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2013 Draft Prep: Warning signs for Draft Day

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Here's a cold, dark reality you probably didn't expect to read in a Fantasy Football column: You're getting old. Whether you're a teenager, a twenty- or thirty-something or a member of the "over the hill" gang, you're getting older. You're even getting incrementally older as you read these very words.

But before you get depressed and do something foolish like quit Fantasy Football for more enriching life experiences, there's good news: You're not alone. Everyone gets older. Even football players.

Even Steven Jackson and Frank Gore.

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Age discrimination is strictly forbidden in the workplace but in Fantasy it's allowed. It's fine to not want a player on your team because he's old, but it might be bad for your win-loss record. That's because it's not age that dictates an eventual breakdown but rather the number of career carries and impactful injuries he's had. This theory is what we've come to lean on going into our eighth year of analyzing older running backs and figuring out when they're ripe for a sudden dropoff in production.

Previously it was assumed that once a running back hit 2,400 career carries that he was ripe for a decline. Significant injuries could accelerate that decline and the only two running backs in recent memory to really go against the grain were Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. But last year we made a change to our formula to better fit the kind of wear-and-tear that backs are taking on in this day and age, and it includes their touches as a receiver out of the backfield.

The basic premise is to take a player's career carry total (including the playoffs but not the preseason) and add it to one-third of the player's career receptions total -- not all receptions end the same way as a carry and after talking with a number of retired running backs on the issue we decided this fraction was appropriate. All told, it creates what we call a "total evaluation number" to better judge just how worn down a guy has become. The higher the number, the closer he is to being a physical liability to his NFL team and, by extension, your Fantasy team. We've identified 2,100 as the warning number for running backs that haven't had a major injury and 1,900 for running backs that have had a major injury.

Here are the notable running backs getting near those totals, along with a handful of other running backs who are at least 30 years old and are not near the point of breaking down.

Carries Rec. Evaluation # Major injury Week 1 age
Ronnie Brown 1,245 239 1,324 31
Frank Gore 2,003 330 2,113 30
Fred Jackson 1,482* 209 1,551* 32
Steven Jackson 2,414 410 2,550   30
Willis McGahee 2,068 212 2,138 31
Darren Sproles 437 342 551 30
DeAngelo Williams 1,181 148 1,230   30

Steven Jackson & Frank Gore

It's at this point where we have to take a deep breath. Two long-standing Fantasy success stories are breakdown candidates according to our analysis, yet both are consensus Top 20 Fantasy running backs this summer. One of them is coming off a season where he helped his team get to the Super Bowl (and posted 321 carries in the process) while the other landed a three-year deal to help a team finally get into the Super Bowl (and has taken on at least 250 carries each of the last five seasons). Steven Jackson and Frank Gore might be too worn out to get excited about drafting and building a Fantasy team around, but they also offer some incredible potential.

Let's start with Gore, who doesn't seem to be showing any sign of slowing down after posting 4.7 yards per carry last season -- but did see his carries shrink a little bit. In 2010, before Jim Harbaugh's staff joined the Niners, Gore averaged 18.5 carries per game. That number dipped to 17.6 carries per game in 2011 when Harbaugh came to town before sliding to 16.1 carries per game in 2012. Yet his production remained fantastic -- he finished last season as the 11th-best Fantasy running back (standard scoring leagues) and posted double-digit Fantasy points in 11 of 16 games.

It all seems like Gore will continue to roll, but the reality is that we haven't seen Gore since he crossed over the 2,100 evaluation number in Super Bowl XLVII. There's no evidence of a decline just yet, but you can't help but think it's coming. If it's not a physical breakdown then it could be a matter of losing opportunities. We've seen his carries decline three straight seasons and we've already seen his receiving skills get shelved (46 catches in 2010; 45 catches in 2011 and 2012). We'll also see Gore split up the running back duties with two other backs: LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter. While neither one can replace Gore's physical style, both could cut further into his work. Gore had just three games with 18 or more carries when Hunter was aiding him; when Hunter got hurt in November the rushing roles were altered and Gore saw more carries (six of eight games with at least 18 carries) while James made a dent in Gore's receiving stats (nine catches total in those eight games). With Hunter and James expected to contribute, Gore's chances of staying healthy might increase, but his production could decrease.

