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What Is the Shelf life of a Top Running Back in the NFL?

February 25, 2012 1 comment

It seems like the talk of the town these days is Ray Rice, and whether the Ravens should franchise him or sign him to as long term contract. On one side of the issue you have the crowd who thinks running backs are a dime a dozen, and his production could easily be replaced with a draft pick or combination of backs. On the other side you have the folks who say you would be out of your mind to not sign a Hall of Fame type running back to a contract in his prime, and that it would be insane to just franchise him and then let him walk at age 25 or 26.  I am on the side of every GM and personnel man in the business as evidenced by the last 40 years of running back position, the latter position.

I have argued vehemently that you can’t lump all running backs into the same class, and their purported “shelf life” is not based on reality especially when the great ones are being considered.  And make no mistake about it, Ray Rice is one of the great ones already. I have done some research that I hope will open a few eyes to the facts of the matter, that elite running backs produce without a major drop off until about age 30. Ray Rice has 6 years until he hits that part of his career. Not a year…..not two or three, but 6.

The Yardage Numbers

What I did first was take the top 20 career rushing leaders in the NFL, and calculated the career arc of every single one with their total yards from scrimmage by year and age. I also took note of their “drop off age”, or the age at which they had a significant drop off in production. There were two exceptions in Barry Sanders and Jim Brown, who did not have a drop off because of early retirement by choice, not injury mind you. Just to be fair, I included them with the year they retired as their drop off age when in reality their last seasons production indicated a significant drop off was not likely.

Let’s start off with the age at which elite running backs typically see that production drop off. If you average the top 20 all time rushing leaders out, it shows that age 31 ½ is the point you can definitively see a serious decline. On my spreadsheet I have all the total yards color coded in a chart, so it makes it very easy to see where that “danger zone” I labeled in different shades of red starts. In pretty much every case it is right around that 30-31 year old mark, with a few exceptions for various reasons.

While the age is a decent barometer for the downturn  a much more accurate indicator is the average yards by year, going from age 21 all the way up until age 37 (Thank you Marcus Allen for making me go up that high). For the record Ray Rice has just completed his “age 24” year. Here are the results and the averages from age 21-37.

Age 21 –  631.7

Age 22 –  1304.7

Age 23 –  1376.5

Age 24 –  1536.1

Age 25 –  1587.4

Age 26 –  1638.9

Age 27 – 1612.9

Age 28 – 1474.2

Age 29 – 1433.9

Age 30 – 1208.1

Age 31 – 1030.5

Age 32 – 698.5

Age 33 – 412.9

Age 34 – 205.8

Age 35 – 141.9

Age 36 – 55.0

Age 37 – 29.6

Well, well, well, I thought it was “all downhill for those 25 year old backs”?? How they were already “used up and done” right? Wrong. The numbers clearly show that Ray Rice is just now entering his prime, and has not even hit the sweet spot yet of the age 25-27 years which is where the backs produced most. Heck even at the age of 28 and 29 where you see a tiny drop off start to happen are still just under 1500 yard years, and in a running back’s wheelhouse years  for production on the field. Again this breakdown clearly shows that the drop off is right around age 30, and not any number that starts with “2”.

Hypothetically speaking if the Ravens signed Rice to a 6 year deal, with that 6th year being very team friendly and more of a “funny money” year to give his agent something to brag about, they would be signing Rice smack in the middle of the most productive years of his career. It is a no brainer, and one of the many reasons why the franchise tag makes no sense unless you plan on letting him walk after a year or two. And letting him walk after a year or two just is not an option, despite some claiming otherwise.

Now what if you did have Rice play under the tag this year, and then eventually end up giving him the same type of deal next year you would now. That just pushes that last year back and you lose a year of his prime, which is why if you are going to lock him up you do it now, not next year or the year after. Also while the franchise tag number will be $7.7 million for a running back, on a long term deal Rice’s cap number will be around $4 million in 2012 enabling to keep a free agent of similar value like Ben Grubbs.

Now some have said “well maybe we should just lock him up under the franchise tag for 2 years in a row and just trade him or let him walk after that?” Now how many teams have traded great running backs in their prime at age 25 or so?  The short answer is in all but a few circumstances the team that drafted the player signed them to a second contract, bucking all fan and media conventional wisdom. In the few scenarios that the team did let the player walk they regretted it, as they let a player go who went on to be productive for many years after that.

