Quarterback Rushing Sustainability
Editor’s Note: Below is a guest post from Anthony Staggs. You can follow him on Twitter @PyroStag and check out his work at Pyromaniac.com. He also can be heard on the Fantasy Football Fire Podcast.
Quarterback Rushing Matters
Quarterback rushing has grown in popularity with the rise of the spread offense in college football, and quarterbacks are coming out of the draft more athletic than ever. Since 2006, there has been a dramatic league-wide increase in the number of quarterback runs. Last season, between scrambles and designed runs, quarterbacks ran the ball 1,641 times. Additionally, quarterbacks are becoming more adept rushers, and 2017 featured the most rushing yards by quarterbacks ever, with 7,076 yards being accumulated by the position on the ground. The 2017 season also featured new yards-per-carry (YPC) highs after quarterbacks averaged a robust 4.31 YPC, while running backs hit an 11-year low, averaging just 4.02 YPC. Quarterbacks also rushed for 66 touchdowns last season, tying an 11-year high. With the rise of run-pass options (RPOs) and the mixing in of read-option plays, a quarterback’s versatility as a runner is ever more important in a league intent on spreading out defenses.
Of the top 50 quarterbacks in 2017, about 10 percent of their production came from rushing yards, and three percent of it came from rushing touchdowns. Cam Newton was the quarterback most reliant on his legs with 25 percent of his points accumulated from rushing yards and 12 percent from rushing touchdowns, for an overall rushing dependency of 37 percent.
Quarterback Rushing Sustainability
Quarterbacks have much different career arcs than other players in the NFL; they can sustain success late into their thirties by adapting their games to their changing skillset. We now have even more examples of this over recent years with the late-career successes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre. As we know from previous work by Sean Slavin and Peter Howard, rushing numbers for quarterbacks are sticky year-to-year which is advantageous in projection models. A quarterback’s rushing numbers should be consistent year-to-year, but when their athleticism wains as they pass their athletic prime, should we worry? Much like running backs, should we be scared of a fall off in rushing production when a quarterback approaches the age of 30? How sustainable is a quarterback’s rushing production over time?
Last season, 12 different quarterbacks rushed for 250 or more yards. Their average age was 25.5 years, and 33-year-old Alex Smith was the oldest. The three quarterbacks atop the leaderboard in rushing yards are all approaching 30 in the next season or two: Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Tyrod Taylor. It is important for those of us in dynasty leagues to get an idea of when these quarterbacks will begin to decline because rushing is a huge part of their fantasy appeal. Knowing when to expect decline allows us to sell players for optimal return on investment. In the history of the NFL, there have been 79 single-season instances of a quarterback rushing for 400 or more yards. Cam Newton (6), Russell Wilson (5), and Tyrod Taylor (3) are responsible for 14 of these (17.7%).
Of these 79 seasons, 18 have come from quarterbacks age 29 or older, while the other 61 came from quarterbacks 28 years old or younger. This gives us an idea that there may be a lean towards quarterbacks rushing at younger ages, but how about the elite rushers? How do they fare as they pass through the age curve? With some background on quarterback rushing, using pro-football-reference.com, we can generate a history of all quarterbacks who have logged 2,000 or more career rushing yards and find 31 players. Five of these quarterbacks are still active in the NFL: Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Sal’s boy Alex Smith, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tyrod Taylor will join the list if he rushes for 289 yards this upcoming season. If we examine just the 26 players who have ended their careers to date, is there any data that shows rushing production slows down as quarterbacks age?
As you can see above, quarterbacks who have generated 2,000 career rushing yards typically see peak production in their age-25 and age-26 seasons. The decline of these players starts around age 30, which consistently aligns with research done on player’s athleticism as they age. Knowing this, we can more accurately predict when players such as Newton, Wilson, and Taylor will begin their decline. Unless these quarterbacks can offset their rushing production with gains in efficiency, they may not be able to lead the position for long. Wilson has shown growth as a passer every season in the league, which mitigates some of his concerns. In contrast, coaches have tried to fit Newton into different play styles over the last few years, which makes him slightly more unpredictable. Taylor, on the other hand, is a wild card. While he’s still in the same age bracket as both Newton and Wilson, he is not considered of the same ilk and only viewed as a bridge to the next Browns quarterback, making him a volatile asset. Depending on your team build, Taylor may be a guy to move away from if he gets off to a hot start in 2018, especially if you are focusing on a rebuild.
There are some notable outliers in this research. Steve Young, one of the greatest rushing quarterbacks ever, was able to sustain his success into his thirties. (Editor’s Note: Young didn’t become the full-time starter in San Francisco until his age 30 season.) He posted four 400-yard seasons in his 30s, including the NFL’s oldest 400-yard rushing season at age 37. Rich Gannon had one season over 500 rushing yards in his career, and it came at age 35. Alex Smith has also been very good at sustaining his rushing success into his early 30s, but that could change significantly on a new team this season. With the evolution of the game, quarterbacks may be able to sustain their rushing success longer than ever, but after examining the greatest rushers at the position in history, it still wains over time. Quarterback rushing is a valuable commodity in fantasy football, but rushing is still a young man’s game.