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Contextualizing the Older RBs

A look back at recent veteran backs on the move

When we think about how running backs age we tend to think of them less like wine and more like milk: Use before Sell By date to avoid digestive distress.

And I think it's because of the (perfectly sensible) 'better to get out too early than too late' mentality that tends to kick in when a running back changes teams and can really turn us against guys; after all, if a veteran running back's team didn't want to keep a guy that was coming off of another 1200-yard season they probably know better than anybody when the tires are starting to go bald, right? But we are also living in a time where teams are more comfortable than ever letting veteran running backs simply walk since the potential returns via trade are so weak, so the 'old' running backs making it to market or otherwise changing teams are trending younger and lower mileage.

Still, I wouldn't normally be inclined to chase this thread if circumstances weren't basically forcing us to here. We have a truly historic year of running backs changing teams at hand, as a whopping seven out of the top 13 active players on the all-time touches leaderboard are wearing new jerseys in 2024, including three of the top four (Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry and Joe Mixon). And these aren't guys that are just hanging around at the end of the bench to bolster their pensions either, as six of those seven running backs are running comfortably inside the top 24 at the position in the early ADP rankings.

So with the position unusually captivated by players in these circumstances I took a look back over the last quarter century to see how running backs in similar circumstances fared - and the results were fairly surprising.

VETERAN RBs FIRST SEASONS WITH NEW TEAMS, LAST 25 YEARS
YearPlayerTouchesAgeNew TeamTotal YardsYPCRecTDsRB Finish
2004*E. Smith464235Cardinals10423.515923
2010L. Tomlinson341031Jets12824.252616
2013S. Jackson280330Falcons7343.533730
2023F. Gore278432Colts12343.734713
2018*A. Peterson265933Commanders12504.220818
2006*E. James254428Cardinals13763.438617
2016M. Forte252231Jets10813.730820
2024E. Elliott242129Cowboys
2017M. Lynch239631Raiders10424.320720
2024D. Henry218530Ravens
2004C. Dillon205730Patriots17384.715137
2007J. Lewis198228Browns15524.430113
2024J. Mixon185428Texans
2015*L. McCoy176127Bills11874.432516
1999M. Faulk168626Rams24295.587121
2015D. Williams161032Steelers12744.540114
2007T. Jones156429Jets13363.628223
2019M. Ingram154930Ravens1265526158
2019L. Bell154127Jets12503.266417
2003S. Davis152929Panthers16034.514814
2024J. Jacobs150226Packers
2024S. Barkley148927Eagles
2020T. Gurley148326Falcons8423.525925
2024A. Jones144930Vikings
2024A. Ekeler143029Commanders
2016*D. Murray134228Titans16644.453125
2013R. Bush133928Lions15124.554710
2002*W. Dunn132927Falcons1304450919
2020M. Gordon128327Broncos11444.6321013
2015D. McFadden124928Cowboys14174.640314
2023D. Montgomery117026Lions11324.6161313
2023J. Williams107528Saints3702.818161
2024T. Pollard93827Titans
2023M. Sanders86326Panthers5863.327154
2024D. Swift78825Bears

Now first thing's first, I did massage these results a little bit: I skipped Adrian Peterson's 2017 that saw him make a brief cameo with the Saints before a slightly longer stint with the Cardinals in favor of his 2018 with Washington. Ditto for DeMarco Murray's infamous 2015 with the Eagles, and I dumped Emmitt Smith's injury-riddled first year in the desert for his stronger final season in 2004. But also worthy of asterisks to me were Edgerrin James, Shady McCoy and Warrick Dunn, whose seasons here were followed by much stronger production with their new teams in the seasons to follow. Also left out players where it was clear they weren't going to be 'the guy' or something close to it with their new teams, hence no 2008 Rudi Johnson or 2011 Ronnie Brown.

One thing that jumps out at me is how well the higher mileage guys excused themselves: of the seven guys that started new seasons north of 2500 career touches, five of them managed top 20 finishes - and I dare say we can give Emmitt Smith a pass at a mind-boggling 4600 touches on a bad Cardinals team. Now unfortunately Zeke may well cleave closer to Steven Jackson than the rest of these guys but clearly a top 25 finish is not out of the question - and he's currently ranked outside the top 40 RBs.

Of course it looks like the real power band is in the 1500-2100 career touch range, which accounts for five of the group's seven top 12 finishes, highlighted by Marshall Faulk's legendary 1999 campaign. I don't think there was much reason to be skeptical about Joe Mixon, Josh Jacobs or Saquon Barkley given their relative youth and new offenses, but if you're feeling squeamish about them perhaps you should reconsider. That may go double for Aaron Jones (30) and Austin Ekeler (29), who despite being older than those three clock in with slightly fewer NFL touches to date.

In fact, if there is an area of the mileage chart here to be skittish about perhaps it's at the very bottom: Miles Sanders and Jamaal Williams both signed multi-year deals in free agency last year only to see their first seasons in their new surrounds go thoroughly awry despite having presumably pretty fresh legs. Given that D'Andre Swift and Tony Pollard have similar miles on their odometers, have been generally inconsistent producers and have unclear degrees of competition in their new backfields their current ADPs in the 70-85 range suddenly look a little more suspect to me than they did yesterday.

I definitely wasn't down on any of these running backs prior to this little exercise, primarily because they just about all had the good fortune of landing in either good, very good, or just completely unknown offensive environments in 2024. But seeing just how generally good to excellent the production among higher mileage, established running backs on new teams has been in recent years definitely fortified my comfort with them overall.

—Luke Wilson

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