Running Back Age: Dynasty Football
A dynasty football championship is hard to win without elite running backs. The narrative is running backs will hit an age apex or an age cliff, which indicates the start to players’ decline in production. This decline subsequently makes the running back also decline in value.
Apex Fantasy Leagues found the age to be 25.57 years for top producing running backs. Does the age apex change when you factor out anomalies and focus on consistent fantasy running back performances?
This article will analyze RB1 and RB2 finishes in fantasy football dating back to 2000. This study will utilize points per reception (PPR) scoring from Pro Football Reference’s Fantasy Points. The analysis of 21 NFL seasons will be separated into two groups: 1) 2000 – 2010 running backs and 2) 2011 – 2020 running backs. The reasoning is to adjust for different eras of the NFL to help explain usage of the running back over the years.
A reminder for fantasy scoring: RB1 are running backs finishing within the Top 12 of fantasy performances and RB2 are running backs finishing 13-24.
2000 – 2010
The 2000-2010 era could be a lifetime ago for some Fantasy Football fanatics. Running backs like Edgerrin James, Tiki Barber, Jamal Lewis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Clinton Portis were playing during the early 2000s. On the other hand, running backs like Steven Jackson, Reggie Bush, Matt Forte, and Maurice Jones-Drew come around to finish off this sample as 2011 approaches.
Let us look at the RB1 finishes from 2000 – 2010, 11 total seasons for 132 running backs:
Of note, I found it important to group ages 23-27 together. Running backs will come in at various ages, the 23-27-year-old group had 67% of running backs fall within the group.
Breaking it down for the 23-27 age group:
No clear age has an edge over the other, age 24 and age 27 had the most RB1 finishes (21), while age 23 had the least (13).
Evaluating RB2 finishes from 2000 – 2010, these players did not perform exceptionally well, but can still be assets to fantasy teams. Eleven total seasons for 132 running backs were evaluated :
Notable RB2 Finishes (Year, Age):
- Marshall Faulk (2003, 30)
- Priest Holmes (2004, 31)
- Warrick Dunn (2005, 30)
- Edgerrin James (2006, 28)
- LaDainian Tomlinson (2009, 30)
From 2000 – 2010 an RB1 had an average age of 25.86, while ages 24 and 27 had the most saturated RB1 seasons. During this era it was opportune to target a running back between the ages 23 and 27, 67% of RB1s fall within this age group. The variable is similar in the RB2 data, with 55% of RB2s falling within ages 23 and 27. Both RB1 and RB2 had under 10% of running backs ages 21 or 22.
The discrepancy is an RB2 had a higher chance of being over the age of 28, 38% compared to 24% for an RB1. This 11 season era definitely favored using running backs into their later 20s. What about the most recent era in the NFL?
2011 – 2020
We are witnessing the modern football era. Running backs like Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, and Le’Veon bell started off the early 2010s. Currently Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, and Dalvin Cook are the running backs dominating the NFL.
Let us look at the RB1 finishes from 2011 – 2020, 10 total seasons for 120 running backs:
The RB1 from 2011 – 2020 had 1.9% finishes with one less season of data, 39% have come the last three seasons. Looking at ages 23-27:
Ages 23-25 have a higher chance of having an RB1 season in comparison to those players ages 26 and 27, with a declining trend from ages 25-27.
Looking at RB2 from this current era:
Notable RB2 Finishes (Year, Age):
- Michael Turner (2012, 30)
- Frank Gore (2014, 31)
- Frank Gore (2015, 32)
- Matt Forte (2016, 31)
- Marshawn Lynch (2017, 31)
- Adrian Peterson (2018, 33)
This era of RB2 data was consistent with the 2000 – 2010 era. The modern day running backs had four more age 21 and 22 running backs and eight more age 23-27 running backs compared to 2000 – 2010.
Dynasty Implications of Age
The running back fantasy finish between the two groups analysis shares useful similarities when addressing the running back in Dynasty Football. The differences are also glaring. I want to focus on RB1, as that is what we all should care about.
The RB1 finish from 2000 – 2010 had 4.2% more finishes in ages 23-27, while the RB1 finish from 2011 – 2020 had 5.9% more finishes in ages 21 and 22 with 1.7% less finishes 28 and older. Is the modern day NFL going younger at running back? Let us look at a graph visual on RB1 finishes from these two eras.
