Can LeSean McCoy Return to Elite Status with Bills?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 4, 2015

AP Images

Something happened to LeSean McCoy last season. The Pro Bowl running back had virtually as many carries as he did in 2013, but his yards-from-scrimmage total dropped from 2,146 to 1,474, his touchdown total shrunk from 11 to five and his yards-per-attempt average plummeted from 5.1 to 4.2. 

Was it a sign that a running back who has had more touches the last five years than anyone else in football is simply wearing out? Possibly. And that would explain why the Philadelphia Eagles are apparently willing to part with McCoy in exchange for a talented but still relatively unseasoned linebacker coming off a major knee injury. 

As ESPN first reported on Tuesday, it appears the Eagles have agreed to trade McCoy to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for Buffalo's top 2013 rookie, Kiko Alonso. 

Considering that McCoy was the league's leading rusher only 14 months ago and that Alonso missed the entire 2014 season due to a torn ACL, this appears on the surface to be a lopsided trade driven mainly by money. After all, McCoy will make $9.75 million in 2015, while Alonso is slated to make only $745,946 in the third year of his rookie deal. 

Can McCoy revive his career in Buffalo and live up to that paycheck? Let's break it down.

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Age is just a number

In this case, it's a slightly misleading one. McCoy is only 26 years old, which is still relatively young even in a business that chews up and spits out its talent faster than the entertainment world. But the reality is it's about the tread on a player's tires, and McCoy is probably more worn down than your typical 26-year-old back.

The Pittsburgh product was barely legal drinking age when he picked up 945 yards from scrimmage on 195 touches as a rookie in 2009. No rookie back was on the field more often than he was that year, and he was out there for more snaps than all but two other backs league-wide as a sophomore in 2010. 

Only 12 backs in NFL history have had more touches before the age of 27 than McCoy, who isn't exactly a battering ram at 5'10", 215 pounds. And although he spent only two years at Pitt, he touched the ball 649 times in only 25 games. In 2008, he ranked fourth in the nation in plays from scrimmage. 

Maurice Jones-Drew (5'7", 210 lbs) is slightly smaller than McCoy, but he broke in at the exact same age and followed a similar career path before sharply declining in his seventh season at the age of 27. During his first six seasons, Jones-Drew averaged 19.9 touches per game. McCoy averaged 19.6. 

On the other hand, Marshall Faulk, who possessed similar size and a very similar skill set, sustained his success for a strong seventh and eighth season after touching the ball more frequently than all but three other backs in NFL history before turning 27. 

So there are precedents that support McCoy's redemption and precedents that oppose it. 

In the last 20 years, 19 backs have touched the ball 1,500-plus times before turning 27. I've excluded McCoy, whose future is up in the air, as well as Ray Rice and Ricky Williams due to suspensions and Jerome Bettis because he was a completely different kind of running back.

Of the 15 remaining backs, 11 seemed to be declining by year seven.

Heavily worked RBs who declined around Year 7 (1994-2014)
BackYear 6Year 7Year 8
Emmitt Smith1,7731,2041,074
Edgerrin James1,5481,5061,159
LaDainian Tomlinson1,8151,4741,110
Clinton Portis1,2621,487494
Maurice Jones-Drew1,606413803
Steven Jackson1,4161,2411,145
Rodney Hampton1,18282781
Marshawn Lynch1,5901,2571,306
Adrian Peterson2,0971,26675
Ahman Green1,8831,163255
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The four exceptions: 

Heavily worked RBs who sustained success around Year 7
BackYear 6Year 7Year 8Year 9
Barry Sanders1,8831,5001,5532,053
Marshall Faulk1,3811,3591,382953
Curtis Martin1,2041,5131,0941,308
Jamal Lewis1,1321,3041,002500
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com (1994-2014)

In that respect, the odds aren't in McCoy's favor. 

A new environment might not be just what the doctor ordered

Sometimes a change of scenery can help a player in a rut. Marshawn Lynch, for example, didn't really excel until he was traded from Buffalo to the Seattle Seahawks. That, however, was early in his career. It's extremely rare to see backs sustain success after peaking with Pro Bowl-type productivity at their previous destination. 

It's not as though all running backs wilt when moving cities during their perceived prime.

