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For running backs, youth seems to have more value than anything else

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NFL: OCT 20 Rams at Falcons Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No intro. Let’s just get into it. The cut-off is 240 rushing attempts and the year we’re starting at is 2015. I’ve done no research prior to writing, I just have a theory. Let’s go.

In 2015, seven running backs carried the ball 240 or more times. Those players were Frank Gore, Devonta Freeman, Adrian Peterson, Jonathan Stewart, Doug Martin, Latavius Murray, and Chris Ivory. Their ages were 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, and 32. Average age: 27.2 years.

In 2016, 11 running backs carried it 240 or more times. Those players were Gore, Zeke Elliott, Jay Ajayi, David Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, Melvin Gordon, Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray, Jordan Howard, Le’Veon Bell, and Todd Gurley. Their ages were 21, 21, 22, 23, 23, 24, 24, 25, 28, 29, and 33. Average age: 24.8 years.

In 2017, 11 running backs carried it 240 or more times. Those players were Gore, Elliott, Gurley, Howard, Gordon, Bell, C.J. Anderson, Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt, Carlos Hyde, and LeSean McCoy. Ages of 22, 22, 22, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 26, 29, and 34. Average: 25.

Note: Gore keeps messing with the averages!

In 2018, seven backs hit 240. They were Gurley, Elliott, Howard, Peterson, plus Chris Carson, Saquon Barkley, and David Johnson. Ages: 21, 23, 23, 23, 24, 26, and 33. Average: 24.7.

In 2019, FOURTEEN backs had at least 240 rushing attempts. The number DOUBLED. We talked about the return of running backs ... zero percent of the time. This is not to say that getting 240 attempts is a marker of huge significance — I’m using it because I think “availability” is important, as is the number of touches you’re giving to any player, not just a back — but after a good decade of “running backs don’t matter” and “the position is devalued and must be a part of a committee now,” that seemed to be less of a case in 2019. Not just because of Derrick Henry bringing back memories of backs of yore (a zero receiving game, ground and pound phenomenon) or the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers rising to the tops of their conferences through rushing, but also as a league-wide effort to get the most out of their draft investments at the position.

We spoke for so long about how you must draft a running back (after the first round) rather than pay one, but not about what the result could be after so many years of doing that. Teams may want more dual-threat running backs in the backfield, but clearly they also want to find one guy who will be able to sit in for all three downs and who can handle a full season’s workload. And they want that guy to be on a rookie contract, it seems. Back to the 2019 class.

Those 14 backs included Bell, Carson, Elliott, Hyde, and Fournette again, but for the first time now also had Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery, Joe Mixon, Christian McCaffrey, Marlon Mack, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Dalvin Cook, and Henry. Their ages were 21, 22, 23, 23, 23, 23, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 25, 27, and 28. Average: 23.9 years.

Number of backs over the age of 28 who handled the ball more than 240 times despite the fact that there were 14 of them: ZERO.

After carrying the ball 251 times in 2018, Adrian Peterson had 211 as a 34-year-old in 2019. After 261 carries in 2017, Gore has 156 and 166 in each of the last two campaigns. (Also: Why not just make the whole NFL out of Frank Gore’s DNA?)

Looking at the running backs who fell just shy of 240, we find Aaron Jones at 236, Phillip Lindsay at 224, Gurley at 223, and Barkley at 217. Next is Peterson, then Mark Ingram. Jones, Lindsay, and Gurley are all 25, whereas Barkley is 22. Which running back who had at least 215 carries in 2019 was not on his rookie deal?

Out of 18 possibilities, only Le’Veon Bell (245 carries for 789 yards and three touchdowns) and Carlos Hyde (245/1,070/6) were past their rookie obligations. Elliott and Gurley have signed extensions, but both the Dallas Cowboys and LA Rams could’ve had them without extensions, as 2019 would have been Gurley’s fifth year option. Could he have held out? Yes. Would that have hurt the Rams? Based on the season he had, and 2020’s trade speculation around Gurley, perhaps not.

Would they like to see him bounce back? Yes, obviously. Sean McVay would like to see the whole offense bounce back and it seems more likely than not that Gurley will be in that plan thanks to his $17 million salary with no relief if dealt or released.

However, it appears as though the message teams want to send to running backs is:

We do need you. We just don’t want you to get paid until after we need you.

READ THIS: Sosa’s evaluation of Gurley’s 2019 season

Of course, the Rams did make one potential succession move by drafting Darrell Henderson in the third round of the draft last year. As a rookie, Henderson had 39 carries for 147 yards and no touchdowns, plus four receptions for 37 yards. He ended his season with ankle surgery and a trip to injured reserve, though McVay didn’t see it as being that major of a deal. As to the lack of playing time, it seemed as though the reason was always brought back to opportunities and the time needed to be given to Gurley and Malcolm Brown.

Plus, the whole team struggled to run the football well, so it’s hard to see what Henderson could have changed ... but at 22 years old, does Henderson have a brighter future than Gurley, who is three years older than him? It sounds like a very odd question, I know, but to some degree we have to bank age and financial status as factors in these decisions.

For every Gore and Peterson, there are a handful of Ivory, Johnson, Anderson, and Bell type careers. If you were starting a team from scratch and had to construct a roster, including keeping it under the salary cap, would you rather have Bell at $15.5 million or Henderson at $950,000? Is Bell 15x better than Henderson? Is he 2x better?

Is Todd Gurley 17.2x better?

I think that’s the question front offices are asking themselves right now as we’ve seen the number of heavy-load backs increase at the same time that we’ve seen the average age dip from over 27 to under 24 in a matter of only three seasons between.

How do the Rams respond now?

In 2020, LA has picks 52, 82, and then their original fourth, a fifth rounder from the Marcus Peters trade, their sixth, and their seventh rounder. (We don’t know the exact position yet of any pick after round three due to compensatory selections.) They could also be looking at a compensatory fourth due to losing Rodger Saffold in free agency. (The LaMarcus Joyner comp was wiped by the Clay Matthews deal.)

Despite the talk of how LA has traded away so many firsts, they actually still have seven picks this year. Should they use any of those picks on a running back when they have Gurley, Henderson, Brown, and a myriad of other needs? The easy answer is no because of those reasons, but for a coach who stresses the importance of rushing and for an organization that did give Gurley $45 million guaranteed, they seem to think the position is important.

And if it is important, then know that Gurley is going into his age-26 season, with a much easier potential out for the team in 2021, then getting another back with high upside on a rookie deal isn’t out of the question.

The top 12 rushing yardage leaders in the NFL were 25 or younger. The top 12.

The top 12 receivers last season were aged 26, 30, 23, 30, 26, 27, 26, 25, 22, 27, 27, and 26. Six of them were on their second contracts.

The top 12 sack-leaders were aged 27, 29, 30, 25, 25, 27, 28, 27, 26, 24, 25, and 29.

Rushing is important. Running backs are important. But teams seem to be intent to focus that importance on players of little financial risk, because they carry such a heavy burden in both injury potential and the need for complementary help in front of them.

My theory was that running backs do matter to teams more than they have in the past few years, and not just in the Alvin Kamara and McCaffrey type of ways. I think that looks defensible. It was also that those backs would be younger and cheaper than they were in the past. That part looks indisputable.