In the NFL, the widely held belief is that running backs decline rapidly once they hit the 30 year old mark and there are a number of major fantasy producers that hit that mark in 2009. LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers and Brian Westbrook of the Eagles turned 30 already and Larry Johnson of the Chiefs turns 30 during the season.
Tomlinson has ruled the fantasy landscape for much of the past decade, finishing as the top ranked fantasy running back twice, third three times, fourth and seventh twice, including last year, since joining the league in 2001. The consensus seems to be that he is now past his prime and not capable of recreating his past exploits.
Johnson burst onto the fantasy scene in 2005, courtesy of Priest Holmes injury problems, and finished as the second ranked fantasy back despite starting just nine games. [Editor’s note: Holmes missed half of his 2004 season and more than half of 2005. He turned 31 in October 2004.] Johnson followed that up with a second place ranking in 2006 but injuries, attitude and suspensions have derailed his last two seasons.
Westbrook has averaged 15.3 points per game and 215 points a season since earning a major role in the Eagles offense in 2003. However, he battled injuries last year, lacked consistency when he was in the lineup and had surgery in June to clean up bone spurs in his right ankle.
So which of these three players, if any, do you gamble on heading into 2009? Let’s find out.
Evaluating older running backs is difficult, especially when you can see they are on the way down. You never know when there will be another stud season before the sun sets, and you always worry about this season being the one where the big slide into retirement starts. As a fantasy owner, you shouldn’t get emotionally tied to the player or to the stats he has put up in the past. Every player declines unless they hang them up early. The question is, when?
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m putting Johnson on the shelf. He is getting drafted rounds later than Tomlinson or Westbrook, so if you really want to buck the trend, you could draft a pair of these thirty somethings. Now that we’ve narrowed the field, is there an objective way to evaluate Brian Westbrook and LaDainian Tomlinson? There are three main things I consider: (1) age and player history, (2) competition for touches and (3) strength of schedule.
We know that both backs are about the same chronological age, but what about “football age”? Tomlinson has played in 16 games in every year except 2004 when he managed 15. Over his career he averaged 396 touches and has managed to stay mostly injury free while watching his production erode slowly from its peak in 2006. Westbrook has travelled a very different road. After easing his way into the Eagles offense early in his career, Westbrook averaged 324 touches per year the last three years. Despite this smaller workload and a slower start to his career, Westbrook seems to miss a game or two per year while being limited in others. Still, I give the edge to Westbrook here on potential to finish the season. While he seems to get dinged a little more historically, LT’s significantly higher average touch total is a big red flag that if one of them is going to go down fast and furious, Tomlinson is the more likely candidate.
In terms of competition for touches, both backs have young understudies getting set to push them for carries this season. Darren Sproles showed enough last year in LT’s absence to earn the Chargers’ franchise tag. HC Norv Turner has made it clear LT is still the main guy, but they will pick their spots utilizing Sproles on offense. The Eagles drafted LeSean McCoy in the 2nd round and have high hopes for him. It is a close call but we’ll lean to advantage Westbrook here for this season given the rookie status of McCoy vs. the veteran Sproles.
Looking at the strength of schedule, the Eagles play early games against New Orleans, Kansas City and Tampa Bay with a few middle of the road defenses as the season wears on thanks to their 2nd place schedule. San Diego does profit from playing in the weak AFC West, but they play a 1st place schedule plus face Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the first 4 weeks of the season. The strength of schedule also seems to point to Westbrook as the slightly safer pick.
This is a very tough call, but Westbrook is the pick this year over Tomlinson. Be sure to handcuff McCoy to Westy as insurance against injury. ~ Dave
This is a tough debate. All three are former studs who, despite their advancing age, are still talented players. The consensus third option would seem to be Johnson. However, he averaged 10.4 points per game last year despite a slow start to the season and playing for an offense that was truly horrible for a large part of it. He didn’t seem to run as hard as in past years but is still a powerful back who managed 874 yards and five TD in just 12 games last year. Plus, he figures to be motivated at least during training camp because his 2009 salary is not guaranteed and the team has added youngsters Kolby Smith and Jamaal Charles over the last two years.
Westbrook will play behind a stout Eagles offensive line on a team loaded with solid, if not superstar, skill position players. The Eagles added LeSean McCoy in the draft but Westbrook is clearly the team’s top threat at the running back position. The Eagles may look to reduce his role somewhat in 2009 in hopes of avoiding injuries and keeping him fresh for the playoffs. If healthy and even with a reduced role, Westbrook has the potential to land in the top ten.
Tomlinson figures to lose at least some playing time to Darren Sproles, who shined at the end of last season and in the playoffs. Although Tomlinson played nicked up in 2008, he still managed 1,531 combined yards and 11 TD while playing in all 16 games. As with prior years, the Chargers are loaded on offense and Tomlinson figures to reap the benefits at the goal line. Even if his yards go down, 12 to 16 TD seems reasonable. It says here that Tomlinson is the best option given his TD potential and the fact that Sproles really isn’t a threat to eat into playing time on 1st and 2nd downs. ~ Andy