The running back will turn 31 years old in May and is currently slated to count nearly $6.5 million against the salary cap next season. With young draft picks like Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James on the roster behind him, and with players like Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith looking for long-term contract extensions, that’s quite a bit of money to have allotted to an aging running back.
Running backs tend to decline quite notably once they hit 27 or 28, and 31-year-old running backs haven’t precisely lit up the world. Linked here is the complete list of 31-year-old running backs since the NFL season expanded to 16 games in 1978.
Only 11 times did a running back top the 1,000-yard mark, most recently Thomas Jones in 2009 for the New York Jets. The median running back, Earnest Byner, barely trumped 100 yards. Obviously, that’s not worth $6.5 million a year.
That’s an overly simplistic analysis, however, as Gore isn’t an average NFL running back.
He rushed for 1,128 yards this season, good for 17th best among all 30-year-olds. His 1,214 yards the year before moves him up to 13th among 29-year-olds as well. He’s not on his last legs—far from it. He was able to handle a large workload of 292 touches, with very little help in the passing game for much of the year, and still managed to roll to 4.1 yards per attempt—a very respectable figure.
Of course, that figure is again a bit misleading, as Gore did wind down as the season wore on. Here are his splits in the first and second halves of the season, including the three playoff games:
You can try to spin that as a workhorse back getting tired toward the end of a long season, but Gore’s drop-off is a bit extreme, even for that. Is it a fluke—a small-sample-size situation filled with tougher teams late in the season? Or is it the canary in the coal mine, an indicator that Gore’s numbers balance on the edge of a cliff?
First thing’s first—we can see from Gore’s career splits that he isn’t a significantly worse rusher late in the season, so this isn’t a normal progression for Gore. In fact, his worst month has historically been September, as he gets into gear. So this isn’t simply just business as usual for Gore.
There is no magic way to accurately predict how much gas a back has left in the tank, but let’s take a couple of shots at it anyway.
Back in 2006, Doug Drinen, then of Pro-Football-Reference, attempted to come up with a way of calculating a running back’s future success based on comparing all previous players and using advanced math to come up with a formula for determining just how many more yards a running back could be expected to gain over the course of his career.
I did the same math, taking the 98 running backs who started at least one game in their age-29, -30 and -31 seasons—Gore’s likely to still be the starter next season, so we need to exclude career backups who got a carry every now and again.
It’s not the prettiest list ever, as only 31 of them even had 1,000 more yards left in their NFL careers. The median player, instead, was a player like Eddie George who had one more season of 432 yards left in him before calling it a career.
Gore’s statistics, however, have been notably above that mark. If you regress all the data and punch Gore’s last two seasons into the resulting formula, you find that Gore has about 1,800 yards left in him. That’s enough for him to just crack the top 15 all-time rushing yard totals between Thurman Thomas and Fred Taylor.
This is, of course, only a ballpark figure. It’s based on averages of a wide variety of running backs and is vulnerable to a lot of fluctuation on the individual level.
The formula predicted Marcus Allen to have just under 1,200 yards left before retirement; instead, a late-career renaissance with the Kansas City Chiefs saw him go for nearly 4,300 more yards. Conversely, the formula thought Chuck Muncie had another 1,400 yards to go before he called it quits, but he instead had only 14 more carries in his entire career.
We need to narrow down the field a bit. Gore hasn’t been an average running back the last few seasons; he’s been a top-10 running back, despite his age. What we need to compare him to are backs who had solid years while others started to decline. In the last three seasons, Gore has compiled 816 carries for 3,553 yards, so we’re looking for players within about 10 percent of each of those figures.
There are 11 other running backs who end up fitting that description. Here is what they managed to produce in both their age-31 season and over the remainder of their careers.
Career After 30
What does this table show us? First of all, that it’s not entirely unreasonable for the 49ers to think Gore might have another good season left in him.
Four of the players listed rushed for over 900 yards in their age-31 season, which the 49ers would almost certainly take. In addition, while $6.5 million is a bit much to pay for the seasons produced by Corey Dillon or O.J. Simpson, those numbers would be fine for a complementary season if Lattimore bursts onto the scene in 2014.
What the table also shows us, however, is the risk involved with trusting someone of Gore’s age, even with exemplary credentials in the previous seasons. Turner hasn’t played again after failing a physical with the Atlanta Falcons. Alexander ended up released halfway through his final season, barely ever seeing the field. Okoye suffered through a knee injury and lost the form that made him a Pro Bowler the year before.
Taking in all the information, I think 2014 won’t see Gore topping 1,000 yards. That means the $6.5 million he’s owed is somewhat out of line with his performance. Gore’s current salary has him eighth on the list of salary-cap hits for running backs. That figure would have been all right for this season, when Gore ranked ninth in the league in rushing yards, but if he regresses more, that’s money better spent elsewhere.
The ideal situation would be to have Gore take a pay cut this season. Unfortunately, that might be difficult.
None of Gore’s contract is guaranteed, but his roster spot seems fairly safe at the moment. It’s difficult to imagine the reason Gore would have to voluntarily shed salary. Even if the 49ers tried to extend the contract by a year or two, spreading some of the salary-cap hit out, it’s hard to see the numbers coming down to Gore’s “true” value on the free market.
Most likely, the 49ers are going to have to overpay for Gore, but that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute to the team next season. San Francisco may be stuck hoping that Gore bucks the odds and is more Thomas Jones than Michael Turner.