At some point in your fantasy football experience, you have probably heard others talk about the “30-year-old running back theory“… what is it? What does it mean? That’s what we will talk about in this lesson.
Essentially, running backs cannot play at an elite level through the age of 30-31, at least when compared to quarterbacks and even wide receivers (examples, Randy Moss and Joey Galloway).
This lesson will prove that statement above, but more importantly, it will show the exact “age drop-offs” for some of the best fantasy football running backs to ever play the game. Did Shaun Alexander dominate into his 30s? What about Curtis Martin or LaDainian Tomlinson? Let’s take a look:
|Player||1000+ Seasons||Age 21-25||Age 26||Age 27||Age 28||Age 29||Age 30||Age 31||Age 32||Age 33||Age 34|
|Shaun Alexander||5||Not Evaluated||1435/ 14TDs||1696/ 16TDs||1880/ 27TDs||896/ 7TDs||716/ 4TDs||24/ 0TDs||-||-||-|
|Curtis Martin||10||Not Evaluated||1464/ 5TDs||1204/ 9TDs||1513/ 10TDs||1094/ 7TDs||1308/ 2TDs||1697/ 12TDs||735/ 5TDs||-||-|
|LaDainian Tomlinson||8||Not Evaluated||1462/ 18TDs||1815/ 28TDs||1474/ 15TDs||1110/ 11TDs||730/ 12TDs||914/ 6TDs||280/ 1TD||TBA||TBA|
|Priest Holmes||4||Not Evaluated||506/ 1TD||588/ 2TDs||1555/ 8TDs||1615/ 21TDs||1420/ 27TDs||892/ 14TDs||451/ 6TDs||DNP/injured||137/ 0TDs|
|Marshall Faulk||7||Not Evaluated||1381/ 7TDs||1359/ 18TDs||1382/ 12TDs||953/ 8TDs||818/ 10TDs||774/ 3TDs||292/ 0TDs||-||-|
|Edgerrin James||7||Not Evaluated||1548/ 9TDs||1506/ 13TDs||1159/ 6TDs||1222/ 7TDs||514/ 3TDs||125/ 0TDs||-||-||-|
|Clinton Portis||6||Not Evaluated||1262/ 11TDs||1487/ 9TDs||494/ 1TD||227/ 2TDs||-||-||-||-||-|
|Emmitt Smith||11||Not Evaluated||1773/ 25TDs||1204/ 12TDs||1074/ 4TDs||1332/ 13TDs||1397/ 11TDs||1203/ 9TDs||1021/ 3TDs||975/ 5TDs||256/ 2TDs|
|Eddie George||7||Not Evaluated||1304/ 9TDs||1509/ 14TDs||939/ 5TDs||1165/ 12TDs||1031/ 5TDs||432/ 4TDs||-||-||-|
|Brian Westbrook||2||Not Evaluated||617/ 3TDs||1217/ 7TDs||1333/ 7TDs||936/ 9TDs||274/ 1TD||340/ 4TDs||-||-||-|
|Larry Johnson||2||Not Evaluated||1750/ 20TDs||1789/ 17TDs||559/ 3TDs||874/ 5TDs||581/ 0TDs||204/ 0TDs||377/ 0TDs||2/ 0TDs||2/ 0TDs|
|Jamal Lewis||7||Not Evaluated||906/ 3TDs||1132/ 9TDs||1304/ 9TDs||1002/ 4TDs||500/ 0TDs||-||-||-||-|
|Jerome Bettis||8||Not Evaluated||1185/ 3TDs||1091/ 7TDs||1341/ 8TDs||1072/ 4TDs||666/ 9TDs||811/7TDs||941/ 13TDs||368/9TDs||-|
|Corey Dillon||7||Not Evaluated||1435/ 7TDs||1315/ 10TDs||1311/ 7TDs||541/ 2TDs||1635/ 12TDs||733/ 12TDs||812/ 13TDs||-||-|
|Thomas Jones||5||Not Evaluated||948/ 7TDs||1335/ 9TDs||1210/ 6TDs||1119/ 1TD||1312/ 13TDs||1402/ 14TDs||896/ 6TDs||478/ 0TDs||-|
Breaking It All Down
As you can see above, very few elite fantasy football rushers have ever played at an elite level during their 31-age season. Of the players listed above, only Curtis Martin, Thomas Jones and Emmitt Smith cranked out high-level numbers during that 31-age season, and while Jerome Bettis had a 941 yards and 13TDs during his 32-age season, he is kind of an outlier, plus, he produced those numbers after two seasons already on the decline.
