Most football fans realize that a 30-year-old running back doesn't have much time left. They point to Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson as long-time fantasy football monsters who all declined at (or before) the age of 30. I've read loads of historical data with charts and graphs to support the decline, and this table compiled by the Sultan of Stat, my colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft, most succinctly shows this decline really hits around 28 or 29. These numbers represent the averages of all 47 running backs to score at least 1,250 career fantasy points, by age. Active players are not counted on this list.
I'm not one to discount such telling information that age 30 signals a decline in playing time, total fantasy production and fantasy points per game. However, I can't just dismiss the three 30-year-olds ranked among the top-20 running backs in the ESPN.com preseason rankings -- Steven Jackson, Frank Gore and Darren Sproles.
Obviously modern-day football players still take a beating on a weekly basis, but unlike running backs before 1990, they do have a bye week to recover, often toward the middle of the season. Also, nutrition, fitness and training regimens are much more advanced these days, helping players to recover more quickly from injuries. When USA Today asked Jackson how the age 30 will affect him, his response was: "That's laughable to me. This is not the '70s or the '80s, when it was just hard-nosed football. The game has changed. Certain people in certain generations do well. Why not me?"
Well said, Mr. Jackson. The game has certainly changed, becoming a much more pass-happy league for sure. Last season, there were nearly as many 1,000-yard wide receivers (19) as there were RBs with 1,000 total yards from scrimmage (20). Compare that to 2010 and 2011 when 50 RBs totaled 1,000 yards and just 33 WRs reached 1,000 receiving yards.
So with the 1,000 yards from scrimmage baseline in mind to determine what a top-20 fantasy running back should produce this season, consider this. In the past 10 years (2003-12), there have been 24 seasons of 1,000 yards from scrimmage by running backs who were at least 30 years old before that season ended:
Most Yds From Scrimmage, Age 30 or Older
Single Season, Past 10 Years
While three of these 15 players are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- Curtis Martin, Marshall Faulk and Emmitt Smith -- there are some others here with virtually no chance of ever donning the yellow blazer, such as Mike Anderson, Fred Jackson, Priest Holmes and Thomas Jones, who accomplished this feat three times in his 30s. And while injuries are certainly more prevalent to older backs, consider that half of these players were able to reach four figures without playing a full 16 games. By the law of averages, two or three such players should reach that mark this season, something that both Jackson and Gore did last season, with Sproles falling just 89 yards short of the mark. The other significant 30-something among fantasy backs, DeAngelo Williams, gained 924 yards from scrimmage last season, so he could certainly dent this list as well.
Let's take a look at Jackson first. His career has been remarkably consistent, topping 1,000 rushing yards and 1,250 total yards in eight straight seasons despite logging 16 games in only three of these eight campaigns. Since entering the NFL in 2004, he has 217 more carries than any other player, averaging 266 carries per season and 18.3 per game. He has also caught 407 passes (3.1 per game), putting him at 21.4 touches per contest.
Despite this boatload of on-field action, Jackson got just 15 carries inside the 10-yard line last season, which was a big reason he finished with a career-low-tying four scores. The man he's replacing in Atlanta's more potent offense, Michael Turner, had 26 carries inside the 10 last season, which is how he miraculously scored 10 touchdowns. This is why Jackson has a great chance to reach double-digit TDs for the first time since 2006.
As for Gore, his workload has also been abundant in his excellent eight-year career. Since he played his first down for the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, Gore has the third-most carries in the NFL (1,911) behind only Jackson and Thomas Jones. Tack on his 315 career receptions and you have a player with a hefty 19.2 touches per game. Like Jackson, Gore has also been a consistent source of fantasy production, tallying at least eight TDs in four of his past five seasons, with the exception being 2010 when he missed five games. Gore is not just a TD-only guy, though, as he averaged 4.7 yards per carry (YPC) last season. This included an amazing 5.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter (54 carries), with many of those carries coming when his team had already sealed a victory; he produced 5.9 YPC on 40 carries when his team was ahead by 9-16 points.
According to ProFootballReference.com, Jackson and Gore are very similar to one another in terms of "quality and shape" to their careers. The two other similar RBs to this pair in the past decade are Corey Dillon and Jerome Bettis. Dillon (6-foot-1, 225 pounds at age 29) is an interesting comparison to Jackson (6-foot-2, 240 pounds). In similar fashion to Jackson's low TD total in his final season with the St. Louis Rams, Dillon scored a career-low two TDs in 13 games in his last hurrah with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003 at age 29 before joining the New England Patriots, racking up 1,635 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns the following year. He finished his career with 914 and 959 yards from scrimmage with the Pats in 2005 and 2006, respectively. I'm sure Jackson fantasy owners wouldn't complain if his next three seasons played out like Dillon's.
I see Gore (5-foot-9, 217 pounds) as more similar to Bettis (5-foot-11, 250 pounds at age 29), not in stature but as a compact runner boosting fantasy scoring with a multitude of red-zone opportunities, rushing 35 times in the red zone last year. It's hard to be less of a receiving threat than Bettis late in his career, but Gore's declined involvement in the passing game has been rather dramatic, making those red-zone touches that much more necessary to maintain his fantasy value. After averaging 3.6 receptions per game in his first five seasons as a full-time starter, Gore has averaged a paltry 1.4 per game the past two seasons combined.
Bettis was a player who fell off the map from his age-29 season (1,072 rushing yards, 4.8 YPC) to age 30 (666 rushing yards, 3.6 YPC), but was still a serviceable fantasy RB2 in his first three seasons after turning 30, racking up 29 touchdowns and an average of 869 yards from scrimmage. Nothing in fantasy football, or life for that matter, is guaranteed, but I'll definitely like my chances with an RB2 that will reach 1,000 total yards and work as the top goal-line back, like Jackson and Gore will this season.
Comparing Sproles to a past player is difficult, as he doesn't have too many equals as a running back whose fantasy value has come mostly as a pass-catching threat, particularly in the past five years. In the past two seasons, Sproles was targeted 215 times, catching 161 of those balls. Dating all the way back to 1990, only three other NFL running backs tallied 75-plus receptions in an age-30 season: Charlie Garner (91 catches in 2002), Larry Centers (81 in 2000, 80 in 2001) and Herschel Walker (75 in 1993).
Centers was a pass-catching monster in the mid-'90s, but he finished his career with just 3.6 yards per carry. Sproles has averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his career and plays within a New Orleans Saints offense that attempted 41.9 passes per game last season. Sproles also has a lot less wear and tear on his 5-foot-6, 190-pound frame than most 30-year-olds. He has had 140 touches from the line of scrimmage in a season just once in his career (173 in 2011, his first season with Sean Payton and the Saints). As long as QB Drew Brees stays healthy -- and remember Payton is back in charge after a year away -- Sproles is a strong fantasy RB2 in PPR formats and a lower-end RB2/solid flex play in 10-team leagues with standard scoring.