In Marshall Faulk’s case, who Rice is most comparable to, he went on to be an integral part of a team that went to two Super Bowls in the next 3 years after he was traded.  Oh and for all those who say that the evolution of the passing game has “devalued the position” remind me what type of offense Faulk thrived in? Yeah, one that aired it out all over the field, so tell me again how you don’t need an elite running back with the way the passing game is in 2012. That is complete hogwash. An elite runner who demands attention not only in the run game but passing game is a critical part of ANY offense, and you aren’t replacing that guy with “some other guy”.  You aren’t replacing the production of an elite back PLUS a 3rd wide receiver with “some other guy”.

The “Touches” Numbers

In addition to the yardage numbers, I also developed a number  for the amount of touches the running backs had before they hit the proverbial wall later in their careers. I used the same year I did for the age average, and added up the total amount of  touches until decline (TUD as I will refer to it) that a back was able to get in before the production dropped off significantly. One local radio host has been claiming that “1000-1200 touches and they are done!” for the past week so this one is for him in particular.  1,200 touches? Try 2,901, that is what the average came out to for the top 20 rushing leaders. If you think that is impressive, the top 5 averaged 3,635  TUD. That is 10 solid years of a ridiculously heavy workload. Again, the demise of the running back is greatly exaggerated.

I have heard fans claim that Rice has had “so many touches he won’t last much longer”, but for the record Rice has only 1,209 touches in 4 years. Plenty of gas left in that tank, and if he averages what he has since being a full time player in his second season (about 350 touches per year) he has around 5 more seasons of premium value. It should be noted though that as backs get up near their late 20’s, I have noticed that their carries will get lighter so that 5 years could end up being more if they do that with Rice.

The Fear of Injury

One other thing I want to touch on is the injury risk, which some will throw out there as a factor in deciding whether to pay Rice. Once again, we have to separate the “good backs” from the great ones, and as with all positions the great players who produce year in and year out just don’t seem to get hurt.  Ray Rice is no different, as he has had no major injury as far back as records go that I could find. His small compact build and elusiveness lends itself to longevity, and not a guy who will get beat up constantly.

To further illustrate this point I charted 160 seasons with players “in their prime” and guess how many went down with serious injury? A grand total of 11 years where a major injury hurt their production significantly, or a rate of 6.8% overall. Again it is no coincidence that the better backs stay healthy, and are not the injury risks of their lesser counterparts. This is football and an injury can happen at any time, but to say a top level back is just an injury waiting to happen could not be further from the truth. The same could be said for every position on the football field, and just like with backs the really good ones seem to avoid that injury bug year after year.

To sum up, the notion that an elite level running back at age 25 is not worth paying is based on nothing but myths and assumptions from people who have not spent one second analyzing the facts, much less the hours upon hours  I put in to get a true picture of the career path of the top level backs.  Ray Rice has shown that he is the complete package, and his off the charts production should not be slowing down any time soon if [past history is any indicator of what the future will bring.

The age to get rid of that back is 30, not 25. Ray Rice should and will be signed to a long term deal and will be worth every penny of it if not more, as he has only scratched the surface and should be peaking in the next 3 years. I know that is hard to imagine, but the numbers don’t lie. I can’t say the same for the misinformed people in Baltimore, but I hope this clears a few things up in the discussion.

Writer’s note – I would be more than happy to send a copy of the color coded spreadsheet I made up with my research, just email me at profootballanalyst78@gmail.com and I will send it your way.

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What is Ben Grubbs market value?

February 4, 2012 1 comment

One of the Ravens most important free agents for the Baltimore Ravens is starting left guard Ben Grubbs, a five year veteran starter on the Ravens offensive line who will making his first trip to the Pro Bowl this year.  This past year he was a key member of an offensive line that did a pretty good job blocking for running back Ray Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco ….most of the time. Grubbs missed part of the 2011 season only playing in 10 games due to a turf toe injury, and the line was clearly affected with him out of the lineup.

The Ravens made it clear they were going to let him test the market when they didn’t lock up Grubbs with a year left on his rookie contract, a practice they have stuck to with any young player they value highly. Based on his career so far Grubbs is in line for a nice payday, but it all boils down to what the market is willing to offer a Pro Bowl 28 year old guard, as to whether the Ravens are in the mix to retain his services.

