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Is Running Back Longevity (or Lack Thereof) Overrated? Jon Beason and Young Stars that Burn Out at Other Positions

Jon Beason making the U proud

Today, the New York Giants traded for Jon Beason, who had been benched in favor of former Giant Chase Blackburn in Carolina. Beason was one of the young generation of stars a few years ago at the inside linebacker position. He was named first team all pro in 2008 at age 23, and made the pro bowl three consecutive years. Over the last three seasons, though, he has been sapped by injuries and has started just seven games. He is only 28 years old.

Apparently, trading for veterans when you are 0-4 is the latest market inefficiency (Pittsburgh traded for Levi Brown also this week). Let’s set that aside and focus on another issue. Is Beason an exception, or far more of a rule than we would like to believe. You often hear that running back is the most dangerous position. I’ve probably said it a hundred times myself. Teams don’t want to draft running backs, teams don’t want to sign running backs in free agency, and so forth.

Is that true, though? Or is it just that running back is one of the most visible positions, so that decline there is imprinted more on our brains?

Here is an interesting chart. I took the top 25 retired players at each position in terms of games started before their 25th birthday, and then found their age the last time they were able to start at least six games in one NFL season. Some players may have been “retired” for ineffectiveness, some for career ending injury, and some for cumulative injuries disguised as ineffectiveness (because they were no longer the same player physically).

Positions and Longevity

Interestingly, Running Back shows up pretty much right in the middle. It is Middle or Inside Linebacker, the position played by Beason, that is lower on the list. I’ll add a few qualifiers to this list. It does not include fullbacks among the running backs, because most people think of the runners here. That caused me to exclude a few guys like John L. Williams, but I think it more accurately reflect what people think (and few true fullbacks get a ton of starts early).

At linebacker, there were a couple of cases–Junior Seau, Takeo Spikes, and Chris Claiborne–that were not among the most games started at inside linebacker or outside linebacker, but were overall. That is because, for Seau and Spikes, they both began inside, but then were moved to outside linebacker by age 23, and played most of their careers outside (until coming back inside very late in their careers when they were losing a few steps). Claiborne did the opposite, moved from outside to inside, and had his career cut short by injury.

For Carolina, I think it’s a fair question, as they just witnessed one star inside linebacker basically stop working at age 26, whether they want to keep Luke Kuechly inside long term. San Diego brought veteran Gary Plummer in, and moved Seau outside.

Turning to the bigger picture, while running back is the poster child for short careers, we see that the defensive positions that play up the middle–defensive tackle, middle linebacker, and safety, all fare worse. Running back is likely seen as the most dangerous position because a) it is most visible, and b) compared to the other positions that rack up stats, like quarterback and wide receiver, yes, it is more likely to result in shorter careers.

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