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LeSean McCoy at 28: Where does he go from here?

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The Bills' top running back turns 28 next month. Is he in for a career decline?

James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

A lot has been made about the wisdom of giving a five-year contract extension to a running back with as much playing time as LeSean McCoy had when the Buffalo Bills re-upped him shortly after they traded for him last year.

McCoy turns 28 next month, which is the near the point when the wheels start to fall off the average running back. In addition, he’s carried a larger workload than any back since his rookie campaign in 2009. His breaking point must be coming up soon.

Or is it?

McCoy has 1,664 carries and 433 receptions for his career. That combined total of 1,996 touches is the 13th-highest by any back through his age-27 season since the merger. His 10,261 total yards from scrimmage are 11th-highest in that same span.

So, who ranks up there with him?

Name Years Carries Rush Yds Receptions Rec. Yds Touches Total Yds
Emmitt Smith 90-96 2,334 10,160 348 2,200 2,682 12,360
Edgerrin James 99-05 2,188 9,226 356 2,839 2,544 12,065
LaDainian Tomlinson 01-06 2,050 9,176 398 2,900 2,448 12,076
Walter Payton 75-81 2,204 9,608 243 2,170 2,447 11,778
Marshall Faulk 94-00 1,895 8,060 465 4,682 2,360 12,742
Barry Sanders 89-95 2,077 10,172 258 2,180 2,335 12,352
Clinton Portis 02-08 2,052 9,202 233 1,906 2,285 11,108
Curtis Martin 95-00 2,010 7,754 275 2,022 2,285 9,776
Jerome Bettis 93-99 2,106 8,463 149 1,075 2,255 9,538
Steven Jackson 04-10 1,878 7,948 327 2,670 2,205 10,618
Thurman Thomas 88-93 1,731 7,631 295 3,053 2,026 10,684
Rodney Hampton 90-96 1,801 6,816 174 1,309 2,005 8,125
LeSean McCoy 09-15 1,664 7,687 332 2,574 1,996 10,261

That's some very good company to be in. Seven of those backs are in the Hall of Fame, with Tomlinson a sure bet to join them once he's eligible. They also all had a lot of wear and tear on their legs over the early part of their careers. So, how did they do when they turned 28?

I'll start with a blanket comparison. Of course, it's important to note that they had different playing styles, and therefore took a different amount of damage over the years. Guys like Bettis and Jackson took a lot more blunt force damage than the Faulks and Tomlinsons of the league. Still, this should be a good overall picture of how their careers turned once they hit 28.

Note: Number in parenthesis is average of previous seasons
Name Year Carries Rush Yds Receptions Rec. Yds
Emmitt Smith 1997 261 (333) 1,074 (1,451) 40 (50) 234 (314)
Edgerrin James 2006 337 (313) 1,159 (1,318) 38 (51) 217 (410)
LaDainian Tomlinson 2007 315 (342) 1,474 (1,529) 60 (66) 475 (483)
Walter Payton 1982* 263 (315) 1,060 (1,373) 57 (35) 553 (310)
Marshall Faulk 2001 260 (271) 1,382 (1,151) 83 (66) 765 (669)
Barry Sanders 1996 307 (297) 1,553 (1,453) 33 (37) 305 (311)
Clinton Portis 2009 124 (293) 494 (1,314) 9 (33) 57 (272)
Curtis Martin 2001 333 (335) 1,513 (1,292) 53 (46) 320 (337)
Jerome Bettis 2000 355 (301) 1,341 (1,209) 13 (21) 97 (154)
Steven Jackson 2011 260 (268) 1,145 (1,135) 42 (47) 333 (381)
Thurman Thomas 1994 287 (288) 1,093 (1,271) 50 (49) 349 (508)
Rodney Hampton 1997 23 (238) 81 (974) 0 (25) 0 (187)
LeSean McCoy 2016 ? (237) ? (1,098) ? (47) ? (368)

*1982 was a strike-shortened season, so Payton's numbers are extrapolated for a 16-game campaign.

There are a few different career paths that these backs went down once they turned 28. There are two very obvious outliers on the negative end, none more so than Hampton. The two-time Pro Bowler had five 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but only went over 1,100 twice. He suffered a major knee injury at the end of the 1996 season, and only appeared in two games at the end of the 1997 campaign before calling it quits at 28. Portis went through a similar bout with injuries, missing seven games to a concussion in 2009 and 11 games to unrelated injuries in 2010 before he hung up his cleats.

Some of the backs who dropped only experienced temporary hiccups. Smith went over 1,200 rushing yards in three straight seasons from 1998-2000, while Payton topped 1,300 rushing yards every year from 1983 to 1986.

Other backs continued to rise at 28. Faulk won the PFWA MVP in 2001 (losing the AP award to his teammate, Kurt Warner), Sanders ran for 2,053 yards in 1997 at age 29, and Martin led the NFL in rushing at age 31 in 2004. Turning 28 (or 29, or 30...) is far from a death sentence for a top-notch NFL running back.

On that note, I'd like to take a look at where McCoy's career might go from here. Instead of comparing him to every single running back, I'll keep it simple and limit the comparison to Thurman Thomas. Why Thurman? A few reasons:
  • You know him fairly well, I assume.
  • They're both 5'10" and have a fairly similar playing weight (PFR lists Thurman at 210 and McCoy at 215).
  • Their play styles are similar, with both being equally adept between the tackles and around the ends while serving as very reliable targets in the passing game.

Thomas, as you may have noticed, lost a couple hundred yards off his average of previous seasons despite receiving the exact same number of touches. If you were around for the post-Super Bowl, pre-playoff drought era, you may also remember a precipitous decline in Thomas' productivity as the 90's came to a close, largely due to various injuries.


How exactly do Thomas and McCoy stack up? Here's a look:

LeSean McCoy vs. Thurman Thomas: Yards From Scrimmage

Aside from McCoy's fourth season, 2012, in which he missed four games due to injury, those lines look distressingly similar. The only saving grace is the fact that Shady missed four games last season (and was clearly limited by injuries in several others), while Thurman played at least 14 games in each of his first ten seasons.

Fortunately, the Bills have a strong stable of running backs. Karlos Williams, Jonathan Williams, Mike Gillislee, and possibly Boom Herron and James Wilder, Jr. will all be available to pick up some of the slack if McCoy continues his Thurman-like decline. Of course, they won't be picking up any of his salary, which will continue to count against the cap anywhere from the roughly $7.7 million this season to the $9 million it rises to in the final year of the deal.

Of course, he could also rebound, like some of the other backs did. He could become one of the 45 running backs to top 1,200 yards at age 28 or older (including eight backs from the list at the top of this piece). He could join the list of the 15 running backs who topped 1,500 yards from scrimmage at age 30 or older. There are a lot of factors at play, including his health and the extent to which Greg Roman uses him and the other backs in the stable.

To be clear, I have no idea what the future holds for McCoy. What I do know, though, is that there's plenty of evidence to suggest that neither his age nor the workload he's had over the years are definitive indicators that his production is going to fall off a cliff. It could, but that's fair from a certainty.