Career Arcs - Running Backs
By Heath Cummings
Updated May 24th, 2012

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Theories about age and fantasy football have been around for as long as the game itself has. Running backs fall off after age 30, wide receivers blow up in their third year, and so on. While there are exceptions to every rule, we've generally found that by following the statistical evidence we can avoid a majority of the pot holes on the road to our next fantasy championship. With that being said, what we really need is more statistical evidence, right?

What I've put together below is a career arc of fantasy points for running backs. I've looked at not only the average production for each year of a player's career, but also which years are more likely to have a stud or dud season. Then we'll look at the top players at each position from last season and what this chart tells us about their production next season. Let's start with the chart:

First a quick note: I cut this off for running backs at year 11 because it's really where we lose statistical significance. There are certainly running backs the produce beyond year 11, but there are so few of them that they don't give us a good basis for comparison against the production of the masses.

It's pretty clear if you're looking for the peak of a running backs career, it falls between seasons three and six. Also, considering that most running backs enter the league at age 21 or 22, it's not surprising to see the huge drop off in production starting after their ninth season, when they would be 30 or 31. Still, what I'm looking for are the most likely seasons for a stud season, and for the purposes of this study I used 300 fantasy points to define stud.

In looking at 40 of the top running backs of all time I found 29 of these seasons. Fifty-two percent of those seasons happened between years three and six of the players' career, with year three (seven) being by far the most prevalent. For projection purposes, here's a list of running backs heading into their third season in 2012:

  • Ryan Mathews
  • LeGarrette Blount
  • James Starks
  • C.J. Spiller
  • Jahvid Best
  • Chris Ogbonnaya
  • Joe McKnight
  • Now, obviously I'm not saying that all of these players are going to break out in 2012. In fact, statistical odds say that two will at the most, and one almost certainly will. Based on opportunity and past performance, this bodes very well for Mathews.

    The second most common occurrence of stud seasons was four in years two and seven. Unfortunately, these seasons were also amongst the most likely occurrence of dud seasons (fewer than 120 points). Actually, top running backs were more than twice as likely to have a dud season as a stud season in their second or seventh season. For that reason it's much more risky to look for your studs from this group of players.

    Speaking of risk, what is the safest place to find a good fantasy running back according to this study? Year five, by a long shot. Year five produced only four dud seasons (10%) while producing the most (18) seasons of 220+ points. Here's a list at your best bets heading into 2012:

  • Ray Rice
  • Chris Johnson
  • Matt Forte
  • Jonathan Stewart
  • Darren McFadden
  • Peyton Hillis
  • Jamaal Charles
  • It's also important to look at the most likely seasons for busts. I mentioned earlier that years two and seven are high on the bust list, and of course a running back's rookie year can be unpredictable a best. A lot of time the backs that had a bad year two, didn't do much in year one either, so in terms of actual busts, the year seven backs are where we'll look. Here's a list of year seven backs:

  • Maurice Jones-Drew
  • Reggie Bush
  • DeAngelo Williams
  • Darren Sproles
  • Joseph Addai
  • Joseph Addai joins a crowded Patriots backfield, and Bush, Williams, and Sproles stand out to me as backs that could see a major drop off from their 2011 numbers.

    I want to stress that this is not the only information to consider when ranking your running backs for 2012. Jones-Drew is on the bust list, but he will probably have an excellent season, Joe McKnight is on the breakout list, yet he may not even get the opportunity. What this is is another piece of the pie in setting up your players to target.

    Below is a breakdown of my top 20 running backs and where they fall within the scope of this study:

  • Years 1-2 (on the rise)
  • DeMarco Murray
  • Years 3-6 (prime)
  • Ray Rice
  • Arian Foster
  • LeSean McCoy
  • Ryan Mathews
  • Chris Johnson
  • Darren McFadden
  • Jamaal Charles
  • Adrian Peterson
  • Marshawn Lynch
  • Matt Forte
  • Ahmad Bradshaw
  • Fred Jackson
  • Jahvid Best
  • BenJarvus Green-Ellis
  • Chris Wells
  • Years 7+ (on the decline)
  • Maurice Jones-Drew
  • Michael Turner
  • Steven Jackson
  • Frank Gore
  • As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to cummings@footballguys.com.

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