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Franchise running backs

Identifying peak seasons for running backs

We have been kicking around some the value of backs like Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook – wondering if those guys are still uber-elite type prospects. In general with these kind of players, my preference is to go with a younger player. Guys can burn out in a hurry at this position.

Not that McCaffrey and Cook can’t be really good. Especially McCaffrey, with his potential to catch 90-plus passes if he can stay healthy. He’ll be a top-10 player on my board, most likely, and maybe in the top 5. But in general with running backs, they tend to play their very best ball early in their careers.

Consider the chart below. It shows the 91 running backs who have put up top-10 overall numbers (PPR scoring) at some point since 2000. Below, I’m showing the best season for each of those players – not just good number, but their very best numbers.

They skew young. The most popular season is Year No. 2, with 16 different backs finishing with the best numbers of their career. (Looking at you, Najee Harris, and to a lesser extent, the less-proven Javonte Williams.) I’m seeing 13 running backs who finished with their best numbers in either their third or fifth seasons, and 11 backs as rookies or in their fourth year. So that’s double-digit backs in each of those first five years.

That’s when things start to fall off. Only 7 running backs put up the best numbers of their career in their sixth season, and only 6 did it in their seventh year. Then things, really dry up, with only 4 and 2 backs showing up in their eighth or ninth seasons (the last two years that appear at all).

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Of these 91 running backs, three of the top 4 were in either their sixth or seventh year. But in general, if you’re taking a big swing in the first or second round, looking for a lights-out back, I would feel better about a back who’s becoming a great guy, rather than trying to hang on with a McCaffrey, Cook, Derrick Henry or Alvin Kamara.

On the chart below, only 18 of the 91 backs (about 1 in 5) were at least 28 years old at the end of the season. I’ve got those guys tagged with black dots.

BEST SEASONS BY TOP-10 RUNNING BACKS
YearPlayerYrAgeRunRecTotalTD
2006LaDainian Tomlinson, S.D.6271,8155082,32331
2019Christian McCaffrey, Car.3231,3871,0052,39219
2000Marshall Faulk, St.L.7271,3598302,18926
2003• Priest Holmes, K.C.7301,4206902,11027
2006Steven Jackson, St.L.3231,5288062,33416
2016David Johnson, Ariz.2251,2398792,11820
2000Edgerrin James, Ind.2221,7095942,30318
2009Chris Johnson, Ten.2242,0065032,50916
2010Arian Foster, Hou.2241,6166042,22018
2003Ahman Green, G.B.6261,8833672,25020
2017Todd Gurley, LAR3231,3057882,09319
2018Saquon Barkley, NYG1211,3077212,02815
2013Jamaal Charles, K.C.6271,2876931,98019
2005• Shaun Alexander, Sea.6281,880781,95828
2020Alvin Kamara, N.O.4259327561,68821
2021Jonathan Taylor, Ind.2221,8113602,17120
2011Ray Rice, Balt.4241,3647042,06815
2006Larry Johnson, K.C.4271,7894102,19919
2007• Brian Westbrook, Phil.6281,3337712,10412
2002Ricky Williams, Mia.4251,8533632,21617
2014LeVeon Bell, Pitt.2221,3618542,21511
2014DeMarco Murray, Dall.4261,8454162,26113
2004• Tiki Barber, NYG8291,5185782,09615
2012Adrian Peterson, Min.6272,0972172,31413
2021Austin Ekeler, LAC5269116471,55820
2002• Charlie Garner, Oak.9309629411,90311
2020Dalvin Cook, Min.4251,5573611,91817
2000Eddie George, Ten.5271,5094531,96216
2013• Matt Forte, Chi.6281,3395941,93312
2020Derrick Henry, Ten.5262,0271142,14117
2003Jamal Lewis, Balt.4242,0662052,27114
2006Frank Gore, S.F.2231,6954852,1809
2003Deuce McAllister, N.O.3251,6415162,1578
2011LeSean McCoy, Phil.3231,3093151,62420
2004Domanick Williams, Hou.2241,1885881,77614
2016Ezekiel Elliott, Dall.1211,6313631,99416
2015Devonta Freeman, Atl.2231,0565781,63414
2019Aaron Jones, G.B.3251,0844741,55819
2012Doug Martin, T.B.1231,4544721,92612
2008DeAngelo Williams, Car.3251,5151211,63620
2014• Marshawn Lynch, Sea.8281,3063671,67317
2010Peyton Hillis, Cle.3241,1774771,65413
2002Travis Henry, Buff.2241,4383091,74714
2021Najee Harris, Pitt.1231,2004671,66710
2006Willie Parker, Pitt.3261,4942221,71616
2017Kareem Hunt, K.C.1221,3274551,78211
2005LaMont Jordan, Oak.5271,0255631,58811
2013Knowshon Moreno, Den.5261,0385481,58613
2021Joe Mixon, Cin.5251,2053141,51916
2017Melvin Gordon, LAC3241,1054761,58112
2008Maurice Jones-Drew, Jac.3238245651,38914
2017• Mark Ingram, N.O.7281,1244161,54012
2000• Robert Smith, Min.8281,5213481,86910
2007Clinton Portis, Was.6261,2623891,65111
2008Michael Turner, Atl.5261,699411,74017
2008• Thomas Jones, NYJ9301,3122071,51915
2011• Darren Sproles, N.O.7286037101,31310
2018James White, N.E.5264257511,17612
2014Eddie Lacy, G.B.2241,1394271,56613
2007Joseph Addai, Ind.2241,0723641,43615
2008Steve Slaton, Hou.1221,2823771,65910
2010Darren McFadden, Oak.3231,1575071,66410
2004• Corey Dillon, N.E.8301,6351031,73813
2020David Montgomery, Chi.2231,0704381,50810
2012C.J. Spiller, Buff.3251,2444591,7038
2019Nick Chubb, Cle.2241,4942781,7728
2012Alfred Morris, Was.1241,613771,69013
2021James Conner, Ariz.5267523751,12718
2021Leonard Fournette, T.B.5268124541,26610
2012Trent Richardson, Cle.1229503671,31712
2020James Robinson, Jac.1221,0703441,41410
2010Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG4241,2353141,5498
2005Rudi Johnson, Cin.4261,458901,54812
2013• Reggie Bush, Det.8281,0065061,5127
2014• Justin Forsett, Balt.7291,2662631,5298
2015• Danny Woodhead, S.D.7303367551,0919
2006Ladell Betts, Was.5271,1544451,5995
2007Marion Barber, Dall.3249752821,25712
2011Ryan Mathews, S.D.2241,0914551,5466
2021Antonio Gibson, Was.2231,0372941,33110
2017Carlos Hyde, S.F.4279383501,2888
2020Josh Jacobs, L.V.2221,0652381,30312
2016• LeGarrette Blount, N.E.7301,161381,19918
2007Willis McGahee, Balt.5261,2072311,4388
2021• Cordarrelle Patterson, Atl.9306185481,16611
2015Lamar Miller, Mia.4248723971,26910
2016Jordan Howard, Chi.1221,3132981,6117
2001• Antowain Smith, N.E.5291,1571921,34913
2007Earnest Graham, T.B.5278983241,22210
2014Jeremy Hill, Cin.1221,1242151,3399
2015Latavius Murray, Oak.4251,0662321,2986

Note on the chart. There may be a back or two who finished with more overall statistical production in a year that’s not list. I went with the highest-ranking season first for each back, with the stats being the tie-breaker. That is, if a back finished with 1,700 total yards and was the No. 1 running back that year, I put that season ahead of him potentially finishing with 100 more yards in a different season but ranking lower at his position.

—Ian Allan

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