The red line represents all running backs who have played at least four NFL seasons since 2001, with a minimum average of 75 carries per season. Overall, we see their careers peak at age 27. Afterward, their rushing totals drop by 15 percent in one year, 25 percent in two and almost 40 by the time they are 30.
Recently, ESPN published this article on RB production trying to make sense of the lack of free agency buzz for the running back market. One thing I found interesting is that this article points out that RBs tend to peak in production right before their rookie contracts expire. That dovetails nicely with my first ever blurb about contract year production. The data cited there hinted that player performance rolled off when they switched teams (or coaching staffs). In this case, I’d speculate that perhaps the best RBs sign extensions and continue being productive past their age 27 season while others become free agents, switch teams and see a decline leading to the overall shape of this graph. That’s just idle speculation; the takeaway is that players inevitably decline in production. You heard it here first.
This is a nice segway to a series of articles that I think every dynasty owner should have bookmarked. Austin Lee at Pro Football Focus performed similar age vs performance analysis of all positions way back in the 2012 offseason. That’s important to note when you read the names in these articles. These projections were made before the start of the 2012 season. Here is his analysis of quarterbacks, wide receivers, and a two parter on running backs. There’s also a study on age vs performance for tight ends, but that one is behind their PFF Gold paywall because apparently that’s where they draw the line on giving away the milk for free.
You can see similar age curves in a couple of my favorite rotoviz articles from last offseason that project player performance beyond N+1. The multi-year RB and multi-year WR projections show what a player’s comps did projecting forward. Note that younger players tend to see some small increase before their decline while older players tend to see annual reductions in their projection.
Each of these sets of analysis on player age use slightly different performance metrics and cut-offs for inclusion in their data set. There’s no reason to get too caught up in the specific results. Just recognize that all players have a performance peak and it may occur earlier than you expect. A lot of owners may see this and immediately seek to trade their stars that just hit their position-specific age peak. I’m not an advocate for that.
While players are unlikely to maintain their peak performance level (you only have your best season once after all), the performance roll off for most positions is gradual and allows players to dutifully benefit your fantasy roster even as they move past their prime. It’s exciting to find the next big thing but understand that you may be giving up solid production on an upside gamble. 85% of really good is still pretty good. While these older players may not have the upside of their younger counterparts, they do have the benefit of being a surer bet to achieve their expected result provided that you understand how age will temper those expectations.