March 6, 2021

Early look at running back top 10

Early look at running back top 10

I remember when age 30 used to be the warning sign for fantasy running backs, the flashing red light, the “Run away while you can” warning.

That line keeps skewing younger and younger. Forget the 30-something guys — even backs in their late 20s were relatively useless for fantasy managers in 2020.

Let’s check out the Top 20 PPR backs from the season just completed. The list skews young, as you might expect. The average age on that Top 20 board (using the “age season” definitions of Pro Football Reference) is 24.3.

The “old guys” on the Top 27 list are three backs exactly at 27: Mike Davis, Melvin Gordon, and J.D. McKissic. Gordon was a draft target, perhaps as a playable RB2, in the summer. Davis and McKissic weren’t on the radar in any common league. If you added Davis as a FAB bid, you gained significant value. McKissic was impactful, but less valuable.

If you’re a sympathizer for experienced backs, David Johnson (RB21, age 29) and Gio Bernard (RB30, age 29) had some moments. As for the backs 30 and up, only four backs cracked the Top 50: Latavius Murray (RB34), Adrian Peterson (RB40), Rex Burkhead (RB44), and good old Frank Gore (RB47). Not much fantasy utility there.

Is 27 the highest age-limit for valuable fantasy running backs?

If you put a hard line on backs 28-and-up this year (again, per the PFR age definition), it would have spared you some misses. Mark Ingram’s cliff season wouldn’t be on your watch. You would have ignored the Giants when they added Devonta Freeman. Le’Veon Bell’s name would never cross your timeline, no matter if he was tied to the high-flying Chiefs or the low-flying Jets. I will never disrespect reliable pro James White, but he wasn’t a fantasy asset this year. Raheem Mostert wouldn’t be on a roster that demanded 27-and-under talent (I take zero joy in saying that; I love Raheem Mostert).

While it’s obvious running back has generally been a young man’s domain, I think the position continues to trend younger than ever in the current framework. Talented backs come into the league earlier and earlier — if you’ve shown star potential by your third collegiate year, often there’s no reason to play a senior year. And some NFL teams are starting to view the position as largely fungible, which means it’s possible to get by with committee approaches or players with less draft capital or experience.

Said more bluntly, this is a spot where teams think they can be frugal, save some money.

And not every team is comfortable paying up for a star running back’s second contract, no matter what he might have shown in the first four seasons. Meanwhile, Ezekiel Elliott’s contract — yet to kick in — already looks like an albatross in Dallas.

As always, the only unbreakable rule in fantasy is “Hold zero unbreakable rules.” Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones head into their age-27 seasons next year; I’m not going to dismiss them immediately out of hand. Every situation is different. Jones will likely be on a new team, which will force us to consider new context.

Then again, Todd Gurley heads into the age-27 pocket, and he’s someone I wanted no part of this past season. Touchdown deodorant kept him afloat for a while, but even with nine scores, he was merely the RB29.

The backs I do want to draft, well, they’re the same guys a lot of people will be targeting. Give me players on the escalator, players who probably haven’t shown their best season yet. The late-charging rookie class (Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift) all look like fun picks for 2021. Of course, they’re likely to be pricy, too. And I doubt many of my backs next year will be second-contract guys.

Henry is probably the hardest call on the 2021 board. OC Arthur Smith is gone. Henry has never caught 20 passes in any season. A 397-touch season is an enormous workload; only Dalvin Cook (356 touches, two games missed) was in the same neighborhood. Henry saw immense workloads in high school and logged 395 carries in his final Alabama season.

It might be hard to imagine that Henry is closer to the end of his career than the start of it. But windows in the NFL seldom stay open as long as we expect. Ask yourself what you thought about Gurley 2-3 years ago. Would you want to be stuck with that Zeke extension?

Here’s my Way Too Early running back board for 2021. I’m not going to rank the incoming rookies yet; let’s see where they land. Assume PPR scoring. And take this for what it is, a fun ranking that’s several months away from any important decisions we have to make.

Way Too Early Running Back Board for 2021

Christian McCaffrey

Dalvin Cook

Alvin Kamara

Saquon Barkley

Derrick Henry

Jonathan Taylor

Nick Chubb

Austin Ekeler

Nick Chubb

James Robinson

Josh Jacobs

J.K. Dobbins

D’Andre Swift

Miles Sanders

David Montgomery

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