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What is the running back age wall?

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The Denver Broncos added an aging running back to the roster in Jamaal Charles. Can he overcome the dreaded age wall?

NFL: Denver Broncos-OTA Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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
Ricky Williams 10,009 1999 2011 34
Warrick Dunn 10,967 1997 2008 33
Michael Pittman 5,627 1998 2008 33
Willis McGahee 8,474 2004 2013 32
Thomas Jones 10,591 2000 2011 32
Fred Taylor 11,695 1998 2010 32
Priest Holmes 8,172 1997 2007 32
Curtis Martin+ 14,101 1995 2005 32
Garrison Hearst 7,966 1993 2004 32
Charlie Garner 7,097 1994 2004 32
Adrian Peterson 11,747 2007 2016 31
Fred Jackson 5,746 2007 2015 31
Corey Dillon 11,241 1997 2006 31
Tiki Barber 10,449 1997 2006 31
Emmitt Smith+ 18,355 1990 2004 31
Frank Gore 13,065 2005 2016 30
Michael Turner 7,338 2004 2012 30
Cedric Benson 6,017 2005 2012 30
Larry Johnson 6,223 2003 2011 30
Stephen Davis 8,052 1996 2006 30
Duce Staley 5,785 1997 2006 30
Marshall Faulk+ 12,279 1994 2005 30
LeGarrette Blount 5,122 2010 2016 30
Brian Westbrook 6,335 2002 2010 30
DeAngelo Williams 8,096 2006 2016 29
Matt Forte 9,415 2008 2016 29
Jonathan Stewart 6,638 2008 2016 29
Arian Foster 6,527 2009 2016 29
Reggie Bush 5,490 2006 2016 29
Steven Jackson 11,438 2004 2015 29
Marshawn Lynch 9,112 2007 2015 29
Ronnie Brown 5,391 2005 2014 29
Brandon Jacobs 5,094 2005 2013 29
LaDainian Tomlinson+ 13,684 2001 2011 29
Jamal Lewis 10,607 2000 2009 29
Shaun Alexander 9,453 2000 2008 29
Deuce McAllister 6,096 2001 2008 29
Travis Henry 6,086 2001 2007 29
Mike Alstott 5,088 1996 2006 29
Jerome Bettis+ 13,662 1993 2005 29
Chris Johnson 9,537 2008 2016 28
Maurice Jones-Drew 8,167 2006 2014 28
Clinton Portis 9,923 2002 2010 28
Julius Jones 5,068 2004 2010 28
Edgerrin James 12,246 1999 2009 28
Eddie George 10,441 1996 2004 28
Ahman Green 9,205 1998 2009 28
Willie Parker 5,378 2004 2009 27
Rudi Johnson 5,979 2001 2008 27
Ray Rice 6,180 2008 2013 26

+ = 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 Williams

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

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 Taylor

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.

Warrick Dunn

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

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 McGahee

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.

Marshawn Lynch

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.

Jamaal Charles

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
Jamaal Charles 7,260 ?
Darren McFadden 5,423 ?
LeSean McCoy 8,954 ?
DeMarco Murray 6,515 ?
Emmitt Smith+ 18,355 3990
Curtis Martin+ 14,101 3758
Warrick Dunn 10,967 3179
Marshall Faulk+ 12,279 2996
Jerome Bettis+ 13,662 2856
LaDainian Tomlinson+ 13,684 2823
Tiki Barber 10,449 2803
Frank Gore 13,065 2784
Ricky Williams 10,009 2773
Adrian Peterson 11,747 2619
Thomas Jones 10,591 2567
Fred Taylor 11,695 2557
Edgerrin James 12,246 2544
Steven Jackson 11,438 2507
Corey Dillon 11,241 2417
Jamal Lewis 10,607 2310
Clinton Portis 9,923 2285
Marshawn Lynch 9,112 2272
Willis McGahee 8,474 2159
Priest Holmes 8,172 1928
Eddie George 10,441 1927
Charlie Garner 7,097 1917
Shaun Alexander 9,453 1905
Matt Forte 9,415 1892
Maurice Jones-Drew 8,167 1862
Stephen Davis 8,052 1861
Garrison Hearst 7,966 1835
Michael Pittman 5,627 1817
Ray Rice 6,180 1799
Ahman Green 9,205 1779
Brian Westbrook 6,335 1734
Chris Johnson 9,537 1693
Michael Turner 7,338 1678
Duce Staley 5,785 1672
Travis Henry 6,086 1625
Arian Foster 6,527 1618
Reggie Bush 5,490 1616
Cedric Benson 6,017 1590
Deuce McAllister 6,096 1510
Jonathan Stewart 6,638 1429
Fred Jackson 5,746 1398
Mike Alstott 5,088 1391
Larry Johnson 6,223 1382
Ryan Mathews 5,261 1363
Julius Jones 5,068 1141
DeAngelo Williams 8,096 1130
Ronnie Brown 5,391 1079
Rudi Johnson 5,979 995
Brandon Jacobs 5,094 990
LeGarrette Blount 5,122 906
Willie Parker 5,378 676

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.

Poll

How will Jamaal Charles perform this year?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Much better than his career averages
    (15 votes)
  • 10%
    Better than his career averages
    (32 votes)
  • 42%
    Right on his career averages
    (135 votes)
  • 32%
    Worse than his career averages
    (103 votes)
  • 2%
    Much worse than his career averages
    (9 votes)
  • 6%
    He won’t perform at all as he will get injured during pre-season
    (21 votes)
315 votes total Vote Now