These Star Running Backs Were Destined To Sink Your NFL Fantasy League Team

Written By Brant James on December 15, 2021 - Last Updated on June 8, 2022

Your heart nearly burst from your chest that heady night before Week One. It had nothing to do with the Red Bull and Skittles.

You’d grabbed running back Derrick Henry, or Alvin Kamara or Dalvin Cook in your NFL season-long draft.

They were the rocket to which your trophy-raising, Venmo-accepting, trash-talking dreams would be harnassed.

Entering the playoffs in most season-long campaigns, they have become the anchor to which your dreams are lashed. These erstwhile fantasy superstars have left you combing waiver wires and proposing absurd trades. Or hoping they’re really going to be stars again.

What went wrong?

The often short shelf life of running backs

Henry underwent surgery to repair a broken bone in his right foot after Week 8 and maybe returns in time for the Tennessee Titans postseason run. New reports are encouraging. But that won’t help you much, if you limp into the postseason.

Kamara returned in Week 14 after injuring his knee in Week 9. In his absence, New Orleans morphed from playoff-bound to hapless without him (and quarterback Jameis Winston and a host of other injured players, in fairness). Sounds familiar.

Cook. First, it was an ankle injury that cost him two games early in the season. Then the Vikings‘ workhorse missed two weeks with a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum. He’s had the same injury in each arm. He returned to the field and to form in Week 14. But can you trust him?

It’s demoralizing – imagine how their employers feel – but you should have seen this coming.

Why?

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Cruel, reliable data predicted their expiration dates as workhorse stars.

Said Virginia Zakas, managing director at Inside Injuries:

  • The average age of the top 30 fantasy backs last season was 24, in keeping with yearly trends.
  • 26 is the “sweet spot” age of performance and health for elite fantasy performers at running back.

After that … sometimes there are aberrations like Adrian Peterson – who scored for the Seahawks last week to tie Jim Brown for 10th on the touchdowns list – Frank Gore and Curtis Martin. But often, the data holds. And it makes old men of 20-somethings in the modern NFL.

Henry is 27. Kamara and Cooks, 26, eroding just a little earlier than right on schedule. And they all came with major warning signs you ignored.

“Are there plenty [older than that] in the league? Sure,” Zakas said. “But a majority of the time they’re going to be more of a backup or they’re going to suffer a serious injury and they’re not going to end up making it through the season.”

Youth rules in NFL RB performance as age has become a crucial stat category

Of the top 30 fantasy performers at running back entering Week 14 of the NFL betting season:

  • Jonathan Taylor (22) leads all points-producers
  • Just five (Cordarrelle Patterson, 30; Henry, 27; Aaron Jones, 27; Melvin Gordon III, 28) are 27 or older
  • The totals for renaissance man Patterson are deceptive as his points are derived also from receiving and returning and he has among the fewest rushes in the top 30.
  • Seven players: Austin Ekeler, Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott, James Conner, Kamara, Cook, and Darrel Williams are in the “sweet spot” age season.

How predictable is this? Check out Zakas told PlayUSA before the season began:

“I’ve got my eye on Derrick Henry. He has been healthier the last few years than most other of the elite running backs. But he’s 27 now and at some point he’s got to go downhill. … Another I’m also watching pretty closely Dalvin Cook. He’s had quite a few injuries and I’m specifically really worried about his shoulders. People haven’t really talked about it because he hasn’t missed a ton of time with it recently, but he’s had injuries to both shoulders and in recent years and last season he dislocated his shoulder again. So I think that’s a concern. Let’s see … who else? Alvin Kamara, I think we’ve started to see a little bit of a dip in the last year and you a couple of serious injuries last year as well. He had a knee and an ankle injury, and those are ones definitely to watch going forward.”

RB attrition shortening careers, changing NFL paradigm

Who’s feeling pretty good right now? Indianapolis. It has four more seasons before, in theory, it’ll need extra horseshoes for Taylor’s helmet. Stock up. His current workload – NFL-high 241 rushes and 1,348 yards – is jackhammering the foundation of workload that led the Cowboys’ Elliott to slog through an ineffective 2020 season at age 25. And he’s dealing with chronic knee problems this season.

Before breaking a bone in his foot in Week 8, Henry had already amassed 219 rushes. The battering back led the NFL with 303 in 2019 and 378 last year.

“I think the running back position just really takes a beating more than any other position,” Zakas said. “I think sometimes you can be like, ‘Oh, well, an offensive lineman is taking a hit on every single play.’ And that might be true, but it’s more stationary, whereas where running backs are looking to get hit. And you’re probably going to get hit by multiple players. And you’re going to get twisted up when you’re getting tackled.”

Henry broke a bone exhibiting the first vulnerability of a bullish career. Kamara damaged a knee, again, and Cook had a recurrence of shoulder problems and will require a special harness when he returns. Granted, they can still be stalwarts when healthy. Eleven days after his latest shoulder dislocation, Cook returned a week earlier than expected to splash 34 fantasy points in Week 14. The problem is keeping elite backs on the field, because they are done in by the nagging and the new. But certain injuries suggest more worrisome outcomes for running backs, Zakas said.

“I would say the most common injuries we see are probably like a hamstring strain or an MCL sprain, hamstring just because the running back position is such an explosive position,” Zakas said. “And so we see that a lot MCL sprains because they’re taking hits from the outside of the knee, getting tackled awkwardly. That causes the knee to twist. An MCL is the most common ligament that gets injured in that case.

“Of course, the high ankle sprain you can just consider it a lost season. That’s a little bit dramatic. A lot of the time players can come back within around a month. But they’re just not the same. So it was with Saquon Barkley a few years ago. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, he’s such a beast. He’s a different kind of player. He’ll be fine.’ And he really wasn’t the same the rest of the season. So that’s really tough one and these foot injuries, too.”

Carolina’s Christian McCaffery is an interesting variable. At 25, he spent two stints on the injured reserve and played in just seven games this season. This after lasting just three games last season following a breakout 2019 campaign in which he rushed 287 times for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns. So vexing is his plight, some have wondered if he should be paid like a wide receiver instead of an elite back. NFL front offices covet cheap depth at the position, especially with passing proclivity so established.

“The other positions, wide receiver, tight end, you’re just not getting the same kind of hit over and over again. A top wide receiver might get tackled, say, eight or 10 times when they make a reception, but more often than not, it’s going to be one or two players,” Zakas said. “They’re just not taking the same kind of beating over and over and over again. Whereas the starting running back could get hit 20, 30 times a game full speed you know, get twisted up. And so you really just don’t see, it just doesn’t compare to the other position.”

Photo by Associated Press/ Brant James illustration
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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