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Which running backs are due to break down?

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Once upon a time there was a running back who took the NFL by storm named LaDainian Tomlinson. From the first moment he stepped on an NFL field as a rookie, he made defenses look silly and went on several end-zone trips (he even scored twice in his first game against the Redskins in September of 2001). Tomlinson became not just an all-time great with his team, the Chargers, but a rock-solid cornerstone in the Fantasy Football universe.

But then something happened to L.T. on his way through the NFL: he got older. And as he got older, his production tailed off a little bit at a time. It took a while with Tomlinson thanks to his tremendous skills and ability to stay healthy, but even the team that drafted him and gave him a home for nine seasons saw his diminished talent and cut him.

This year, in his second season with the Jets, Tomlinson will follow in the footsteps of noble running backs before him -- such as Walter Payton and Marshall Faulk -- and take a backseat. He'll work passing downs while Shonn Greene works in the starter's role. Tomlinson will probably get a couple of token touchdowns, but he won't be a sensational Fantasy superhero.

But Tomlinson is not in that secondary role just because of his age (33). It's because of the amount of work he's taken on over his career. That's what has really slowed him down, and it's one of two things that we believe takes great athletic talent away from running backs. The other impact issue? Injuries, of course, and the two go hand-in-hand.

We specifically subscribe to these three factors when evaluating when a running back will decline:

• Significant lower-body injury

• Near or over 2,400 career carries, including the postseason

• The equivalent of eight full seasons registering a high amount of carries, especially when those seasons are consecutive

At-risk rushers for '11

When studying these factors and not the age of a running back, we can figure out when it's time to let an unsuspecting owner draft a veteran. The following running backs are considered "at-risk" running backs, and any one of them with two or more red flags should be avoided for Fantasy purposes for the upcoming season.

Running back Near/over 2,400
career carries
Major
injury
Eight seasons
of work
Age as of
Week 1
Ronnie Brown 1,140   29 (30 in Dec.)
Correll Buckhalter 713   32
Kevin Faulk 935   35
Fred Jackson 647     30
Julius Jones 1,320     30
Thomas Jones 2,650   33
Willis McGahee 1,616   29 (30 in Oct.)
Maurice Morris 829     31
Sammy Morris 709   34
Willie Parker 1,380   30
Clinton Portis 2,300   30
Chester Taylor 1,176     31
Fred Taylor 2,663 35
LaDainian Tomlinson 3,230   32
Derrick Ward 518   31
Brian Westbrook 1,514   32
Ricky Williams 2,333   34

Judging by our criteria, veteran rushers like Ronnie Brown and Willis McGahee aren't at risk of losing their productivity based on physical factors. But they could always see their numbers dip due to not being utilized as much in their offenses.

That's an important factor to bring up. Nowadays most teams use two or even three rushers to handle their run game while leaning on the pass a little more than before. While that tends to water down the stats of running backs impacted, it does extend careers. That makes it even more dangerous to discount running backs just because they're 30! Fred Jackson is a perfect example: A late start to his pro career combined with his reps being limited off and on through five seasons makes Jackson a reasonably safe rusher to trust in Fantasy, not a guy to avoid because he's of a certain age.

In addition, because running backs are sharing the work, the days of one guy taking on the "full workload" that makes up part of our evaluation are dwindling. That also means that these guys aren't accumulating carries as quickly as before. A good example of how this trend is taking shape is on display when checking out the players that are a year away from turning 30.

Running back Near/over 2,400
career carries
Major
injury
Eight seasons
of work
Date of 30th
birthday
Cedric Benson 1,315     Dec. 12, 2012
Ryan Grant 841   Dec. 9, 2012
Brandon Jacobs 1,009     July 6, 2012
Mewelde Moore 484     July 24, 2012
Michael Turner 1,190     Feb. 13, 2012
Cadillac Williams 986   April 21, 2012

Point is, measuring running backs based on eight years of full work and 2,400 career carries could become obsolete. We might have to punt on those categories in a year or two, though there are some running backs that might touch that 2,400 carry total within the next three or four seasons.

Player Career carries Player Career carries
Joseph Addai 1,135 Steven Jackson 1,897
Marion Barber 1,083 Maurice Jones-Drew 1,155
Frank Gore 1,371 Adrian Peterson 1,269

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard . Do you have a question or a comment for our Fantasy staff? Drop us a line at dmfantasyfootball@cbs.com .

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