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An Analysis of the Running Back Wall

Indianapolis Colts Training Camp Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot about the drop off in production in running backs and how for them it happens earlier than any other position. While many in the media claim it has to due with age, it actually has to do with the number of carries a running back has over his college and professional career.

In an article I wrote in May about the Jonathan Taylor signing, I briefly spoke about the running back wall and used it as an argument for why I wasn’t in love with the pick. While valid, my argument had holes in it and wasn’t fully researched or thought out... until now. This is my first attempt at breaking down and analyzing this supposed “wall” that all running backs hit in their careers. The main question that will be answered (or attempted to be answered) is at what point do running backs’ careers fall off the cliff? Using a series of examples over the past 3 decades, we can help answer that question.

Running back is the toughest position as running backs take the most punishment over the course of their careers; they get hit and tackled the most. That causes a lot of wear and tear on the body and even the best players can only handle so much. The question is, how much contact can a good running back handle before his body and his career take a dive?

The following players and their careers will be broken down:

  • Frank Gore (2005— present)
  • Steven Jackson (2004 — 2015)
  • Edgerrin James (1999 — 2009)
  • Marshawn Lynch (2007 — 2019)
  • Lesean McCoy (2009 — present)
  • Adrian Peterson (2007 — present)
  • Emmitt Smith (1990 — 2004)
  • Ladainian Tomlinson (2001 — 2011)

For carries, all college and NFL career carry numbers will be used as high school reps are insignificant since they were heads and shoulders above their competition.


Frank Gore

Career College Touches: 371 touches

Career NFL Touches: 4016 touches

Total Touches: 4387 touches

Yards per Touch by NFL Year: 5.2, 5.8, 4.9, 5.0, 5.4, 5.2, 4.4, 5.1, 4.3, 4.6, 4.2, 4.3, 4.2, 5.0, 3.9 - Average of 4.8

Years in which Yards per Touch is below career average: Year 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15

Average Number of Touches per Season: 267 touches

Gore has played 15 seasons in the NFL and 85% of his underperforming seasons came in the 2nd half of his career with 57% of those seasons coming in the final 33% of his career.

Entering his 7th season in the NFL, Frank Gore had logged 1641 touches in the NFL. If we add that to his college totals, that put him at 2021 total touches in his football career.

However, I would argue that since his 8th season was a return to normalcy, his 7th season was purely an outlier.

Entering his 9th season in the NFL, Gore had logged 2226 touches, which puts him at 2597 for his football career.

For Frank Gore, 2597 touches was his running back wall. After year 8, his play significantly declined.

Steven Jackson

Career College Touches: 809 touches

Career NFL Touches: 3225 touches

Total Touches: 4034 touches

Yards per Touch by NFL Year: 5.6, 4.6, 5.4, 4.6, 4.8, 4.6, 4.3, 4.9, 4.6, 3.9, 4.1, 3.2 - Average of 4.7

Years in which Yards per Touch is below career average: Year 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12

Average Number of Touches per Season: 269 touches

Jackson played 12 seasons in the NFL and 62.5% of his underperforming seasons came in the 2nd half of his career. Jackson was relatively consistent for the first 7 years of his careers and even his down years weren’t off the mark by much. However, in his 9th season, there was a clear decline. Entering his 9th year, he had logged 2507 touches which put his career total at 3316, which would be his wall number.

Edgerrin James

Career College Touches: 539 touches

Career NFL Touches: 3461 touches

Total Touches: 4000 touches

Yards per Touch by NFL Year: 5.0, 5.1, 4.9, 4.0, 4.3, 5.3, 4.6, 3.7, 4.1, 4.1, 2.9 - Average of 4.5

Years in which YPT is below career average: Year 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11

Average Number of Touches per Season: 315 touches

James played 11 seasons in the NFL and 66% of his underperforming seasons came in the 2nd half of his career.

Entering his 8th season in the NFL, James had logged 2544 touches and 3083 for his football career. His play completely dipped starting in year 8. For James, his number is 3083.

Marshawn Lynch

Career College Touches: 558 touches

Career NFL Touches: 2740 touches

Total Touches: 3298 touches

Yards per Touch by NFL Year: 4.4, 4.5, 4.3, 3.9, 4.5, 5.3, 4.7, 5.3, 4.0, 4.6, 4.4, 2.8 - Average of 4.6

Years in which YPT is below career average: Year 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

Average Number of Touches per Season: 210 touches

Lynch struggled early on in his career, but that was mostly due to a bad offense and poor structure in Buffalo. He was never used properly and was truly unleashed when he was traded to Seattle. He underperformed in his first five seasons in the NFL due to his team and not his body or ability.

We see that his play really dropped starting in year 9. Entering his 9th season, Lynch had amassed 2272 NFL touches which put his career number at 2830.

For Lynch, his running back wall number is 2830.

Lesean McCoy

Career College Touches: 649 touches

Career NFL Touches: 2950 touches

Total Touches: 3599 touches

Yards per Touch per NFL Year: 4.8, 5.9, 5.1, 4.8, 5.9, 4.3, 5.1, 5.7, 4.6, 3.9, 5.0 - Average of 5.0

Years in which YPT is below career average: Year 1, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11

Average Number of Touches per Season: 268 touches

Lesean McCoy’s play has really trailed off the last few seasons. He yards per touch total was below his career average in years 1, 4 and 6 due to being inexperienced, learning a new offense or just missing the mark by a small amount. After year 8, he just wasn’t the same player.

