Every team in the AFC West took a chance on an “elderly” running back this off-season. The Denver Broncos brought in Jamaal Charles, who will turn 31 during next season. The Oakland Raiders resurrected Marshawn Lynch, who was out of football last season, and who will be 31 during the 2017 season. The Los Angeles Chargers brought in journeyman RB, Kenyon Barner, who will be 28 during the next season and the Kansas City Chiefs took a chance on C.J. Spiller, who will be 30 during the next season.
This got me thinking about the age at which NFL RBs start to decline. It also got me wondering about whether it is the age of the “car” or the mileage that matters? Let’s focus on age first. Below is a list of every RB who played at least 5 seasons in the NFL this century and had a minimum of 5000 rushing yards.
To determine the age of decline, I looked at each RB’s career ypc value and then found the age at which that value went below their career value and did not return - some RB’s did not have a dropoff in ypc at the end of their careers and they are listed with their age of decline as the age they were in their final year in the NFL. After the table I’ll discuss a few players in more depth and then take a guess at what the Broncos might get from Charles and what the Faiders might get from Lynch this season.
|Player||Rushing Yds||From||To||Age of Decline|
|Jamaal Charles||7,260||2008||2016||not yet?|
|Darren McFadden||5,423||2008||2016||not yet?|
|Ryan Mathews||5,261||2010||2016||not yet?|
|LeSean McCoy||8,954||2009||2016||not yet|
|DeMarco Murray||6,515||2011||2016||not yet|
+ = Hall of Fame
The average age from the table above is 29.7. The standard deviation is 1.7, meaning that if you are still an effective RB at the age of 32 you are an outlier. Of the 55 RB’s on the list, 10 of them had their decline occur after the age of 31. It’s also good to note that if the career ypc was low (like Rudi Johson whose career ypc was 3.9) it’s easier to maintain than someone like Jamaal Charles whose career ypc is 5.5. I’m going to focus on Ricky Williams, Priest Holmes, Fred Taylor, Warrick Dunn, Curtis Martin and Willis McGahee to see if there is any information that might be pertinent to what we might expect from Jamaal Charles this season in Denver.
Ricky was an odd case because, despite being ridden hard in college and for his first 5 years in the league, he was able to take two years completely away from football (2004 and 2006) so he was still relatively “fresh” at an age when many RB’s are starting to break down. He led the league in carries two years in a row (2002-3), but after that he only had more than 200 carries once (241 in 2009). He was still able to run the ball effectively even in his last season in the league at the age of 34. He averaged 4.1 ypc for his career and that is exactly what he averaged in his final season (admittedly on only 108 carries).
Priest Holmes didn’t really break through as an primary RB in the NFL until the age when most RB’s are starting to break down. His breakout season with 2001. He turned 28 that season. He averaged 4.6 ypc for his career and was able to get exactly that in 2004 at the age of 31. He play really dropped off the following year (injury?) when he only averaged 3.8 ypc. He missed the entire 2006 season and he was a shadow of his former self in his final season, at the age of 33, when he was only able to manage 3.0 ypc (on only 46 carries).
Fred’s story is interesting in that he had the best year of his career at the age of 31 in 2007. He averaged 5.4 ypc that year - running for 1202 yards on only 223 carries. That year would be his only pro-bowl selection. His performance dropped off precipitously after that season. He averaged 3.9 ypc the next year at the age of 32 and then hung on for two more seasons as a veteran little-used presence on the P*ts (he had 106 carries total in two seasons). Fred’s career ypc average was 4.6 ypc.
Dunn was never a great ypc guy in the NFL (his career average was only 4.1 ypc and he had more years below that average than above it), but he was able to maintain his “limited” effectiveness even in his final year in the league. At the age of 30 in 2005, he had the final of his three pro-bowl seasons (averaged 5.1 ypc and generating 1636 yards from scrimmage). He played three more years after that averaging only 3.2 ypc in 2007, but he was able to end his career on somewhat of a high note, averaging 4.2 ypc in his final season, 2008. At the age of 33, he accounted for 1116 yards from scrimmage for the Bucs in 2008.