While Grubbs will not be considered an elite player at his position, he could probably argue he is a notch below on the next tier. I went back and looked at all the recent top guard contracts for reference, and here is what I found:

Logan Mankins (NE) – 6 years $51 million, $20 million guaranteed. (signed 8/10/11, age 29)

Justin Blalock (ATL) – 6 years $38 million, $16 million guaranteed. (signed 7/31/11, age 27)

Davin Joseph (TB) – 7 years $52.5 million, $19 guaranteed. (signed 7/29/11, age 27)

Marshal Yanda (BAL) – 5 years $32 million, $10 million guaranteed. (signed 7/27/11, age 26)

Chris Kuper (DEN) – 6 years $28 million, $13 million guaranteed. (signed 6/4/10, age 28)

Jahri Evans (NO) – 7 years $56.7 million, $12 million guaranteed. (signed 5/5/10, age 26)

Stacy Andrews (PHI) – 6 years $38 million, $3 million guaranteed (signed 2/28/09, age 27)

Chris Snee (NYG) – 6 years $41.25 million, $17 million guaranteed. (signed 6/24/08, age 26)

As you can see for an even elite level guard, you should be paying right around $20 million in signing bonus, along with a deal that averages $6-8 million a year in salary. One very important thing that should be noted with these numbers though, is that all but one of these contracts was an extension and the player never hit the free agent market. Stacey Andrews was the only one who was a free agent, but he was an injury risk after tearing his ACL during the 2008 season while he played under the tag. One other note is Logan Mankins was set to play under the franchise tag when he agreed to an extension with the New England Patriots, and did play under it the year before in 2010.

The franchise tag number for a guard in 2011 was 10.73 million, and while it is projected to go down in 2012 it doesn’t really make any sense to use it since it includes offensive tackle contracts. I don’t see the Ravens using it on Grubbs unless they feel a deal is imminent, and they just need a little more time to negotiate.

One other factor in Grubbs situation is who else is available in the free agent market for 2012, and there are definitely some notable names.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Deuce Lutui (ARZ) – OG
Chad Rinehart (BUF) – OG
Mackenzy Bernadeau (CAR) – OG
Roberto Garza (CHI) – OG
Nate Livings (CIN) – OG
Mike McGlynn (CIN) – OG
Bobbie Williams (CIN) – OG
John Greco (CLE) – OG
Steve Vallos (CLE) – OG
Derrick Dockery (DAL) – OG
Russ Hochstein (DEN) – OG
Ryan Diem (IND) – OG
Dan Connolly (NE) – OG
Stacy Andrews (NYG) – OG
Chilo Rachal (SF) – OG
Jacob Bell (STL) – OG

Carl Nicks (NO)
Jeremy Zuttah (TB) – OG
Jake Scott (TEN) – OG
Kory Lichtensteiger (WAS) – OG
Will Montgomery (WAS) – OG

The one name that sticks out is Carl Nicks, the clear head of the 2012 free agent guard class. Considered one of the top players at his position, he should be in line for a sizable contract and signing bonus, possibly the richest ever.  There are some decent names to fill out the rest of the list, but none that jump out at you as players that will demand a lot on the open market. Grubbs along with Bobbie Williams of the Bengals are probably in the next tier, with the rest falling in line somewhere after them.  Williams market value may be hurt by a suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy that forced him to miss the first 4 game of the season.

According to the infamous Filmstudy, looking back at Grubbs’ grades for the season showed a guy who excelled at run blocking, and was a more than adequate pass blocker as well.  Some feared his toe injury was possibly a season ending turf toe, but he bounced right back after missing 6 games and it doesn’t appear to be a long term issue. With no off the field issues and a clean health record other than the toe this year, NFL general managers should have no problem writing a pretty big check this spring.

From the Ravens perspective they just signed top guard Marshal Yanda to a 5 year contract extension, and while normally that might preclude a team from giving out another one at the same position, Yanda signed an extremely team friendly deal. If Grubbs was willing to do the same I have no doubt the team would love to have him back, but that doesn’t seem likely with only one other premier guard on the market. There will probably be some team out there who will overpay just enough to get him out of Baltimore, much to the disappointment of the fanbase. I think that even with a “hometown discount” Grubbs would be looking for a similar deal to that of Justin Blalock of the Falcons, something in the $16 million guaranteed $40 million total value range over 5 years. On the open market he might be able to push the $20 million guaranteed $50 million total value mark pretty easily on a 6 year deal.

It all comes back to just how much the team values Grubbs vs. how much the market values him, as to whether he is back playing for the Ravens or not. In my opinion with the deal the Ravens struck with Yanda it would be well worth it to retain him, and with the cap situation they can probably afford it. If not they should be looking for a guard in the upcoming draft to fill that hole, as the roster talent at guard is pretty thin without Grubbs in the mix.

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