Entering his 9th season, he had logged 2280 career touches which put his running back wall number at 2929.

Adrian Peterson

Career College Touches: 772 touches

Career NFL Touches: 3325 touches

Total Touches: 4097 touches

Yards per Touch per NFL Year: 6.3, 4.9, 5.1, 5.1, 4.9, 6.0, 4.7, 4.0, 4.8, 2.0, 3.6, 4.6, 4.6 - Average of 5.0

Years in which YPT is below career average: Year 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

Average Number of Touches per Season: 238 touches

The majority of Peterson’s underperforming seasons came after the year 6 and starting in year 7. It’s worth noting that he only played one game in 2014 due to his suspension, but it still signals the downfall of his career. Entering his 7th season, he had logged 2239 career touches which puts his total at 3011.

Since his regression starting in year 7 and hasn’t had a relatively good season in the 2nd half of his career, we can put his wall number at 3011.

Emmitt Smith

Career College Touches: 756 touches

Career NFL Touches: 4924 touches

Total Touches: 5680 touches

Yards per Touch per NFL Year: 4.4, 4.4, 4.7, 5.6, 4.4, 4.9, 3.9, 4.3, 4.4, 4.3, 4.2, 4.1, 3.9, 3.5, 3.7 - Average of 4.4 (4.38)

Years in which YPT is below career average: Year 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15

Average Number of Touches per Season: 328 touches

Smith’s case is clear, he was very good the first 6 years of his career and then starting in year 7, he dropped off and failed to reach his career average in every season.

Entering year 7, Smith had 2308 NFL touches which put his career total at 3064. If year 7 is considered the start of his downfall, then 3064 would be his number.

Ladainian Tomlinson

Career College Touches: 986 touches

Career NFL Touches: 3798 touches

Total Touches: 4784 touches

Yards per Touch per NFL Year: 4.0, 4.8, 5.7, 4.5, 4.7, 5.8, 5.2, 4.5, 3.6, 4.7, 6.2 - Average of 4.9

Years in which YPT is below career average: Year 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10

Average Number of Touches per Season: 345 touches

While years 1, 2, 4 and 5 were below his career average, with the exception of his rookie season, none of those seasons was bad by any means as he just missed his career average mark. In his case, he had remarkable 6th and 7th seasons that raised his career yards per touch average by a lot. Starting in year 8, we saw a significant downfall. Despite a few bright spot moments in his final season, he clearly wasn’t the same player starting in year 8.

Entering his 8th season, Tomlinson had logged 2823 touches which puts his career total at 3809, which is his wall number.

Recap

Running back wall numbers:

  • Frank Gore — 2597 touches
  • Steven Jackson — 3316 touches
  • Edgerrin James — 3083 touches
  • Marshawn Lynch — 2830 touches
  • Lesean McCoy — 2929 touches
  • Adrian Peterson — 3011 touches
  • Emmitt Smith — 3064 touches
  • Ladainian Tomlinson — 3809 touches

If we took the average of these numbers, we’d get 3080 career touches. The range is from 2597 to 3809. The range without the highest and lowest figure is 2830 to 3316. The range without the outliers gives the most accurate reading as it shows that most of the players analyzed fall within that area and the numbers are very close.

If we take the average of all the running backs except outliers Gore and Tomlinson, then that figure is 3038 career touches, which is actually similar to the overall career touch number.

Based on the data, it seems as if the magic number is about 3050 career touches.

The Colts’ Running Backs

Marlon Mack

Career College Touches: 651 touches

Career NFL Touches: 587 touches

Total Touches: 1238 touches

Average Number of Touches per Season: 196 touches

If we use 3050 as the magic number, that means that Mack has 1812 quality touches left in him before he hits the wall. That means that he should have at least 6 more quality seasons before we should expect to see a serious physical decline.

Jonathan Taylor

Career College Touches: 968 touches

Career NFL Touches: 0 touches

Total Touches: 968 touches

Average Number of Touches per Season: Unknown

If we use 3050 as the magic number, that means that Taylor has 2082 quality touches left in him before he hits the wall. If the Colts decide to use him as an Ezekiel Elliott-type (350 touches a season) bell-cow, then Taylor should have at least 6 quality seasons in him before we see any type of physical decline. That is long enough to get him through his rookie deal and perhaps sign a 2 or 3 year contract after that.

If the Colts decide to split carries for one or two seasons, that might prolong the career of Taylor, who is already pretty close to Mack in terms of career touches, despite never playing an NFL snap. If the Colts decide to use him as a bell-cow early, that will most likely eliminate the chance of getting a 2nd NFL contract with the Colts.


Running Backs and 2nd Contracts

Entering 2018, the eight highest paid running backs entering the league based on contract value were:

  1. Todd Gurley
  2. Devonta Freeman
  3. Lesean McCoy
  4. David Johnson
  5. Saquon Barkley
  6. Jerick McKinnon
  7. Leonard Fournette
  8. Lamar Miller

Seven of those eight players are on different teams, with Barkley being the only player. Of those 8 players, all but Barkley and Fournette were on rookie contracts and the most of the others were on their 2nd contracts.

Time after time, it’s shown that it doesn’t make sense to give running backs a 2nd contract and to just use draft picks to replace them. That’s an article for another time...