Maybe We Shouldn’t Be So Obsessed with a Running Back’s Age

There has been a lot of really solid analyses that demonstrate that running backs do not age well. Running back production (and thus fantasy production) on average peaks around age 26. But what does that mean for you and your fantasy team? Certainly you’re not going to go out and draft any running back you can find that happens to be 26 years old. There are some good backs that are older than that, and if other owners are putting too much emphasis on age, they might miss out on the player’s real value. We set out to answer two questions, one that will help you in the draft room, and one that will help you when it comes time to make trades:

  1. How much of a factor was a running back’s age during the 2015 season?
  2. How do running backs of different ages hold up throughout a season?

The second question is derived from the popular piece of conventional wisdom that older running backs get “banged up” more over the course of a season and those nagging injuries might hurt their production down the stretch.

To answer these questions we grabbed weekly fantasy points for all running backs in 2015 that had a major role in their team’s offense for the whole season AND completed at least 15 games. We then broke the running backs down into 3 age groups: young (24 and under), middle-aged (25-29), and old (30 and over). Here are the backs that made up each group:

  • Young- Jeremy Hill, Isaah Crowell, Devonta Freeman, Lamar Miller, Eddie Lacy, CJ Anderson
  • Middle-aged- Latavius Murray, Doug Martin, Demarco Murray, Chris Ivory
  • Old- Adrian Peterson, Rashad Jennings, Danny Woodhead, Frank Gore, Deangelo Williams, Darren Sproles

We then plotted the average weekly production for each group and a trend line that captures whether production generally increased or decreased as the season wore on. Here’s what we found:

Running Back’s Age

The first thing worth noting is that fantasy production was very similar across all three age groups, with all three averaging around 10-12 points per game. This largely gives us an answer to our first question. A running back’s age was not much of a factor in the 2015 season. Some of the highest scoring backs in the game also happened to be some of the oldest. Injury concern may be higher with older backs, but if you look at injury risk overall, the running back position is a minefield, regardless of age.

Looking at our second question of how older backs hold up throughout a season, we see that in 2015, older backs did quite well. As a group, the over 30 backs did not show any apparent decline throughout the season. In fact, their trend mirrored that of the youngest backs. It was the “middle-aged” backs that demonstrated a bit of decline, but it’s important to note that the sample size for that group was most limited.

So, should you feel safe drafting an older running back? No. Probably not. But you shouldn’t feel particularly safe drafting any running back given how injury prone the position is. 2015 was a nightmare for early round RB’s and that will certainly be on a lot of owner’s minds headed into 2016. The takeaway from this analysis is this: If there is a running back in the NFL that still has a starting job when they are over 30, there is good reason for it. Backs that have persisted that long have both the skill and durability to continue to perform at that age, and there is not much reason to believe they will slow down as a season wears on. When looking at running backs, you can make age one of the factors you look at to make decisions, but don’t make it THE factor. Workload, past performance, current health, and supporting cast should be factors that appear higher on your checklist than age. Similarly, if someone in your league wants to offload an older back in the belief that a decline is coming toward the end of the season, well, you should be happy to take their money.

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