How much has the NFL changed in one decade when it comes to the shelf life of the running back position?
From 2000 to 2007, 13 backs in their 30s rushed for 1,000 yards at least once, and there were 17 1,000-yard seasons in total among backs who were 30 or older.
From 2010 to 2016, only four backs in their 30s hit the 1,000-yard mark at least once, and there were only six 1,000-yard seasons among them.
Willis McGahee had 1,199 rushing yards as a 30-year-old with the Denver Broncos in 2011, Adrian Peterson had 1,485 as a 30-year-old with the Minnesota Vikings in 2015 and the soon-to-be 34-year-old Frank Gore has hit that mark three times in the last four years.
|1,000-yard seasons by backs in their 30s|
|Pro Football Reference|
Gore is the only active 30-something-year-old back who has been able to consistently accomplish something Emmitt Smith, Tiki Barber, Curtis Martin, Fred Taylor and Warrick Dunn were able to do multiple times each in their 30s just a decade ago.
Running backs have never aged well in comparison to players at other positions, but it does appear that stigma has grown in recent years.
There are a few reasons for that.
First, several high-profile running backs fell off cliffs at or before age 30. LaDainian Tomlinson's numbers plummeted between his age-28 season and his age-30 season, Steven Jackson was never the same after a 1,000-yard season at the age of 29, and former star backs Chris Johnson and Matt Forte began fading well before 30.
Second, a cliche has emerged that labels backs as being worth a dime a dozen. Teams don't want to be burned the way the Cleveland Browns were by bust No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson or the way the Oakland Raiders were by bust No. 4 overall pick Darren McFadden. They also don't want to overpay for declining backs because they've probably noticed how easy it's become to land good young runners on the cheap. Ahmad Bradshaw, Alfred Morris, Justin Forsett, Jay Ajayi and Jordan Howard were all late-round picks. Arian Foster, Willie Parker and Blount weren't even drafted.
Finally, teams are running the ball less often. The last five seasons have been the most pass-heavy campaigns in NFL history.
|Most pass-heavy seasons in NFL history|
|Pro Football Reference|
Why invest in a veteran back if a younger back might be just as good, he's inevitably going to decline and you might not use him much anyway?
But three teams have done exactly that in the last couple weeks, and what happens with Peterson in New Orleans, Marshawn Lynch in Oakland and Jamaal Charles in Denver could dictate what's to come for a lot of younger backs who hope to remain employed on the other side of 30.
Peterson signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Saints last Tuesday despite the fact he lingered on the open market for about six weeks. He's probably going to wind up in the Hall of Fame regardless of what happens between now and the end of his career, but it's unclear how much gas he has left in the tank at the age of 32.
The seven-time Pro Bowler missed most of 2016 because of a knee injury, and he averaged a mere 2.9 yards per attempt in his last nine games as a Viking. He failed to reach the 70-yard mark on the ground in eight of those nine games and didn't score a touchdown in his last four outings in Minnesota.
Lynch officially came out of retirement to join his hometown team on a two-year, $9 million contract last Wednesday. There's a lot of hype surrounding his return, but it's important to keep in mind that he's 31, he hasn't played since 2015 and he hasn't been effective since 2014.
The five-time Pro Bowler averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in seven games during an injury-plagued 2015 season with the Seattle Seahawks.
Charles lingered as a free agent for even longer than Peterson before jumping from the Kansas City Chiefs to the division rival Broncos on a one-year contract worth up to $3.75 million, which he signed Tuesday. Again, there's been plenty of buzz there, but Charles is 30 and hasn't been a factor in the NFL since he was 27.
The four-time Pro Bowler has carried the ball just 83 times the last two seasons while dealing with a torn right ACL. He's had four knee procedures since 2011, which explains why he's received fewer than 100 carries in three of his last six seasons.
Charles could have to fight to make the 53-man roster in Denver, while Peterson and Lynch will have to battle for carries in crowded backfields. None are expected to play workhorse roles, but would it surprise anybody if all three became lead backs and put together 1,000-yard campaigns? These guys have been defying odds for much of their lives, so I'm not about to rule it out.
If that happens, it'll be a good omen for top backs who are approaching 30, like DeMarco Murray (29), LeSean McCoy (28), Doug Martin (28) and Mark Ingram (27), as well as the kids from the next generation.
On the other hand, if all three fail, it could spell the end for the 30-something-year-old running back in the NFL. Who'll want to take another chance on an old-man back after that?
Either way, this could be a trendsetting season at one of the sport's most celebrated positions.