Best Season Impact – By Position
Which Season Represents Peak Performance?
By Joe Landers
My best athletic years are behind me. My most productive professional years are hopefully ahead of me. Every career, position, job type, and endeavor has its own chronological arc of success. All pro football fans have heard the adage about 30-year old running backs falling off a cliff. What about defensive tackles? Wide receivers? Corners, Tight Ends, and every other position on the field? When do they fall off? Better yet, when do they peak?
When a highly touted young player like Jadeveon Clowney doesn’t impress in his rookie year, we often hear the three-year mantra, “you can’t judge any rookie class until three years have gone by”. We’ve also all heard about how the biggest jump NFLers make is from Year 1 out of college to Year 2. Together, the notions of the 30-yr RB Cliff and the Year 2 Jump would suggest that NFL organizations generally believe that two to three years is long enough to identify a guy’s ceiling (max) and floor (min).
Three years ago, this topic jumped to the front of my to-do list. I decided to see if the 30-yr RB Cliff and the Year 2 Jump were myths or reality. Was Dez Bryant’s 3rd year (2012) the best season he was going to have over the course of his entire career? All the talk of making him one of the highest paid receivers had me wondering if his best year was in his rearview mirror. Had Cleveland given up on Brandon Weeden too soon? Was his peak year still ahead of him? I have no affinity to either, but they provided valid exhibits for identifying ceiling and floor situations.
My hypothesis was that teams often pay players for past performance, not for what they will do. To be more specific, it was that every position has a shelf life and a peak that correlate with years played in the league. Dez ended up having an even better year in 2014, but what were the odds he would ever exceed that? How many receivers have their best career year after Year 5? I was convinced that if Dallas broke the bank, they would effectively be paying Dez for what he’d already done, not what he was going to do. I immediately began analyzing my year-by-year performance data to look for trends that would support my hypothesis. My sense was that knowing the shelf life and peak season could empower organizations to make better-informed personnel decisions at every position. By position, below are the results of the model I composed.
Before jumping to the conclusions, some details about the graphs and the data you’ll see for each position. On the Y-axis, you’ll see the average number of players, from each rookie class, who peaked in the years listed chronologically on the X-axis. For example, from 2003 to 2010, an average of 3.55 running backs have had their best season in Year 2 of their careers. Players considered for this study had to have a minimum of three years of on-field productivity.
Since 1998, I’ve tracked player performance by attributing a point value to every recorded action on the field – rush yards, rush TDs, reception yards, reception TDs, kick return yards, punt return yards, fumbles lost, fumbles recovered, forced fumbles, interceptions, interception TDs, fumble return TDs, sacks, tackles for loss, tackles, passes defensed, penalty yardage, and many other less common actions. At all positions, 10,390 total players qualified for the study. The 2011-2015 rookie classes are not yet part of the study as using classes who have less than six years of opportunity skews the data towards falsely indicating earlier peaks.
At each position, you’ll see six lists:
- Ten players who represent the norm for that position group (e.g., for RBs, it’s Year 2).
- Ten players who peaked as rookies.
- Ten outliers who peaked well beyond the position peak.
- Ten big names who appear to have peaked within the positional norm (e.g., RBs = within first four years).
- Ten who didn’t qualify for the study because they’re in the 2011-2015 classes but seem to have already peaked.
- Ten who appear to have their peak coming in the next 1-3 years.
According to the data, the average running back peaks in Year 2. Having said that, you can see in the below chart that Year 3 and Year 4 are only slightly lower. While Year 2 is the highest at 3.55 per year, Year 3 and Year 4 are very close at 3.47 and 3.30. It’s fair to say that if a team gives up on a running back before Year 3 because they think that they’ve seen his best, another team stands a good chance of benefiting from their impatience. However, after Year 4, the number of running backs experiencing their best season drops considerably. From Year 5 to 6 to 7, the average drops by nearly half each year.
