Career Touches and Running Back Decline
In the past few months, the fantasy football community has produced some amazing literature on running back age in the NFL and how it impacts fantasy production. Apex Insiders, Mike Braude and Asher Molk, recently revealed their comprehensive studies on Peak Age for Running Backs and Running Backs’ Decline Age.
When considering RB production, though, sometimes not all ages are created equally. Backs are drafted at different ages, become starters at different points in their careers, and wear and tear will vary based on past usage.
To better understand the age parameters that have been laid out on Apex, I looked at how RB production fluctuated based on career touches. For this exercise, I went back 10 seasons and looked up all backs that had at least 2 NFL seasons between the ages of 27 and 32, 2 seasons of 80+ touches (5 touches/game), and over 1,000 career touches.
This framework provided 52 backs that were well established in the NFL and continued to be significant contributors to their teams late into their careers. By looking at all 52 backs entire careers, and respective touches, we can get an idea of how much work an NFL back can handle before he starts to break down.
Career Touches and RB Efficiency
*All stats refer to the season in which RBs reached career touches.
It’s apparent that a running back’s efficiency peaks in the season in which they reach 2,250 touches. From the season that a back reaches 2,500 touches and beyond, however, there is a sharp decline in efficiency, until we see a small spike with backs that reach 3,500+ touches.
This late spike can be explained by the few backs that have reached 3,500+ touches over the past 10 seasons; they’re all sure-fire Hall of Fame talents, namely Marshall Faulk, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Curtis Martin. Even with the late career efficiency of these all-time greats, their per touch numbers still fell well below their peak and was barely average, for the most part.
Workload and Fantasy Output
While RB efficiency has certainly waned after 2,500 touches, we still must examine how workload has changed for backs late in their careers, and how that’s translated into fantasy points.
As is the case with efficiency, we see a general decrease in overall production after 2,500 touches, save backs who reached between 3,000 and 3,250 career touches in a season. Again, this boost in production can be attributed to seasons in which LT and Faulk reached the given touch milestone, but even they didn’t average 1,000 rushing yards and had abnormally high TD rates.
By merging efficiency and workload, we can review how proficient running backs have been for fantasy owners late in their careers, with a look at fantasy points per touch.
Faulk and Tomlinson hike up the fantasy efficiency numbers of backs that reached 3,000 and 3,500+ touches in a season, but as seen with the rest of our data, there is a general decline in output from RBs around the 2,500 touch mark.
Except for rare, once (twice?)-in-a-generation talents, running backs have peaked in efficiency, workload, and production right around the time they reach between 2,250 and 2,500 career touches. After that, though, backs tend to regress quickly in the twilight of their careers. The few backs that do reach the 3,500+ touch mark may still have value on a per touch basis, but even they likely can’t handle a large enough workload to be huge fantasy contributors.
By pairing career touches with running back age research, fantasy owners should be able to pinpoint which backs can still be dominant and which backs to avoid, both now and in the future.
What This Means for 2014
Players Between 1,500-2,249 career touches:
Adrian Peterson (2,241 Touches)
Maurice Jones-Drew (2,139)
Chris Johnson (2,014)
Matt Forte (1,892)
Reggie Bush (1,616)
DeAngelo Williams (1,544)
Ronnie Brown (1,502)
For re-draft owners, the research could be encouraging for the first 5 backs on the list. All 5 backs are, or will be, 29 years old this season and, based on career workload, none have seen enough punishment to suggest that their efficiency numbers should fall off just yet.
Players with 2,250+ Career Touches:
Steven Jackson (2,992)
Frank Gore (2,519)
Willis McGahee (2,304)
While neither Jackson or McGahee are likely to land lead roles with any NFL team, Gore is expected to again be the main back in San Francisco. Based on age (31) and workload, though, Gore’s best fantasy days may be behind him.