Declining RB Production and NFL Contract Modeling

Though plenty has been written on the decline of the running back at 30, I figured why not add to that with a focus on the contract and likelihood of players performing. It’s a good topic if you are interested in working in the NFL, simply like Fantasy Football, or are going to take a more holistic look at Fantex valuations in the future. Plus with all the discussion on giving Seahawks’ RB Marshawn Lynch a raise and a new contract to reflect what he has accomplished combined with fact that a number of solid NFL running backs are about to make that turn into the late 20’s, it’s a good time to look at those late 20 years.

As a quick study I wanted to go back and look at all running backs between the year 2000 and 2013 that had at least one 100 carry season between the ages of 25 and 27. There is no magic to the 100 carries as it was just an arbitrary cutoff point that I figured would at least let us focus on players who do get reasonable use in the NFL.  I also just wanted to look at players whose age 25-27 seasons all occurred in the 2000’s (so no Curtis Martin types).

All told 70 players qualified for the study. Since originally I did this with Lynch in mind I wanted to look at a three year weighted average with a team placing 50% on the 27 year old season, 35% on the 26 year old season, and 15% on the 25 year old season to set a baseline performance. I also included the regular three year average. Here is the group of players and the resulting stats:

Age 25-27 RB Stats

The top of the list is a who’s-who in fantasy magazine covers and I forgot just how great LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson were for a period of time. Adrian Peterson’s numbers would have been even more ridiculous if he would (or could) have been pushed the same way those others were.  The first thing I want to look at is what percentage of the group (with the top number adjusted for removal of active players) remained in the NFL at each age bracket.

RB lifecycle

A majority of NFL teams have decided that by 31 most of the players no longer belong in the league, though a few make it to 33 and beyond.

How do the players fare when compared to their 25-27 weighted averages?  Not very good. Here is the percentage decline for the players that remain at each age:

rb percent declines

If we just look at higher end players (average above 750 yards) the declines are more or less just as steep, with slightly better yardage drops but massive drops in touchdowns, which is a huge deal for the fantasy folks.

High end RB declines

Very few players were more productive with age. Thomas Jones, Tiki Barber, Warrick Dunn, and Frank Gore were the guys who were more productive as they got older in terms of overall yardage production. Most of the other players saw major declines.

So if we expect average performance where does that leave Marshawn Lynch and some of the comparable players going forward?  I have 13 current players here that should be 28 or 29 this year and here is what the team would expect from the player in terms of yards, assuming he doesn’t flame out:

Current RB Projections

So if we are acting as the cap manager of the team it’s this forward look that we need to make when we decide on signing a player to a new contract. That’s not to say that Peterson will degrade this badly, but the expectation moving forward would be closer to this rather than where he has been for most of his career.

Of course a team should take on all factors into account when arriving at a price and the above chart gives numbers based on average performance and not being released. The threat of release has to be taken into account as does the chance of both better and worse than average performances.

Though the sample size is not that large we can illustrate a way that a team should price point a player. We’ll use Lynch as an example because he’s somewhat relevant. What I want to do is determine likelihood of various events by breaking expectations up into 4 categories: catastrophic (cut necessary), bad (falls off cliff performance/injury), average (mid grade performance), and great (top performers).  We can assign odds of the performance based on number of players who rate in that level, but to make things easier Ill just break the non-release categories into three groups and use the average of each. This is more or less what I would refer to as using financial scenario modeling to build a contract value.

Here are the expected increase or decrease in yards (based on the 3 year weighted average) per year:

Performance expectations

Combining that with the life cycle numbers from above we would need to weigh Lynch’s yardage as follows:

Lynch Scenario Analysis

When I come up with a value for a contract I need to base my thoughts on getting around 2,500 yards over a 4 year period from Lynch. More likely I would look at this chart and say he will likely be worthless to the team at the age of 30 and 31. Of course we can adjust various scenarios by varying the expectation levels beyond here, which is probably wise to do if in a bidding war with another team or you reach an impasse and need to determine how far you can go.

Using these numbers I would match a contract with each figure. Just as a rough estimate I would say a 1,000 yard runner is worth around $5.5 million, a 750 yard runner around $3 million and the last two years the minimum which is around $1 million. All told I would not offer a contract more than 4 years for $10.5 million in realistic dollars.

What I mean by realistic dollars is that the salary offered in 2016 and especially 2017 is worthless since he will likely be cut. If I believe strongly in Lynch I might offer close to $10.5 million over the first two years and fluff up the rest of the deal with money that I know will never be earned.

Now the other day I did say that perhaps a solution to the Lynch situation might include a signing bonus and we can use these charts to provide guidance on that. Knowing the odds of needing to release him the following year we can come up with an average amount of dead money we would anticipate based on signing bonus levels. The following table shows how much dead money we would allocate to Lynch in each year based on signing bonuses of $6, $4, and $2 million on a two year extension. Please note the age 29 row includes dead money from his current signing bonus as well.

Lynch dead money forecast

Based on these numbers I would say that the team should consider no more than a $4 million signing bonus, half of which will likely result in dead money. Using a format like this can actually help identify how much dead money a team can anticipate each year on the books if we analyze every player on a roster and assume teams did not let the cap dictate roster status.

