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Dynasty Endgame: Running Backs

Age is a phenomenal organizational tool to help us evaluate risk. In RB Age Adjustment, I outlined 25 years of running back data and built a model for assigning value to a player at each point of his NFL life cycle. With Dynasty Endgame, we'll investigate strategies for dealing with players on the tail end of their football career.


Age 28 has been shown to be the peak of a running back's fantasy lifetime. The age 28 cohort has a higher rate (24.7%) of RB2+ performances over any other age, and after age 28 both the retirement rate and the decline of performance accelerate rapidly. In order to account for this rapid pace of deterioration, the Age Adjustment RB model front-runs that number and uses age 27 as its zero point.


When using Age Adjusted Stats, the decline will be amplified as the running back ages in order to help assess the appropriate decay of a fantasy asset. As an example, a 29 year old's 12.0 PPG performance is less valuable than a 24 year old's 10.0 PPG performance. Age Adjustment can modify those numbers to give an objectively better dynasty perspective: the 29 year old would be worth 10.6 PPG and the 24 year old worth 12.0 PPG.

Because the Age Adjustment model uses percentage points, it can be used to modify any number. Current uses being investigated: Points per Game, Opportunities per Game, End of Season Rankings, Baseline Talent Scores, etc.


Our Age Adjustment model shows the decay of a running backs value as time passes. The pace of decay accelerates exponentially after age 28 as real life NFL teams begin to replace their veteran RBs. What a fantasy owner decides to do during this portion of a player's career is a critical element of dynasty team management.



Background Data


When considering players past their prime, we can no longer expect a player will continue to perform at a high level based on his performance in the previous season. The table below shows that running backs who score 15+ PPG (RB1) under 28 years of age have a 78.9% chance of scoring 12+ PPG (RB2) the following season. If they are over 28 years old that success rate plummets to 43.9%. The same effect can be seen with 28+ year olds that have RB2 seasons. The difference in success rate for players below age 28 and above age 28 is as massive as the exoplanet Kepler-13A b. For you new space pilots, that's huge. The consistency and predictability of success for RBs under age 28 is nearly twice as strong as that of their older counterparts.


ENDGAME STRATEGY


As soon as your running back approaches their peak, it's time to be on watch. Vigilance gives the championship edge. There are 2 reasonable methods for managing the risk of RBs past their prime:


The Nursing Home

LaDainian Tomlinson celebrates the upcoming jersey redesign with his San Diego Chargers teammates. He also just scored his NFL record 28th rushing touchdown.


If the success rate of RBs gets cut in half after age 28, don't bother rolling the dice. Let's look at the best fantasy player ever, LaDainian Tomlinson. At age 27, he gave you the greatest fantasy performance of all time. The next year Tomlinson followed it up with another All-Pro season at age 28 and Nike gave him his own line of cleats! Grandpa LaDainian was so fun to have around. Truly. But after seven years of LT winning you championship after championship, let someone else take him for a spin. Age 30 is greatly feared by all fantasy owners and a player's value plummets on the market when he crosses that threshold. So why not try to sell a bit early and squeeze out maximum value. After a studly 28 year old season you can get great value for him, at the very least we're talking low RB1/high RB2. Grandpa is nice to have around, he still might have a year or two as a high end player, but you don't want to be around when your stud becomes a dud. You might find yourself changing Grandpa LaDainian's bedpan, or even worse, he could end up on the Jets! Find someone else to take care of your RBs in their old age.


While they will always be near and dear to your heart,

Let them go before they become an untradeable, old fart.


Tomlinson's demise was rapid following his age 28 season. He immediately fell out of the Excellent Tier (20 PPG) and dropped 5PPG in back-to-back seasons before becoming irrelevant at age 32. Maximize his value by trading him away when he is still considered an RB1.


Bargain Hunter


Ultimately, Endgame strategy is about expectations. If you aren't trapping yourself into a position where you're relying on the aging player to perform with youthful consistency, then you're ready to be a buyer. While the Nursing Home is the simplest method of Endgame management, the shrewd manager knows the best time to be a buyer is when fear is peaking. Bargain Hunting requires surgical precision, but in the right situation, twilight Hall of Famers can give important fantasy depth to provide injury insurance and swing those bye week matchups. You're looking for one-year rentals - mercenaries to give you the depth necessary to win the war. While selling him at age 29 would save you some grief, buying LT on the cheap for his age 31 season could be a nice pickup. An RB2 season from a guy that cost you next to nothing is an absolute homerun. Cost is key. In order to increase the chance of success, we specifically evaluated all of the RBs age 31+.

Since 1994, running backs age 31+ have produced a total of 36 seasons that qualify as an RB2 performance (criteria expanded to 12.0 PPG or 180 total points).