  • Ricky Watters put together three consecutive 1,200-yard seasons after jumping from the Philadelphia Eagles to Seattle as a 29-year-old in 1998. 
  • Faulk put together three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons after moving from the Indianapolis Colts to the St. Louis Rams as a 26-year-old in 1999.
  • Warrick Dunn also had some stellar years after moving from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Atlanta Falcons as a 27-year-old in 2002.
  • And Stephen Davis had 1,444 rushing yards after moving from the Washington Redskins to the Carolina Panthers as a 29-year-old in 2003. 

But lately, it's been all about those declines. 

  • Former Indianapolis Colts star Edgerrin James wasn't the same as a 28-year-old with the Arizona Cardinals in 2006.
  • Former St. Louis Rams star Steven Jackson wasn't the same as a 30-year-old with the Atlanta Falcons two years ago.
  • Former Tennessee Titans star Chris Johnson wasn't the same as a 29-year-old with the New York Jets last season.
  • And Jones-Drew wasn't the same as a 29-year-old with the Oakland Raiders in 2014. 

But it should be noted that the numbers for Johnson, Jackson, James and Jones-Drew all dropped considerably during their final couple of seasons in Indy, St. Louis, Tennessee and Jacksonville, whereas Watters, Faulk, Dunn and Davis didn't seem to be losing as much steam. 

McCoy's numbers dropped considerably last season, so he has that in common with those four aforementioned cautionary tales. 

Making matters worse, Buffalo simply isn't Philadelphia. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly is an offensive mastermind with a strong emphasis on running the football. His offense has rushed for more yards than everybody's except Seattle the last two years. 

And when McCoy led the league in rushing in 2013, he benefited from playing behind a completely healthy offensive line that started together for all 16 regular-season games. Left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Evan Mathis were Pro Bowlers, and Pro Football Focus graded center Jason Kelce as the best center in football. 

McCoy also had the NFL's highest-rated passer in Nick Foles and the league's leading deep receiver in DeSean Jackson

Buffalo has none of that, which is scary because when McCoy lost that support in 2014, his play faded. 

About that 2014 dip...

When McCoy struggled the most early last season, the Eagles offensive line was ravaged by injuries. On the season, it used nine different starters in various combinations, with regular starters missing a total of 23 games due to injury or suspension. It's clear that his productivity correlated with how healthy the line was. 

LeSean McCoy: Rushing stats based on active starting linemen
Starting O-linemenGamesYards/gameYards/carryTD20-yard runs
5 of 5 in 201316100.45.199
4 of 5 in 20141088.84.547
3 of 5 in 2014498.04.612
2 of 5 in 2014219.51.300
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Remove those two games in which he was hung out to dry with only two regular starting offensive linemen, and McCoy's yards-per-attempt average for the 2014 season is 4.5 instead of 4.2. That's still down, but he didn't have a healthy line the rest of the year and wasn't getting a lot of support elsewhere. 

Foles was also a mess early before getting hurt, forcing McCoy to work with the even less reliable Mark Sanchez. Throw in that the departed Jackson was no longer around to stretch the field, and it's easy to make excuses for the running back. 

Right now, though, things don't exactly look tremendously promising in Buffalo, where there's no Kelly, nothing resembling a franchise quarterback and an offensive line that Football Outsiders ranked 26th in run blocking last season. 

Sure, the Bills can add support for McCoy in free agency and the draft, but after absorbing McCoy's salary they're left with about $17 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, which is less than ideal for a team that requires some work. And they're without a first-round draft pick after trading up for wide receiver Sammy Watkins last year. 

They've had a revolving door at both guard positions, which has led to the somewhat controversial signing of veteran Richie Incognito, who you may remember from the 2013 bullying scandal that rocked the league. That can't be a good sign.

And despite a decent amount of talent with C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon and former Eagle Bryce Brown, they ranked in the bottom 10 in rushing last year with only 92.6 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry. 

For an actual team-to-team comparison we can look at Brown, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry in two seasons with Philadelphia before mustering only 3.5 yards per attempt in his first year with the Bills, albeit within a sample size of only 36 rushes. 

With all that in mind, it's hard to envision McCoy re-emerging as an elite back as he jumps from Philly to Buffalo. But crazier things have happened, and there are precedents that indicate he's far from doomed. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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