Lynch is already scheduled to earn $5.5 million this year so there would be basically no reason to touch Lynch’s contract at all right now as he is valued right in 2014 and there would be no benefit to a signing bonus to pacify him unless he reduced his salary in 2015 to the $4 million level. Considering he is looking for a raise I cant see him being agreeable to any deal.  About the only way to get a deal both sides would be happy with is to include escalators or incentives that paid Lynch larger sums of money if he was in that rare group that continued to play well into their 30’s. Otherwise it’s contract reduction not increase for him and likely for many others who will soon be in similar situations.


  • Werner

    Great calculation and summary. Means even AP is not going to see the 31.5 Million Dollar of his last two years in his contract ?

    • Pauly S.

      3 years 47.4 million left with like 2.4m in dead money after this year. Those years on his contract might as well not even exist that are complete BS and aren’t worth the paper the contract is written on.

    • No chance which is why hes already starting the “if they cut me the fanbase will stop buying tickets” stuff. If things go badly this year in Minnesota they should trade him.

  • Pauly S.

    I have done extensive research on RB production vs age, and you have to put the backs into different “classes” to project longevity. For example, if you look at the top 20 RB of all time yards from scrimmage, you will see they are fairly productive up until about age 30-31 even longer in some cases. You look at the average of the top 40, that age drops off earlier at about 30. If you look at top 60, 80 and so on the “window” shrinks the further you go down the list.

    So the first thing you want to do with say Marshawn Lynch, is try to project where he is going to end up and what “class” to put him in. Right now he is 133 on the all time yards from scrimmage list, at 28 years old. That is about as low as you can possibly get for a RB of his “stature” and does not bode well for his future production…at all. One can reasonably assume he will finish in the top 80 or so when he is done (another 2,200 yds put him in that range.

    So what do the historical numbers for a top 80 production say. Not good at his age.

    Age 29 – 1,014 total yds
    Age 30 – 847 total yds
    Age 31 – 636 total yds.

    For comparison, here is what an elite top 20 back yds/scrimmage all time would look like in those years….(average by age for current leaders)

    Age 29 -1,508
    Age 30 – 1,240
    Age 31 – 1,091
    Age 32 – 650

    So as you can see there is a huge difference between elite back, and very good back who had a couple good years like Lynch but never any real “greatness”. Lynch can cry all he wants but the teams have these numbers, and there is no way they will give him a penny more and shouldn’t. As a RB you get one good deal after your rookie contract and you have to pray you can see that one to the end, most don’t.

    • eYeDEF

      Instead of the top backs in terms of total yards from scrimmage, don’t you think it’d be more accurate to look at the number of touches meaning carries + receptions? I think the number of hits a back takes is what seems to wear these guys out and shorten their careers so there are runners that would make your list with higher yardage totals but less touches. I’m sure that won’t make much difference in Lynch’s case, he’s had a ton of carries as the workhorse for the Seattle offense since he’s been there, but I think that’d be the more accurate metric to use to illustrate your findings.

      • I know the comment is not directed at me but I used to do that (and still do from time to time) when I would rate backs. Ive also done some work on younger players with yards from scrimmage but its been more from a contract aspect and how teams get so caught up in numbers from one season that usually never happens again. I think the last time I took a good look at them that way the dropoff rate was gigantic between the peak which gets them paid and the real results for the player. Peterson was the one exception and no matter what he does he could really never live up to the outlandish contract. CJ2K never was in the ballpark and a disaster because of it.

        That said in looking over the position in the past I almost feel like a reception is nowhere near the stress on a body as a carry. The receptions almost always come outside which eliminates the head on defensive tackle/inside linebacker hit. It usually eliminates the pile on gang tackle. I think its alot more drag down, angle out of bounds from the big guys than on regular running plays and with less hard cuts on the knees. Getting taken out by a safety or cornerback is much less on the body.

        With play by play data there is probably some merit to do a study breaking down touches into receptions, sweeps, draws, etc…to see if there is any correlation between type of touch and breaking down of the player. Thats another thing that did seem to also occur in the past and that was more sweep plays where the play was designed more like a screen to essentially pitch the ball to the outside to get the runner out of harms way. Now its still a running play and more of the front 7 will converge on it than a regular reception but its all but been dropped from the playbooks. That might be another study that would be or merit.

    • Interesting. You should put that online if you havent already. Id be curious to see if anything changes by era. I kind of felt that backs were built differently “back in the day” and their bodies able to withstand more than the players now. When I watch some of the older footage I see players who not only were able to outrun tons of players but seemed capable of knocking over linebackers and such on certain plays. But I think it would be a good thing to read.

      • Pauly S.

        I have a spreadsheet for the top 140 RB for scrimmage yards (broken into levels 1-20, 21-40,41-60 etc) that hasn’t been updated for 2013 that I can send you. I will try to put 2013 in there so it is current, shouldn’t take long. I also have a “touches to decline” stat that is pretty interesting that shows when the major dropoff is in production.

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