Throw in his body of work and we're looking at a back who can't be counted on as anything more than a fair No. 2 option and can't be drafted until at least Round 4. Suffice to say, he's a risk.

On to Jackson, who doesn't have the young running backs swiping snaps away from him but does have a dangerously high evaluation number: 2,550. In fact, Jackson has enough career carries to qualify as a breakdown candidate based on our original theory with 2,414. But Atlanta doesn't seem to care, signing the veteran after nine seasons of wrecking away (or is that wasting away?) in St. Louis. Atlanta's plan for Jackson is to likely ride him much like they did Michael Turner back when Turner had a better second gear. In those days Turner topped 300 carries and had double digit touchdowns every year (including last year).

The difference could be that the Falcons lean on Jackson more as a receiver and utilize his receiving skills to supplement his role on handoffs and tosses. By doing that they can keep defenses guessing as to whether Matt Ryan will throw or not, a vital element given they were fairly predictable last season when Turner was in versus Jacquizz Rodgers. Turner wound up playing 42.6 percent of the Falcons' snaps while Rodgers worked 45.3 percent of the time, a trend sure to reverse itself this season with Jackson in the fold.

That is, assuming he's healthy. But that's where Jackson has some appeal: the guy is built like a linebacker. Every account, from people with the Falcons to people associated with Jackson to my own personal run-in with him at an airport last summer paints him being in exceptional shape. That has translated to the field as he's missed just two games in his last four seasons -- totaling 1,171 carries in that span -- the most of any four-year span in his career. No one should have any problem accepting Jackson as a professional running back with the chops akin to those who are in the Hall of Fame, potentially making him a candidate to be considered a "special back" like the ones mentioned earlier. He has no major history of injury and has even done a nice job managing his workload with the help of his coaches by trimming some carries over the last two seasons.

Now factor in his spot in Atlanta where he'll see a good amount of playing time in an offense that has enough passing threats to scare off any safety duo in the league. The days of rumbling against eight in the box are over for Jackson and provided he stays on the field he should fall into incredible numbers, including a nice bouquet of touchdowns (if Turner could get 10-plus per season with the Falcons, why can't Jackson?).

I'll stand by research and my analysis, but even I can't tell you that Steven Jackson is a bad, worn down, old Fantasy option -- even with the big, fat red flag next to his evaluation number. He's a risk worth taking this year. If I get a crack at Jackson after the 13th overall pick in drafts this summer, I'm taking him. I think you should too.

Going forward

Whether you draft Jackson or not, he'll prove to be a litmus test for the conundrum we'll have in 2014: Adrian Peterson will top the 2,100 evaluation mark. At least he should, anyway.

Peterson has the fourth-most carries of any active running back with 1,847. Do the math and he's 153 carries away from 2,000. With an evaluation number of 1,907 it won't take much for him to get flagged at the not-old age of 29 in 2014.

While you're probably reading this and thinking to yourself "there's no way I'm going to pass on Peterson this year or next year or the year after that" (and I'm thinking it as I type it, to be honest), it's still something to keep in mind. Eventually, Peterson will slow down, and he won't be the only one. Knowing when it might happen will save you a headache. Enjoy them for now because you'll have an increasingly difficult decision to make on him and others over the next few years.

Carries Rec. Evaluation # Major injury Week 1 age
Matt Forte 1,304 280 1,397   27
Chris Johnson 1,474 231 1,551   27
Maurice Jones-Drew 1,584 299 1,683 28
Marshawn Lynch 1,511 170 1,567   27
Adrian Peterson 1,847 181 1,907 28
Ray Rice 1,404 348 1,520   26

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 .

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