Career Arcs: Running Backs

A historical look at the career arc of a running back and what it may mean for running backs in 2013.

Father Time is undefeated. It's an overused cliche, especially in sports, but it's never more true than when talking about the career of an NFL running back. Perhaps no position in sports ages as poorly and unlike many other positions medical advancements do not seem to be helping. This is your annual friendly reminder that your aging running back will fall off a cliff some time in the near future.

This is the second year for this series, and like most things here at Footballguys, I'm digging in a little deeper in 2013. Last season I reviewed the fantasy production of 40 past and current running backs to develop a career arc for the position. This year, I nearly tripled that number with 107 running backs factored in. If you look at last year's chart you will see that many things remained the same. First, let's look at the numbers:

Running Back Career Arc

As you can see, the peak years for a running backs are still years 3-7 with a fairly serious drop off after year seven. That drop off comes largely because of the prevalence of what I last year called duds. A dud season is a year below 120 fantasy points and it generally means the player was either injured or lost his starting job. Some of the players that scored just under this mark in 2012 were Willis McGahee, Darren McFadden, DeMarco Murray, and Ryan Mathews. Of the 281 seasons studied that fell in the 3-7 year range of player's career approximately 26% of those fell into the dud category. In year eight that number jumps to 38% and never falls below 35% again.

Just as important as avoiding duds in fantasy football is finding the stud (280+ fantasy points) seasons. There were only two years in which a stud season was considerably more likely than the rest and those are the third (13.09%) and sixth (12.73%) seasons. Just over 10% of all seasons between years three and seven came in as stud seasons. As an added bonus, year six has historically been the least likely dud season for running backs as well. In fact, only 10.9% of the backs studied had a dud in year six, a number that's nearly 50% better than any other season. Here are the lead backs heading into year six of their career:

On the flip side only 3.9% of seasons 8-11 have resulted in stud seasons and only John Riggins has ever scored 280+ fantasy points after his ninth year in the league. Last year I highlighted Steven Jackson, Willis McGahee, Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner as players on the decline and unlikely to live up to their Average Draft Position (ADP). Jackson and Turner both finished as mid-level RB2s while Jones-Drew and McGahee struggled with injuries. Heading into 2013 Turner is still without a team and McGahee is in a heated battle for his job while Jones-Drew and Jackson are being picked to have bounce back years. I'm okay with either as a mid-level RB2 this year but history is not on their side to do much better. Here are the other top backs that have passed their seventh year in the league:

Next I want to look at the second year class of running backs. Last year's rookie class was outstanding and that has led to a lot of big projections for Doug Martin and Trent Richardson this season. The chart above shows that running backs generally get better from their rookie year to their second year, so you may anticipate that I'm projecting some really big numbers for them as well. Well, maybe not. Including Martin, RIchardson, and Alfred Morris there were 22 running backs in the data set that scored 200 fantasy points or more in their rookie year. Of those, 47% scored less fantasy points in year two than they did in their rookie year. While their rookie seasons do make them more likely to have a monster year in 2013, it is far from a guarantee.

At the bottom of this article you'll find the percentage of stud and dud seasons, but first a few dynasty anecdotes from the data:

Adrian Peterson is coming off of a stud season in his sixth year in the league. There were six other backs that did so in the study (Ladainian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, Emmitt Smith, Shaun Alexander, Eric Dickerson and Brian Westbrook). All of the backs except for Alexander had solid years in year seven with Holmes and Tomlinson duplicating their success from the year before. What gets scary is year eight and beyond. Smith and Tomlinson were the only two out of the star-studded group to put up RB1 numbers after their seventh year in the league. Peterson is a beast and proved last year that the rules don't always apply to him, but that's a pretty impressive list of backs that mostly fell off the face of the fantasy earth just two short years after their stud seasons.

The aforementioned Maurice Jones Drew put up a dud in 2012 for several reasons, scoring only 62 fantasy points. Of the 13 backs to post duds in their seventh season in the league, only one of them (Corey Dillon) returned in year eight to put up RB1 numbers. Others such as Ricky Williams, John Riggins, and Otis Anderson resurfaced for a couple of decent years later in their career. Jones-Drew may have a solid season or two left in him but good luck pin pointing when or where that will be.

Arian Foster enters year five with three consecutive seasons of 250 fantasy points or more. He's only the fifth running back to do that with the first four being Emmitt Smith, Shaun Alexander, Thurman Thomas, and Ladanian Tomlinson. For those worried about Foster holding up, none of those four posted a dud in the next three seasons, and all four still had their best year ahead of them.

One of the more rare feats last year was C.J. Spiller topping 200 fantasy points in the third year of his career. Of the 33 players charted that scored 200 fantasy points in year three, Spiller was one of only four that had never topped 150 fantasy points before in their career. The other three were DeAngelo Williams, Darren McFadden, and Peyton Hillis. I probably don't need to say it, but none of those three have topped 200 fantasy points since.

This data (and certainly the last four blurbs) are not something to base your entire draft around but it is food for thought. No player will follow the career arc perfectly. One sixth year starter (at least) will likely bust and possibly one old vet will find the juice for a final run to glory. That all being said, below are the percentages for studs and duds by each year of the running backs' career. I'll be back next week with receivers.


Follow Heath Cummings on Twitter @heathcummingssr