The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Running Back (Fantasy Football)

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We are just a few months away from the 2021 season; and as a dynasty manager, I am eager to finally see the rookies take the field for the first time. Of course, when we add players like Najee Harris or Travis Etienne to our dynasty rosters, we exuberantly hope that they become cornerstones of our fantasy teams for years to come. With that in mind, I am starting a new article series to understand what we can realistically expect from these players throughout their career:

  • Will they be early contributors for your dynasty teams?
  • When can we expect players to reach their peak potential for fantasy?
  • When is the right time to trade away a player?

In this article, I will be focusing on the running back position, leveraging 21 seasons worth of data from 2000 to 2020. As always, this data was sourced from Pro Football Reference.

Historical RB1 and RB2 Finishes by Age

First off, I wanted to take a high-level view, examining each RB1 and RB2 finish by age to see if the data set leaned towards a specific age range. As you can see in the chart above, most RB1 seasons are within the ages of 23 to 26. In fact, about 57.4% of all RB1 seasons since 2000 fall within that age range. This data set would indicate that most RBs experience their most productive years in that timespan. However, this does not mean that a running back after the age of 26 is unable to produce a top-12 season. We do see a slight decline, but still a solid 19.4% sample size in ages 27 and 28.

If we filter the chart to highlight all RB2 seasons over the last two decades, we see a very similar trend. About 59.1% of the RB2 sample size falls within the 23 to 27 age range. Interestingly, we see a significant increase at age 27, which coincides with the decline in RB1 seasons after age 26. Understandably, a player who was an RB1 earlier in their career will not immediately lose all of their fantasy value after their peak years. Instead, as a player’s performance declines with age, most running backs will transition from an RB1 into an RB2, partially explaining the spike at age 27. Furthermore, my biggest takeaway from both charts is that the likelihood of a running back being an impact starter for fantasy declines heavily after age 28. As you can see below, the percentage and sample size per age declines significantly starting at age 29.

Sample Size from 2000 to 2020

Setting the Record Over the Last Two Decades:

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  • LaDainian Tomlinson leads all running backs with eight RB1 seasons
  • Frank Gore (aka The Infinity Stone) leads all running backs with ten top-24 seasons
The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Running Back

To analyze the lifecycle of a running back’s career production, I focused on players that were in the league a minimum of eight seasons and were drafted from 2000 to 2013. That gives us a sample size of 52 running backs who were in the league long enough to give us a clear picture of a running back’s career arc. For reference, this list is headlined by players such as Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, Matt Forte, and Marshawn Lynch. As you can see in the chart below, running backs tend to produce early, with the potential to improve and peak several years into their career. According to this sample size, the highest PPR per game average is at age 27 with 11.7 points. In addition, we once again see a significant decline once running backs surpass age 28, averaging only 7.3 PPR points after that mark.

As you can already imagine, draft capital plays a significant role in the chart above. So what happens when we split the data set between running backs drafted on days one, two, and three? Naturally, the career per-game averages fluctuate, with first-round running backs leading the way with 12.9 PPR points per game. Their peak age is the earliest among the group, averaging the most points at age 25. 

Draft Rounds Career PPR/Game Peak Age Peak PPR/G
1 12.85 25 15.47
2 to 3 10.18 27 12.83
4 to 7 6.34 26 7.86

One caveat to these results: While I classified the peak age for rounds 2 to 3 as age 27, technically the highest per game average for that group was at age 21 (15.7 PPR points). However, the sample size was so minuscule (3 players total) that I could not justify that as the group’s peak age. You might be wondering who those three outliers were? You may have heard of them: LeSean McCoy, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Clinton Portis. 

This also further supports the notion that RBs who dominate in college and enter the league at a younger age (early declares) tend to produce right out of the gate. This is partially due to the fact that early decares are generally drafted in the first three rounds, which usually leads to more opportunity early on in their career. We saw that with players such as Jonathan Taylor and D’Andre Swift last season. Another rookie running back who fits these criteria and is currently 21-years old: Broncos RB, Javonte Williams. More details on this study from Rich Hribar’s article: Dynasty Fantasy Football: Should You Avoid Non-Early Declare Running Backs?

The Peak and Decline

Now that we have laid out the average PPR production by age, let us take a deeper look at the peak and decline of a dynasty running back. We touched on it above, but a peak season is simply defined as a running back’s best fantasy season throughout their career. In the previous chart, we saw that their most productive years fall within the 24 to 28 age range. Another way to determine this by simply analyzing at what age a running back achieves their highest PPR per game season. 

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As you can see in the data above, among the 52 running backs in my sample size, the peak age varies greatly. While some had their best fantasy season at age 23, there were several that continued to improve up until the age of 28. So what can we glean from this information? First off, a peak season does not imply that a player’s production drastically declines after that campaign. In fact, it is entirely possible that a running back maintains similar production for several more years. A great example of this is LeSean McCoy, who technically had his best PPR per game season (21.9 per game) at age 23. However, he would go on to average 19 to 21 points for another three seasons in his career. On the other hand, players who dominated early in their careers such as Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte did not peak until ages 27 and 28.

Secondly, we should not assume that every running back has the potential to produce up until their age 28 season. In fact, those that produce RB1 seasons late in their career were productive well before that. Instead, the chart above simply offers an indication that running backs could remain involved in an offense even into their mid-to-late 20s. Lastly, if you examine each chart in this article, it becomes evident that the steep decline tends to begin at age 29. Only six of the 52 players in my study peaked at age 29 or later, and only 16.3% of all top-24 seasons since 2000 were from running backs ages 29 or older. Simply put, running backs generally produce early and even a few years into their 2nd contract. But once they reach age 29, the likelihood of high-end fantasy production declines significantly.

Dynasty Strategy

Hopefully, this information was helpful as you build your championship rosters for the 2021 dynasty season. To summarize, here are some of the key takeaways from this article:

  • Age 21 to 23: Running Backs can be early contributors for your dynasty rosters, which is heavily driven by draft capital. For more information on this topic, check out my article: Draft Capital and Its Correlation to Early-Career Fantasy Production. In addition, players who declare early while boasting an elite college production profile are more likely to produce in this age range.
  • Age 24 to 28: These are what I would consider the peak years of a dynasty running back. The most productive fantasy seasons occur during this timespan. This is also when a running back’s dynasty value is likely at an all-time high. If you, like myself, would rather trade a player one year too early than one year too late, I would consider trading a running back towards the end of this range.
  • Age 29 and older: In every chart above, we see a steep decline in production starting in this age range. While a player could technically still produce an RB1 season in their later years (hello, Adrian Peterson), the chances of that occurring are much lower. If you held on to a running back this long, you will likely have to trade them at a much lower value than their peak, or simply hold onto them until they retire from the NFL.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out on Twitter @FF_MarvinE.

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