In dynasty football, these players are essentially free. Without adjusting for any factors besides age, the gamble of using a player age 31+ is defined by a 15.9% success rate. By comparison, the total success rate for backs under age 29 is 19.4%. In order to increase that success rate, we'll look at a couple of specific cohorts. We collected the data of all the RBs who continued to play after age 30 and evaluated their careers, both before and after age 30. Pre-age 30 workload data counted the total career carries and career touches of a back prior to his age 30 season. The performance data measured a running back's stats across 3 seasons from age 30-32. We'll call the age 30-32 group the Endgame RB Cohort.


Table 3 (Left) collected RBs with the highest workload entering their age 30 season.

Table 4 (Right) is the best performing Endgame RBs sorted by average PPG during their age 30-32 seasons.

High workload is commonly thought to be the bane of the RB. We want to believe cumulative hits take their toll on a player's body until he loses a step or suffers an injury. A theoretical workload number would support that bias. The problem is that the uniqueness of each individual limits the impact of such a threshold. Every offensive line is different, every carry is different, every hit is different and most importantly, every body is different (I tested to find some BMI correlation, believe me I tried, but there was nothing significant - too many Marcus Allens/Warrick Dunns). Table 3 shows us that having a high workload prior to age 30 does not disqualify a player from having a high quality Endgame phase, in fact, this dataset actually shows the opposite effect. Players with lower workloads had a lower likelihood of performing well compared to players with higher workloads (likely related to the fact that less work implies that they weren't as talented). Players with gigantic career workloads like Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin continued to churn out high quality seasons late into their career, showing us that high career workloads are not great for ruling out a RB.


However, workload data can remain useful for ruling in potential Endgame targets. Table 4 collected the top Endgame RBs sorted by PPG and the findings keep workload research relevant. 9 out of the 10 best Endgame RBs had under 2000 career carries. 80% of the Endgame RBs who averaged >10 PPG had less than 2500 career touches. Together, these Tables show us that the two types of successful Endgame RBs are: Hall of Famers still receiving majority backfield volume and lower workload talents still receiving majority backfield volume. That should tell you all you need to know about Endgame RBs. Volume, even if it's Old Volume, is still King.


Young Volume is the pinnacle of dynasty, the crucial fixture of every team and consequently as expensive as the dual-screen, light-up keyboard supplemented, League of Legends holographic gaming cockpit in Brooks' living room. Old Volume is as expensive as human feces on the NYC sidewalk. Oh but look closer, my friend, that's not poop. It's not-yet-melted PB & Chocolate frozen yogurt from the $15/oz premium organic cocoa shop around the corner. Get out your pocket spoons, it's time to go to town on that badboy!


The Endgame Target: A Practical Example

At age 33, Adrian Peterson put up five RB1 weeks. That's one less than David Johnson and one more than Derrick Henry from a guy available for much less.


A prime example of an Old Volume-Bargain Hunting Boon is Adrian Peterson's 2018. A season-ending ACL injury to Derrius Guice left the Washington Redskins with actual crap at the RB position, so they reached out to the All-Star for support. If you didn't see AP as a potential RB2 immediately after the Denver Broncos preseason game, it's because this brilliant article wasn't written yet.


Several factors allowed Peterson to be one of fantasy's best draft day values in 2018. Volume prediction is a developing science, but here were some clues:


-With Alex Smith at the helm and a rock solid offensive line, the Redskins were built to run the ball.


-They invested 2nd round draft capital in Derrius Guice in order to do so. Losing him while waiting for Chris Thompson's recovery, meant trouble for the franchise.


-Peterson is a freak of nature with a legendary training regimen and a history of defying the odds.


-His main competition was a guy who's name was literally "Fat."


-The Redskins' schedule showed a handful of opponents with previously weak run defenses and/or mediocre offenses that would allow for a gamescript to keep the ball in Peterson's hands.


Volume and Offensive Line are the two biggest factors affecting the RB, but with older backs these effects are amplified, so awareness of these matters is necessary. Peterson's usage against teams where the game stayed close was phenomenal. In games where they fell behind, he had no reason to be on the field. With Trent Williams, Peterson average 4.2 ypc and 0.58 TDs/game across 12 games. Without Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff, Peterson averaged 3.15 ypc and scored 0 TDs. Maybe these challenges don't matter to a younger AP, but for the older players, they certainly do. If we remember that Endgame RBs are depth assets meant for precision utility, then their function on a dynasty roster can be invaluable. Overall, the positive factors followed Peterson throughout the season and allowed him to produce a quality RB2 season at age 33 for a dirt cheap cost. If you find a strong Volume Profile for a player being given the age discount, it's time to shoot your shot. That's how the Endgame is won.


A relevant addendum from new research


One of our readers asked if the numbers were the same if the cohort studied was only the good RBs, instead of all RBs. Is it just the backups that get hosed when they get old? Here's the results using only Running Backs who had a career average of >12 PPG. There were 39 players who fit that criteria and played past age 28. They were all studs at one point. Here's the results:

Same trend. After age 28 the roll down the mountain begins.