Two things the trend suggests that there will be three 2015 rookie RBs who were among the 30 who contributed during the 2015 regular season and will have the best season of their careers (no matter how long) in the 2016 regular season. Who will it be? Who has followed that course in the past?
Take a look at the names of some of those who fit the RB norm of having their best career year in their second year removed from college. I know it’s hard to believe, but Edgerrin James, Frank Gore, and Chris Johnson all had the best years of their career in Year 2. Of course, Gore might like his 5th (2009) or 8th (2012) seasons were his best – it’s certainly harder to prepare, keep your body healthy, and play as the years pile on. Productivity-wise, Year 2 (2006) was his best.
The Norm – RBs Who Peaked in Year Two of Their Career
|Edgerrin James||Chris Johnson|
|Duece McAllister||Felix Jones|
|Brian Westbrook||Arian Foster|
|Frank Gore||Ben Tate|
|Joseph Addai||Jonathan Stewart|
Despite some long and prolific careers, this next list is ten running backs who peaked as rookies. Their on-field productivity never again matched what they accomplished in their rookie seasons. Clinton Portis and MJD will probably surprise most people.
Rookie Peaks – RBs Who Peaked in Year One of Their Career
|Fred Taylor||Maurice Jones-Drew|
|Mike Anderson||Laurence Maroney|
|Clinton Portis||Tim Hightower|
|Kevin Jones||Steve Slaton|
|Reggie Bush||Kevin Smith|
The third list is of ten running backs who had their peak season beyond Year 5 of their career. Since the odds drop considerably after Year 4, I thought it important to show who these outliers have been. While performance and cap spend aren’t correlated in this study, looking at the names, it’s hard to think that these RBs teams didn’t get their money’s worth out of these second (or third) contracts.
Late-Peakers – RBs Who Peaked After Year 5 of Their Career
|Ahman Green (6)||Matt Forte (6)|
|Shaun Alexander (6)||Darren Sproles (7)|
|LaDanian Tomlinson (6)||Marshawn Lynch (8)|
|Adrian Peterson (6)||Thomas Jones (9)|
|Jamaal Charles (6)||Sammy Morris (9)|
The fourth list is ten big-name running backs who seem to have their best season not only behind them, but they achieved it in the first four years – adhering to the RB axiom. If this list doesn’t invite some controversy since some are still active, it’d be shocking. The prediction isn’t that they’re in terminal decline, but based on sheer odds and how prolific their peak season was (in parentheses), it’s highly unlikely that their career year is ahead.
Big Names Who Seem to Have Peaked in First Four Years
|LeSean McCoy (3)||Eddie Lacy (2)
|Arian Foster (2)||Le’Veon Bell (2)|
|Chris (Beanie) Wells (3)||Devonta Freeman (2)|
|Chris Johnson (2)||DeAngelo Williams (3)|
|Pierre Thomas (2)||Frank Gore (2)|
This fifth list is ten players who didn’t qualify for the study as they’re in the 2011 or later classes, but they do have three years of productivity and based on their career trajectory thus far, it appears their best season (in parentheses) might be in the rearview mirror. These RBs seem like they’ll be adhering to the axiom of maxing out in their first four years.
Current Players Who Seem to Have Peaked in First Four Years
|Stevan Ridley (2)||Daniel Thomas (3)|
|Jordan Todman (4)||Bryce Brown (1)|
|Matt Asiata (4)||Benjamin Cunningham (2)|
|Zac Stacy (1)||Evan Royster (2)|
|Doug Martin (1)||Phillip Tanner (2)|
The last list identifies RBs who are likely to have their peak season coming soon. Based on career trajectories, their team situations, and health status, they all seem as though their best season is ahead of them in the next 1-3 years.
Peak Coming 1-3 Years
|Mike Gillislee||Shane Vereen|
|Khiry Robinson||Mark Ingram|
|Foswhitt Whitaker||Bilal Powell|
|Bernard Pierce||Christine Michael|
|Dion Lewis||Juwan Thompson|
Next up – Defensive Corners