All in all, it’s safe to say that if a player is entering a season at the age of 31, that player will not likely play at an elite level ever again.. For example, take LaDainian Tomlinson, arguably one of fantasy football’s top fantasy rusher of all time… it’s hard to believe this, but Tomlinson didn’t even make it to 30… he played 11 NFL seasons, and had eight 1,000-yard campaigns, but he went from being an 1,110-yard, 11TD rusher at 29, to a 730-yard rusher at the age of 30. He did run for 914 yards at 31, but only had 6TDs… even Tomlinson couldn’t navigate into his thirties at an elite level. He was serviceable, sure, but far from elite.
Priest Holmes dropped off after his dominating 30-age season, where he rushed for 27TDs… he had 14TDs that next season at the age of 31, but he only rushed for 892 yards, missed eight games and never rushed for over 500 yards in one season ever again. I guess you could say that half of Holmes’ 31-age season was elite, because it was, but because injury struck that year and it was his absolute decline, it’s important to note that he crashed and burned during the age of 31 regardless of how well started that year.
Shaun Alexander has to be considered one of fantasy football’s most dominate running backs, and he couldn’t even make it to 29 years of age. Alexander ran for 27TDs at 28, then rushed for 896 yards and 7TDs at 29… he was never the same again.
While Marashall Faulk offered up a lot more than just rushing yards, Faulk dropped off slowly during the ages of 28 to 30.. by 31, he was all but done, rushing for 774 yards and 3TDs.
Brian Westbrook, like Marshall Faulk, was a dominating receiver, so measuring only rushing stats wouldn’t be accurate… looking at all his stats, though, Westbrook played at a relatively high-level all the way to 29, which is when he started to show slight declines in production… he dropped off the face of the earth at the age of 30, rushing for 274 yards and 1TD.
Thomas Jones kicked off his high-level status in the NFL at the age of 27, then had five-straight 1,000-yard seasons. This may help explain why Jones was able to maintain his elite play into the age of 30 and 31, but Jones dropped off big-time at the age of 32, rushing for 896 and 6TDs and followed that season up with 478/0TDs at the age of 33 (last year).
And we couldn’t end this lesson without addressing the great Emmitt Smith… he and LaDainian Tomlinson have to be two of the best fantasy football players of all-time, and while Emmitt is quite an outlier in terms of number of elite seasons (11), he played at a relatively high-level at 31 (1,203 rushing yards and 9TDs, but he only scored 3TDs at 32, and rushed for 975 yards and 5TDs at 33. Of the long list of elite rushers above, only Emmitt rushed for over 1,000 yards at 32, but again, with 3TDs; Emmitt was done as an elite fantasy football player after 31 and remains one of the few to ever play semi-elite through 31.
So What Does This Mean For 2012?
29 Years Old
- Frank Gore will be 29 entering the 2012 NFL Season, and with knee, ankle and foot issues, it’s safe to say we may have seen the last of Gore in terms of elite production.
- Steven Jackson will be 29 entering the 2012 NFL Season, and like Frank Gore, Jackson has a long, long list of injury concerns, which means that Jackson is not a good candidate to be one of the few outliers that can do well at 30 or 31.
- DeAngelo Williams is 29 as he heads into the 2012 NFL season. It’s highly unlikely that D-Will has a productive 2012 fantasy football campaign, which could be a good thing for all the Jonathan Stewart owners out there. Dynasty leaguers: Keep in mind, Stewart is only 25 years old. Putting that into perspective, Michael Turner didn’t start in the NFL until 26.
30 Years Old
- Michael Turner turned 30 in March, which means he is likely done (at least in terms of being elite) entering this 2012 fantasy football campaign. Turner does have one thing going for him, though, as he only has four workhorse seasons under his belt… Turner could follow in the footsteps of Thomas Jones, as Turner started to get starter-carries at 26 (Jones at 27)… still, much of the 30-year-old running back theory and research points to the human body breaking down at 30, it doesn’t always have to do with workload. The lack of miles will certainly give Turner a fighting chance at 30, but I believe that last year’s stats (1340 and 11) will likely drop off to about 900 and 6-7.
31 Years Old
- Willis McGahee, who will enter the 2012 NFL season at the age of 30, will turn 31 in October. The odds are against him having a productive 2012 fantasy football season.