Curtis Martin was the definition of consistency during his NFL career. He was never a great RB, but he was good enough to get the job done - most of the time. He only averaged 4.0 ypc during his career (the lowest of the guys I’m discussing in depth) and even in his best season he only averaged 4.5 ypc. In other words, Martin’s best season was worse than Fred Taylor’s average season. Interesting, Martin is in the HOF and Fred Taylor will likely never be in the HOF. What Martin was able to do in his career is churn out 1400+ yards from scrimmage for an entire decade. He appeared in 168 NFL games and started in 166 of them. Only twice during his 11 year career did he fail to play in all 16 regular season games. For a RB, that is pretty remarkable. Martin also had the best year of his career at the age of 31 in 2004. He ran for 1697 yards and generated 1942 yards from scrimmage. He was responsible for 35.7% of the offensive yards produced by the Jets that year. However, touching the ball 412 times at the age took it toll on him and he was a shell of his former self during his final season (the next year). he still carried the ball 220 times, but he was only able to average 3.3 ypc at the age of 32. He decline was quite rapid.
Willis was the star RB in BUF after he was drafted, then he fell out of favor in BAL after one season and was used sparingly during his final three seasons there (294 carries in his first year, 379 combined in his final three there). So when he got to Denver in 2011 he was still relatively “fresh” by feature back standards. His career ypc was only 4.0 ypc (like Martin), but he was able to put up good numbers while in Denver (4.8 and 4.4 ypc) at the ages of 30 and 31. After his injury in 2012, he was never the same. While he played in 2013 (for CLE) he was a shell of his former self, averaging a measely 2.7 ypc on 138 carries.
I decided to include a discussion of Lynch in here since there appear to be some deluded Faider fans who think that Lynch in 2017 will magically match what he did in 2014. For his career, Lynch has averaged a respectable 4.3 ypc. For whatever reason (injuries?), he was never used all that much while in BUF with the exception of his rookie year when he had 280 carries. He was never a really effective back until late in his career, when he got to SEA. Something changed for him in 2012. He had averaged roughly 4.0 ypc for his career up until that point and then he was suddenly able to jump up to 5.0 ypc (1786 yards from scrimmage). He regressed some in the following year back down to 4.2 ypc, but he was the featured back for the most run-oriented team in the league at the time. Because of his limited usage while in Buffalo, Lynch still had plenty left in the tank at the age of 27. He was have another good season in 2014 at the age of 28 (4.7 ypc, 1673 yards from scrimmage), but anyone who watched him the following season could tell that father time had caught up to him. in 2015 at the age of 29, he was only able to manage 3.8 ypc and he was not able to stay healthy. He “retired” and was out of football in 2016. He is attempting to make a comeback, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t even make the final roster. Time is cruel to RB’s in the NFL and Marshawn Lynch is 31 with 2396 career touches. 2396 is a lot of mileage in the modern NFL.
So I made you read all of that to get to the this, which is what Bronco Country wants to know: What can we expect from Jamaal Charles this year (and beyond)? Jamaal Charles has had 1617 touches during his NFL career. That number tell us almost nothing without context. So we need to know how many touches the RB’s listed above had before they started to break down. Touches is carries + receptions.
|Player||Rushing Yds||Touches at decline|
Relative to some of the workhorse backs of the early part of this century, Jamaal Charles has not had very many touches. There was a time when the league leader in carries would consistently have between 350 and 400 carries. Relative to his peers he has had fair amount of touches, but he has never been a 25 touch per game type of back. His career high is 320 touches in a season (exactly 20 touches per game in 2012) and his career high in carries, 285 was that same year. The average number of touches before the decline in the list above is 1987, so Jamaal Charles is below that if we are looking at mileage alone. Obviously injuries complicate matters, but based upon this data it would appear that we may get one or two productive years out of Jamaal Charles. Jamaal may be one of those rare NFL RB’s who are able to defy Father Time into their early 30’s.
How will Jamaal Charles perform this year?
This poll is closed
Much better than his career averages
Better than his career averages
Right on his career averages
Worse than his career averages
Much worse than his career averages
He won’t perform at all as he will get injured during pre-season