2012 Draft Prep: RBs with breakdown potential

Senior Fantasy Writer

For several years we've done some serious studying on when a running back will break down. We began on our mission because we thought it was myth that a running back who turned 30 was suddenly ripe for disaster. That proved to be the case -- it is a myth. The number of career carries combined with a consistent heavy workload over a period of time along with the impact of major leg injuries better signaled when a back would slow down, not his age.

But the criteria could be changing. As you probably know, there's a major change in how teams view running backs across the league. They are bailing out on them much sooner than they used to for fear of catching runners with no tread left on their proverbial tires. So in the past we'd see several backs with well over 2,000 career carries but now there is only one back -- Steven Jackson -- over that threshold. Willis McGahee is second closest with 1,901 carries (this includes the postseason).

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So the new "warning level" on career carries should definitely come down, and perhaps receptions should play a role. Granted, a catch and a carry don't quite wear on a running back the same way since there's a little less bumping on a reception than on a carry between the tackles. But work is work.

The "warning level" on number of years shouldering the workload should also come down. Hardly any running backs get eight straight seasons with at least 250 carries per year -- again Jackson is the only guy closest to that mark after seven years in a row with a big total.

Major injuries to running backs remain relevant for obvious reasons.

So here's the latest theory on when a running back could be due to break down:

• The number of consistent heavy workload seasons are basically irrelevant. If a player regularly gets 250 carries per season, it's just part of the total number of carries he gets. We're throwing out that part.

• Major injuries, especially lower-body injuries, matter and speed up the slow-down process.

• Wear and tear based on the total number of touches is still a major factor. Carries count as normal, but the total amount of receptions divided by three will be added to the number of carries to create a total "touch evaluation number." The thinking here is that on average a running back suffers the same amount of wear and tear on three receptions as he does one carry. Because running backs are catching the ball a little more often than in the past, this part of the study will be subject to change in the future, but for now it's at least easy enough to make sense of. Running backs whose total evaluation number is at least 2,100 will be considered at-risk for a breakdown. For a back with a major injury, their at-risk number is more like 1,900.

We strongly feel age has nothing to do with when a back is set to slow down. To prove it, we've included some 29-year old runners in this year's study. Based on our criteria, some of them have at least two seasons left before any sort of regression in production takes place.

Career carries Career rec. Total evaluation # Major injury Week 1 age
Cedric Benson 1,595 113 1,633   29 (30 in Dec.)
Ronnie Brown 1,199 190 1,262 30
Frank Gore 1,682 300 1,782 29
Fred Jackson 1,367 244 1,448   31
Steven Jackson 2,157 372 2,281   29
Brandon Jacobs 1,198 88 1,227   30
Willis McGahee 1,901 186 1,963 30
Darren Sproles 389 267 478   29
Michael Turner 1,506 54 1,524   30
DeAngelo Williams 1,008 135 1,053   29

Steven Jackson sticks out like a sore thumb on the list. It bears repeating that he's the only active player in the NFL with 2,000-plus carries and is turning 30 next July. And if he stays healthy he'll also top 2,400 career carries this season, which is our old warning level for workhorse backs to break down. I ran into Jackson this summer and he looked nothing like a worn down old football player, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt this season. It's next season where I could see him sputtering.

Willis McGahee is another risk, but that's nothing new for him. After a major knee injury ended his college career, McGahee missed his rookie season and has generally been considered an injury concern every year. But he's been productive in six of his nine seasons. The Broncos drafted Ronnie Hillman with the idea of infusing him in the Denver offense but he's missed plenty of camp with hamstring issues. McGahee continues to plow right along. He should still be effective in his 10th NFL season.

Fred Jackson's number might look a little confusing. He has 817 career carries in the NFL but had another 550 in the United Indoor Football League. Should they count the same as NFL carries? We think so -- while the players in the UIFL aren't the same kind of hard hitters as in the NFL, there is no out of bounds, so he got hit on every single carry. It counts.

Looking ahead

Because our study is breaking some new ground we thought we'd take a gander at running backs who are starting to accumulate carries and be considered for the study in a few seasons. These are not guys to worry about breaking down because of their career workloads but rather just to keep your eyes on starting this season.

Career carries Career rec. Total evaluation # Major injury Week 1 age
Matt Forte 1,056 236 1,135   26
Chris Johnson 1,198 195 1,263   26
Maurice Jones-Drew 1,498 285 1,593   27
Marshawn Lynch 1,160 143 1,208   26
Adrian Peterson 1,477 140 1,524 27
Ray Rice 1,063 279 1,156   25

Perhaps the names who aren't on this list are the ones Fantasy owners should feel better about. Arian Foster (710 carries, 135 catches), LeSean McCoy (652 carries, 171 catches), Darren McFadden (553 carries, 116 catches), Ahmad Bradshaw (811 carries, 129 catches), Jamaal Charles (508 carries, 118 catches) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (557 carries, 31 catches) are all established veterans without a heavy history of work. It never hurts to target fresher running backs since the chances of them slowing aren't as high as those who have already put in the time.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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