The data found in this article indicates running backs will trend down out of RB1 seasons starting at age 26. The data found revealed running backs can put up RB1 seasons into their early 30s.
- The information found is useful because the data does show modern day running backs will start to trend out of RB1 finishes starting at age 26.
- The information found is useful because the data does not show modern day running backs will start to trend out of RB1 finishes starting at 26.
Yes, you read that right. Both can be true statements. How is this helpful? Further looking at the total RB1 seasons from 2000 – 2020, here are where the age falls:
It is intriguing to see age group 21 have only eight running backs finishing as an RB1 because it is atypical for a running back to play an NFL season at the age 21. Since 2015, there have been 63% of running backs age 21. In fact, there have been 45% of age 22 running back since 2015.
- 50% of age 21 and age 22 running backs since 2015
- Remember 15 seasons were analyzed before and 50% have come since 2015
The heart of RB1 production comes between the ages 22 and 28. There still have been 36 running backs over the age of 29, which allows for the possibility for older running backs to also produce RB1 seasons.
The age a running back will start to decline:
Any trend requires three data points. Technically, the age 24 season is when the trend begins. However, the total finishes of an RB1 stays consistent from age 23 to age 27. A noticeable trend happens after the payer’s age 27 season. Since the data points factored in running backs who had to be the de-facto lead back for various reasons, what about running backs who consistently performed?
Justin Forsett had a career year in 2014 (age 29) running for 1,266 rushing yards and was the RB8. In the five seasons prior to 2014, Forsett had 1,692 rushing yards. His 29-year-old data point counts,you would have been extremely lucky to have Forsett on your fantasy team. What about LaDainian Tomlinson’s, Matt Forte’s, or other consistent fantasy performing running back’s data show?
These five running backs: Tomlinson, Forte, McCoy, Jackson, and Peterson, will not speak for the consensus, but the small sample size is intriguing. The running backs come from assorted eras throughout the studies with 21 seasons analyzed. Yet, these five running backs all saw their decline after their age 29 season.
Discussion of Age
Running backs in dynasty are needed for championship runs. A rebuilding team should not have a top performing running back. Limitations in this study include injuries and/or offensive line performance. This study was done on overall RB1 finishes in regards to running backs ages. If a running back has concerns of having arthritis in the knee, you should consider selling the running back if they are playing at RB1 production. Especially the further they get from initial surgery
The information from this study holds value, as it paints a picture on running backs and their age in regards to Dynasty football. The two eras are shown with overall sum of RB1s:
- 2000 – 2010 = 132 running backs
- 2011 – 2020 = 120 running backs
- Overall = 252 running backs
Correlation does not equal causation, but the graphs are fairly similar.
Noting that running backs such as LaDainian Tomlinson and Matt Forte show the importance of securing an elite performing running back. A Justin Forsett season will occur, but those are variable and unpredictable.
However, if a running back consistently performs at the RB1 level, there is no problem utilizing the payer throughout the late 20s. This statement changes when injuries come into play, but those situations should be addressed for each individual case
Notable Current Running Backs and Age:
Do not let the statement, “running backs decline after age 26”, fool you.
Running back – Age, 2020 RB finish
- Dalvin Cook – 25, RB2
- Ezekiel Elliott – 25, RB9
- Kareem Hunt – 25, RB10
- Nick Chubb – 25, RB11
- Alvin Kamara – 25, RB1
- Derrick Henry – 26, RB3
- Aaron Jones – 26, RB5
- Melvin Gordon – 26, RB14
The prior statement fails to take into consideration if a running back is age 27+ and is not performing. That payer is likely being replaced by a fresh younger back. Which likely correlates to why the modern day NFL has more 21 to 23-year-old RB1s and less 26 to 27-year-old RB1s, when compared to 2000 – 2010 era. Remember, injuries would be a variable to consider selling, like Todd Gurley’s knee arthritis before father time took over. An elite running back will not spontaneously start to decline simply because they hit a certain age threshold. A true elite running back will continue to produce because producing is what elite running backs do.
Well, at least through the age 29 then it is reasonable for concern to increase. At least you bought yourself a three-year edge to the perceived statement.