Maybe you've noticed, maybe you haven't, but over the years we've had a thing for trying to detect when a running back breaks down before actually breaking down. Our basic theory revolves around not just a player's age but primarily their injury history and their career carry totals. The formula we created suggested to avoid LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook in Fantasy drafts last season.
The red flags, in order of importance:
• Significant lower-body injury
• Near or over 2,400 career carries, including the postseason
• The equivalent of eight full seasons carrying the workload
• 30 years old or older
Now while we're confident in our theory, we're always looking for points of view from running backs that played a long time. Call it field study. Besides, these guys played for years and years in the NFL, taking on all sorts of punishment from running between the tackles and getting taken down on most every rep they had. They probably know a thing or two about when their bodies didn't feel right.
NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, after being told our red flags for breakdowns, was a bit puzzled. After all, he's used to hearing that he left the game too soon.
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"Are you telling me I waited too long?" Sanders asked with a smile.
Coincidentally, Sanders and the two men ahead of him on the career rushing list, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, defied our red flags and played strong well into their 30s. They were athletic marvels who stayed in amazing shape throughout their careers and were "taken care of" by coaches and trainers off the field and by teammates on the field. In Sanders' case, he really did it without a lot of help -- Smith and Payton had massive offensive linemen for the majority of their careers. Sanders didn't -- he just had amazing speed and a knack for not getting caught. But he also credits good eating habits and knowing how to work out for his longevity.
Sanders happened to subscribe to our breakdown theory.
"There's probably a lot of truth to it," Sanders said. "From what I've seen, running backs have always had a short life span in the NFL, and then when you talk about years of really being productive, you're not talking about a lot of years for most guys. To ask your body to do what a running back does, because you touch a ball more than anybody as far as carrying the ball, and so it takes a toll and there's a breaking point."
Sanders' professional breaking point had nothing to do with his physical wellness, he said.
"I didn't really feel any different [physically]," Sanders said about his body at the end compared to the beginning and middle of his career. "For me it was more of the 'Do you really have the drive to be out here playing?' and that kind of thing."
Legendary Oilers and Titans running back Eddie George never lost his drive to play. George was the rare running back who didn't miss a game through his first eight seasons in the NFL, though he saw his production dip well before the end of his career. It just happened to be that George's first noticeably bad season came when he turned 30.
Like Sanders, George agrees with our study and says age is nothing but a number.
"I wouldn't look at the years, but you definitely look at the carries," George said. "The more carries you accumulate over a period of time, over an eight- or nine-year period, that's when you can start to see the decline. The [age] can vary.
"When you look at somebody like LaDainian Tomlinson, you can physically see that he's not the same from when he used to be. He's still productive but he's not breaking off the 60-yard runs, running through tackles, spinning out, running with that great passion that he once did. You see him now tripping over his own feet in the open field, and those are signs that he's not what he used to be. He still can get it done, don't get me wrong, but I don't think he'll be that 1,600-yard back or that 1,500-yard back that he used to be."
By now you know that Tomlinson is an over-the-hill back, and you can attribute the same title to Brian Westbrook. But other veteran rushers with a long, long record of toting The Duke are also potential disappointments this season.
|NAME|| AGE AS OF |
| MAJOR |
| EIGHT-PLUS |
| NEAR/OVER |
|Willie Parker||29(30 in Nov.)||1,380|
The names that should stand out on this list are Tomlinson, Thomas Jones and Clinton Portis, at least for Fantasy Football owners. Tomlinson has already seen his draft stock drop because he'll play second fiddle in New York behind Shonn Greene, and the same goes for Jones in Kansas City behind Jamaal Charles (in spite of his career year in 2009). Portis still looks like the primary ball carrier in Washington, though it cannot be ignored that the team added several running backs this offseason to ease his load, including two guys on this list, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker. Portis also didn't have leg issues last season but did miss half of 2009 with symptoms stemming from a concussion. But ultimately there is no denying in the case of any of these guys that they've taken on more than their fair share of touches and likely don't have the bodies to absorb hits like they might have in the past. When you evaluate these players on Draft Day, don't forget what you've just seen.
Additionally, sharing carries is the trend we've seen for years, and it's not going away. While it limits the total number of "20-touch" running backs available to Fantasy owners on Draft Day, it should keep running backs fresher for well into their 30s -- if they're still productive enough for the tastes of their coaches. That's what matters to NFL teams. Plus, teams like the Saints are realizing that finding good running backs doesn't require high draft picks or free-agency splurges. If it comes to pass that tandem rushing situations can be built effectively without spending valuable draft picks or cap room, the whole landscape of how running backs are evaluated, or how a breakdown is determined, will change dramatically.
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