The relative importance and value of an NFL running back has been on a steady decline. Even still, it’s hard not to notice when the Vikings pass on Adrian Peterson’s option and the Kansas City Chiefs release Jamaal Charles on the same day. The former is 31, the latter 30. Both have showcased otherworldly talent and been plagued by injuries.
Peterson will be a valued commodity this offseason, latch on with another team, and continue on his path to Canton. Charles’ prospects are less rosy. Both will be studies in what could have been, to varying degrees. They’re also right on the cusp of a new era in the NFL, where turning 30 signals a career death knell — with few exceptions.
It’s a bleak current world for NFL running backs. That much is obvious. Nothing about the future suggests the position will return to its former importance. With that in mind, it’s worth considering that Peterson will be the last running back to crack the top 10 of the all-time rushing list.
Peterson currently has 11,747 yards, a far cry from Emmitt Smith’s 18,355 but a healthy half-season shy of Jim Brown’s (No. 10) 12,312. Once that happens, Tony Dorsett will drop down to No. 10 with 12,739.
The only current player in the top 10 is Frank Gore, the active rushing leader with 13,065. Gore is 33 but still productive, posting more than 1,000 yards in five of the last six seasons. Reaching Barry Sanders at No. 3 would require two more years like this, plus another year of half his average. Definitely in the realm of possibility.
Trying to guess Peterson’s final tally is difficult. He’s averaged 1,480 yards in seasons with 14 or more games. For the sake of argument, let’s say he has four more of those in the tank with 80 percent of that total, and a shorter injury-shortened campaign. Those 5,000 yards would put him at No. 2 on the list.
And that figures to be the last big running back hurrah for a long time — and possibly ever. The next highest player on the list is Steven Jackson (11,438), who sits at 18th. He’ll be 34 next season. The Patriots lured him back to the playing field last year for 21 rushes and 50 yards. Barring something unexpected, he’ll fail to crack the top 10.
After that, there’s Chris Johnson (32nd), Matt Forte (34th) and LeSean McCoy (38th).
Johnson will turn 32 in September, hasn’t shown much in recent years, and is more than 3,000 yards shy. Forte, who is 31, has more realistic shot thanks to putting up more than 800 in each of the last two seasons. He’d need to string together four more years of similar numbers or rediscover the form that allowed him three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns from 2012-2014. Highly unlikely but crazier things have happened.
This leaves McCoy as the only active running back on track to threaten the top 10 — and perhaps the top five — if he stays healthy. In six years, the 28-year-old has racked up 8,954 yards. He’s cracked the 1,300-plus mark three times and 1,600 once. If he stays healthy and is even 75 percent of the player he’s been so far, he’ll make it.
But it’s very difficult to feel confident about any running back’s future. And if something happens to derail McCoy, there’s no one even on the horizon with a chance. DeMarco Murray (74th) is the only back under 30 in the top 100.