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Fred Jackson and the Fresh Legs Myth

The Buffalo Bills re-signed Fred Jackson to an extension Monday, and the early reports coming in that it could reach 9 million for the two additional years. While some of that may be funny money, given the shorter term, he’s likely to realize some of it as I’m sure there is some guaranteed. Depending on exactly how much per year, the cap hit for Jackson would slot in at around the 14 to 17 range for running backs.

Jackson turned 31 in January. He was signed through next year, his age 31 season, anyway, so this extension covers ages 32 and 33. He is coming off a season where he put up some huge numbers, then it was cut short by a broken fibula.

But I’m not going to talk about whether it was money entirely well spent. Buffalo is rewarding a player who has been an underdog and was a great value with an extension. I’m sure there is an element there of taking care for morale reasons so that other players feel the organization will play those who produce.

Instead, I want to focus on a notion that Fred Jackson is younger than his age in running back years. The Washington Post article linked above says this:

“Though at 31, Jackson is regarded as old by NFL running back standards, he’s comparatively fresh because of his late start.”

Adam Caplan, NFL reporter had this exchange on twitter (and anytime you can link to VIP strippers, you gotta do it):

 

So, is there any evidence that backs like Fred Jackson are fresher and thus a better investment than other productive backs at age 30? Is he likely to play longer because he played less earlier in life?

It’s a hard question, because usually more talented backs get more carries at age 25, and age 27, and age 29. However, I don’t see any evidence that supports this view. This is different from saying that Jackson has outlasted other backs, or that wear and tear played a role in ending backs careers by age 30. However, if we compare backs who were good at age 30, and had few carries, to other backs who were good at age 30, with lots of them, and who survived those earlier carries, it’s hard to argue that freshness means those backs will last longer.

I looked at all backs since 1978 who finished in the Top 24 in running back fantasy points (yards + touchdowns). There are 31 others, not including Jackson and McGahee from last year. Only three backs on the list had fewer career touches through age 30 than Jackson: Earl Ferrell, Albert Bentley, and Lamar Smith. I’m sure you fondly remember how all three dominated the league at ages 32-33.

Here is a quick summary of what are 30-year old backs totaled from ages 31 to 33, depending on how many career touches they had through age 30.

  • The four backs with fewer than 1,200 career touches through age 30 averaged 822 total yards from scrimmage over the next three seasons;
  • The ten backs with between 1,200 and 1,999 career touches through age 30 averaged 1,638 total yards from scrimmage over the next three seasons;
  • The ten backs with between 2,000 and 2,799 career touches through age 30 averaged 2,519 total yards from scrimmage over the next three seasons;
  • The seven backs with more than 2,800 career touches through age 30 averaged 2,511 total yards from scrimmage over the next three seasons;

That’s a pretty good indicator that the better backs at ages 31 to 33, among those that were still starting at a high level at age 30, tended to be those that had gotten a lot of carries before age 30. Walter Payton was Sweetness, but not Freshness, by the time he hit age 31, and put up by far the best numbers of any back on the list at that age.

Only 7 of the 31 had over 800 yards from scrimmage at age 33, which will be the final year of Jackson’s new extension. Six of those seven had more than 2,000 career touches through age 30. The one exception was James Brooks, who was buried on the depth chart in San Diego and utilized in a limited role, but exploded with the Bengals.

If Fred Jackson is going to justify this contract, and prove to be productive at age 33, it’s not going to be because he has fewer carries. It will be because he was a diamond in the rough, like Brooks, who should have had more touches all along.

[photo via US Presswire]

 

 

 

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