COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Young running backs dominated the league this year, with four of the five top runners still on their rookie contracts.
This season was the first since the beginning of the Super Bowl era in which the average age of the top five running backs (as measured by total rushing yards) fell below 24, a Capital News Service analysis found.
Historically, NFL running backs don’t hit their prime until age 25 or 26. But breakout performances by rookie Ezekiel Elliott (21, Dallas Cowboys), the league’s top runner, and Jordan Howard (22, Chicago Bears), the league’s second best runner, brought down the average. Rounding out the top five were DeMarco Murray (28, Tennessee Titans), Jay Ajayi (23, Miami Dolphins) and Le’Veon Bell (24, Pittsburgh Steelers).
While the talent of these backs is undeniable, another factor was likely at play. The league’s current collective bargaining agreement incentivizes teams to turn to younger — and cheaper — players to fill key positions.
Between 2004 and this season, the average age of the top-five NFL running backs declined five years, the largest dropoff in NFL history. In 2004, the top five was led by Hall of Famer Curtis Martin (31, New York Jets), Corey Dillon (30, New England Patriots) and Tiki Barber (29, New York Giants), representing a generation of great backs at the end of their careers.
Since the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966, the average age of the top five running backs has hit 24 twice, but never fell below the mark until this year.
In 1994, dominant performances by future Hall of Famers — Marshall Faulk (21, Indianapolis Colts), Barry Sanders (26, Detroit Lions) and Emmitt Smith (25, Dallas Cowboys) — drove down the average. In 1967, the top five included Leroy Kelly (25, Cleveland Browns) and Gale Sayers (24, Chicago Bears).