What Is the Shelf life of a Top Running Back in the NFL?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send it your way.