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Michael Turner & Age vs Mileage for a Running Back

Last weekend, I ran my first set of running back projections for fantasy football, and I had Michael Turner, the Atlanta Falcons running back, at #18 on my first pass through the projections. I suspected that was lower than most. Turner finished with the 9th most points in standard scoring, a little lower than that in reception leagues (something we’ll touch on in a second), but he seems a pretty safe pick. Geoffryvs had this comment, which I don’t think is outside the norm:

Only thing is that Turner hasn’t had the same beating as a prototypical starter of his age since he was a backup for so long in San Diego. Granted, he’s had a lot of touches in the last three seasons so his long period as a backup may not matter. Still, he never had more than 80 carries in a season before his first year in the ATL in 2008.

Well, in fact, it’s not, because here is one of the first rankings/comments on Turner I came across doing a quick search, from a site called FantasyFootballManiaxs, where they have him ranked at #8 in the running back rankings:

The only worry with him is age, as he turned 29 years old this February.  The good news is that he only has 1,116 career carries. He should still be a RB1 for at least the next two seasons and is a monster touchdown scorer with 39 touchdowns in the last three seasons

Thus the questions. Does the fact that Michael Turner has only 1,116 career carries mean he is a younger 29 year old than many other backs? And are there any other factors about his profile that suggest how he might age?

Well, I don’t have to really do the research for the first, because it has already been done. Almost five years ago, Doug Drinen at pro-footbal-reference tried to answer the first question when he asked running back deterioration: age or mileage? Doug embarked on a series of ways to try to look at that question, starting by pairing backs who had similar statistical seasons at the same age, but different prior workloads by total career carries, and then seeing how long each lasted. He then looked at backs that reached certain milestones such as 4 Top 12 Fantasy Finishes, 5 Top 20 Finishes, or a Top 5 Finish, and then divided them into three groups by career carries through age 27, and looked at how many future carries they had after 27. In every case, the high carry group (i.e., the Paytons and Emmitts and Tomlinsons) had more future carries, not less.

He then ran a regression using past workload, value, previous year’s value, and age to assess future carries. The upshot: “[c]ombining these two numbers [age and prior workload], we could infer that it would take about 800 previous rushes to age a back as much as one chronological year does.” I think that’s generous, even, because prior workload is correlated with career value, so the better quality that came with those additional carries works the other way. Basically, there is no evidence that suggests that Turner is a younger 29 than some other back.

By the way, if you liked that research by Drinen, drop him a line (feedback AT pro-football-reference.com), and let him know I sent you, kind of like how the radio stations tell you to mention them with promos. I’m always trying to encourage him to someday write some more, when life allows it, so let him know he’s a good dude and you enjoyed his work, and you’d like to see more some day.

Anyway, if there is no evidence that suggests that Turner is a younger 29, is there any that suggests he is actually more likely to fall off as he ages? Turner has several areas of concern for me. (1) he’s a big back; (2) he’s not involved in the passing game at all; (3) he’s reliant on lots of carries and touchdowns to hold his value. From this Football Outsiders article, a drop in reception numbers is often an indicator that a back is about to decline, even if he is still productive as a runner. How not involved was Turner in 2010? He had a league leading 334 rushes, but only 12 catches all season for 85 yards.

Five other backs had over 1,000 rushing yards but less than 100 receiving yards in a season at age 28. Look at those names: Alexander, Henry, Bettis, Okoye, and Rogers. They all fit the bigger back mold, and were guys that were rushing machines and often touchdown machines at age 28. They averaged a 10.8 Fantasy finish at 28 (Turner was #9). The next year, none of them finished in the top 20, as Bettis missed 5 games and had the best result, just over 1000 yards and 4 touchdowns. The average fantasy finish at age 29 was 28.6, and they missed 4.4 games on average.

I know people like to think that the magical age is 30, but many backs start their decline at 28 and 29. Well, in fact, only six backs had more than 320 carries in a season at age 29. Turner doesn’t strike me as the body type that is going to age gracefully, and the lack of receiving involvement and reliance on touchdowns and carries, for a team that was 13-3 but likely to regress off that, means he has too much downside risk for me. I hope I’m wrong, but I tend not to bet against age, and if I do, I want it at the right price. Turner as a top 10 back isn’t that price.

[Photo via Getty]

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