber200025NYG16287.532317258
Devonta Freeman201624ATL16284.1281154111
Jamaal Charles201024KAN16283.527519355
Ray Rice201225BAL16283.131816219
Fred Taylor200024JAX13279.9328163912
Michael Turner200826ATL16279382174017
Robert Smith200028MIN16278.933118697
Frank Gore200926SFO14278.6281152610
Fred Taylor200327JAX16278.239319426
Mark Ingram201728NOR16278288154012
Brian Westbrook200425PHI13277.525215153
Adrian Peterson201025MIN15276.9319163912
Clinton Portis200726WAS16276.7372165111
Mike Anderson200027DEN16276.6320165615
Ray Rice201023BAL16276.637017765
LaDainian Tomlinson200829SDG16276.6344153611
Thomas Jones200830NYJ16275.9326151913
Marshawn Lynch201327SEA16275.3337157312
Ricky Williams200326MIA16275.344217239
Chris Johnson201025TEN16273.9360160911
Arian Foster201428HOU13273.529815738
Clinton Portis200524WAS16272.9382173211
Steve Slaton200822HOU16272.931816599
Eddie Lacy201423GNB16272.628815669
LaDainian Tomlinson200122SDG16271.3398160310
Ahman Green200225GNB14270.334316337
Marshawn Lynch201226SEA16269.6338178611
Ricky Williams200124NOR16269.637317566
Darren McFadden201023OAK13269.427016647
Fred Taylor200226JAX16268.233617228
Edgerrin James200325IND13267.1361155111
Matt Forte201025CHI16265.628816166
LeSean McCoy201729BUF16263.634615866
Corey Dillon200430NWE15261.8360173812
Adrian Peterson201530MIN16260.7357170711
Adrian Peterson200823MIN16260.5385188510
Corey Dillon200127CIN16259.3374154310
Stephen Davis200026WAS15258.1365163111
Jamal Lewis200223BAL16257.935517696
C.J. Spiller201225BUF16255.325017036
Duce Staley200227PHI1625532015705
Adrian Peterson200722MIN14253.9273160912
Warrick Dunn200025TAM16252.529215558
Alfred Morris201224WAS16252346169013
Clinton Portis200827WAS16249.537017059
Rudi Johnson200526CIN16248.8360154812
Tiki Barber200328NYG16247.734716772
Jamal Lewis200728CLE15247.232815529
Justin Forsett201429BAL16246.927915298
Steven Jackson200926STL15246.837517384
Ahmad Bradshaw201024NYG16244.932315498
Steven Jackson201027STL16243.437616246
Corey Dillon200228CIN16240.935716097
Jamaal Charles201226KAN16239.532017455
Reggie Bush201328DET14239.227715124
Frank Gore200724SFO15238.831315385
Ladell Betts200627WAS16236.930015994
Rudi Johnson200425CIN16236.8376153812
Clinton Portis200423WAS15236.638315505
Travis Henry200325BUF15236.4359151410
Maurice Jones-Drew201025JAX14236.133316415
Ryan Mathews201124SDG14235.627215466
Michael Bennett200224MIN16233.729216475
Doug Martin201526TAM16232.332116736
Michael Turner201129ATL16230.8318150811
Jordan Howard201622CHI15230.128116116

The average age of this cohort is 25.63. Below is a distribution graph of the ages of the peak seasons.

5ppdev.com/web/apex/public


The youngest players to accomplish a peak season were 21 – Clinton Portis and Ezekiel Elliott. The oldest players to accomplish the feat were 31 – Curtis Martin, Tiki Barber, and Ricky Watters. The peak is from ages 23 to 28, as an incredible 80.7 percent of the seasons fall within this range.

While 12 percent of the peak seasons have taken place at age 28, just 4.7 percent have taken place at age 29 – this appears to be where the decline starts. From there, it’s only a matter of time – as none of the peak seasons have taken place after age 31.

It’s worth noting that 11 running backs achieved a peak season at 22 years old and 15 at 23 years old, compared to just seven at 29 years old and six at 30. This shows that a running back is more likely to have a peak season early in his career at 22 or 23 than at the end of his career, at 29 or 30.

This distribution confirms with our previous studies that wide receivers have a longer shelf life than running backs. We’ll be updating our wide receiver study again later this offseason.

What Does This Mean For 2018?

Last season DeMarco Murray hit the exact wall that this distribution portrays – hitting a peak season at 28 and busting as a 29-year-old. On the other hand, LeSean McCoy showed no signs of slowing down last season – turning in a peak season at age 29.

Young studs Todd Gurley (24 in 2018), Ezekiel Elliott (23), Alvin Kamara (23), Kareem Hunt (23), Leonard Fournette (23), Dalvin Cook (23), Kenyan Drake (24), Jordan Howard (24), Alex Collins (24), Derrick Henry (24), and Christian McCaffrey (22) have nothing to worry about. Especially for the rookies, an extra year under their belts should help them adjust to the speed of the NFL game and could lead to an improvement in their sophomore campaigns.

In the heart of their primes, there should be no age concerns about Jay Ajayi (25), Melvin Gordon (25), Le’Veon Bell (26), Devonta Freeman (26), and David Johnson (27).

Getting near the decline age, there should be some hesitance regarding Dion Lewis (28), Carlos Hyde (28), and Mark Ingram (29) next season. Their draft position will determine whether they are worthwhile investments.

Although he pushed back father time last season, LeSean McCoy (30) is a player that will be nearing a decline soon. The Bills have rode him heavily again and his yards per carry dropped from 5.4 to 4.0 last season. Just 6 percent of the peak seasons have taken place in a running back’s age 30 season or later. Currently being selected 10th overall on Fantasy Football Calculator, I’ll let someone else take the risk.

Players like Frank Gore (35), Matt Forte (33), Danny Woodhead (33), Adrian Peterson (33), Marshawn Lynch (32), and LeGarrette Blount (32) are all risky bets. This study shows that there is very limited upside for players who are at least 32. Each of the players above would likely need to fall into a high volume situation to become a league-winning difference maker.