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State of the Buffalo Bills roster, running backs: Don’t fade on me, LeSean McCoy

The veteran runner had a bad year and is owed over $9 million next season. Is it time to move on?

The Buffalo Bills enter the 2018 NFL off-season facing a big question at the running back position. The team’s top two rushers are about to enter their age-31 season, which is the time where running backs typically begin to show extreme signs of decline. When those same rushers struggled during their age-30 season, it leads to many wondering aloud about whether or not the decline has already begun.

Is there historical precedent to watching a 31-year old running back have a great season? In fact, there is. While the majority of age-31 seasons for running backs range from bad to mediocre, there are exactly eleven instances where a running back topped the 1,000-yard mark at that age.

Running backs to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards at age 31

Player Season Rush Yards@31 Rush Yards@30
Player Season Rush Yards@31 Rush Yards@30
Curtis Martin 2004 1697 1308
Tiki Barber 2006 1662 1860
Walter Payton 1985 1551 1684
Thomas Jones 2009 1402 1312
Tony Dorsett 1985 1307 1189
Ricky Watters 2000 1242 1210
James Brooks 1989 1239 931
Emmitt Smith 2000 1203 1397
Fred Taylor 2007 1202 1146
Warrick Dunn 2006 1140 1416
James Stewart 2002 1021 685

Seven of those 11 running backs actually improved upon their age-30 seasons, and all of them averaged at least four yards per carry (Warrick Dunn’s 2006 campaign saw the worst yards-per-carry number, which was 3.99 yards per tote. I’ll round up and give him 4 yards per carry for his troubles). If the Bills are looking for a bounce-back from their star runner, they’re going to have to hedge against history, but it’s not as impossible as I initially thought.

Our state of the Bills roster series continues with a look at the offensive backfield.

LeSean McCoy

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $9.05 million cap hit ($2.625 million dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 30 (31 on 7/12/19)
  • Playing time: 14 games (13 starts), 490 snaps (46.27% of offensive total)
  • Key statistics: 161 carries, 514 yards (3.2 YPC), 3 TD, 46 targets, 34 catches, 238 yards (7 YPR), 195 touches, 3.9 YPT, 752 yards from scrimmage

No matter how you slice it, Shady had a rough year in 2018. Coming into the season, he was the only bona fide weapon on the Bills’ offense, one that was expected to be run-heavy and ball-control oriented with either Nathan Peterman or A.J. McCarron keeping the seat warm at quarterback for rookie Josh Allen. We all know how that turned out, and as opposing defenses stacked the box and dared the Bills to throw, they were able to neutralize McCoy throughout the year.

When the Bills’ offense did improve in the final six weeks of the year, McCoy was still mostly a non-factor. Aside from a 26-carry, 113-yard day against the New York Jets, McCoy was virtually a non-factor for the entire season. Given that Shady also scored twice in that game against the Jets, it represented nearly his entire season’s output running the ball.

For their part, the Bills have spoken about bringing McCoy back almost as if it is a forgone conclusion, with both Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott stating publicly that McCoy is part of the plan for the 2019 season. If the team sticks to that plan, they’ll be banking on last season being less of a fade and more of a blip caused by poor offensive line and quarterback play.

Chris Ivory

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $3 million cap hit ($750,000 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 30 (31 on 3/22/19)
  • Playing time: 13 games (1 start), 300 snaps (28.33% of offensive total)
  • Key statistics: 115 carries, 385 yards (3.3 YPC), 1 TD, 21 targets, 13 catches, 205 yards (15.8 YPR), 1 fumble, 128 touches, 4.6 YPT, 590 yards from scrimmage

The Bills stunned some fans and pundits last season by signing the veteran Ivory to back up the veteran McCoy, inking him to a front-loaded two-year deal worth $5.95 million in total. Ivory responded by having a decent year overall, but his efficiency as a rusher left much to be desired. His per-touch numbers were aided by a pair of big receptions, but he did not see much action in what was thought to be his main function, which was goal-line work. This was mostly due to Josh Allen’s emergence and rushing effectiveness in the same area of the field.

Ivory, like McCoy, will enter his age-31 season. As with McCoy, Ivory can be cut with little financial ramifications. Ivory’s $750,000 dead cap figure is much easier to swallow than McCoy’s $2.625 million number, and given Ivory’s lack of history with the Bills and the current coaching staff, it’s likely that the team moves on this off-season. If they choose to keep him, they’ll be banking on a similar rebound to McCoy.

Marcus Murphy

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $720,000 cap hit (0 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 27 (28 on 10/3/19)
  • Playing time: 11 games (1 start), 196 snaps (18.51% of offensive total); 79 ST snaps (18%)
  • Key statistics: 52 carries, 250 yards (4.81 YPC), 19 targets, 11 catches, 26 yards, 1 fumble, 63 touches, 4.4 YPT, 276 yards from scrimmage

The third of Buffalo’s running backs was actually the most efficient rusher of the bunch. Murphy took a limited number of carries and turned them into a solid season overall. While he was phased out of the return game in favor of late-season acquisitions Isaiah McKenzie and Victor Bolden Jr., he did a nice job in an extended showing at running back for the first time in his pro career. At a minuscule cap number, Murphy should definitely stick with the team at least through the preseason.

Keith Ford

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $570,000 cap hit (0 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 24 (25 on 4/18/19)
  • Playing time: 2 games (1 start), 71 snaps (6.7% of offensive total)
  • Key statistics: 21 carries, 79 yards (3.8 YPC), 5 targets, 3 catches, 21 yards (7 YPR), 24 touches, 4.2 YPT, 100 yards from scrimmage

The undrafted rookie made his NFL debut against the Detroit Lions, rushing 14 times for 46 yards in his first taste of NFL action. By the end of that afternoon, he was the only healthy running back the Bills had, as LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory were out with injuries, and Marcus Murphy dislocated his elbow during the game. While Ford did not show enough to give himself the inside slant at a starting gig next season, he definitely showed enough strength and burst to warrant another extended showing in the preseason.

Taiwan Jones

  • Contract status for 2018: UFA
  • Age: 30 (31 on 7/26/19)
  • Playing time: 6 games, 2 offensive snaps (.19% of offensive total); 92 ST snaps (20.96%)
  • Key statistics: N/A

Jones did not register a tackle on special teams, where he served as a captain this season. He only appeared on two offensive snaps. He was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury after one of the more gruesome plays of the 2018 season (don’t click that link if you’re squeamish). He probably won’t be back in 2019.

Patrick DiMarco

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $2.15 million cap hit ($1 million dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 29 (30 on 4/30/19)
  • Playing time: 16 games (5 starts), 168 snaps (15.86% of offensive total); 233 ST snaps (53.08%)
  • Key statistics: 1 carry, 9 yards, 4 targets, 3 catches, 62 yards (20.7 YPR), 4 touches, 17,8 YPT, 71 yards from scrimmage

Buffalo’s fullback is also a special-teams stalwart, as that’s where he spent most of his time this past season. He was involved in the offense on a few passing plays, leaking out of the backfield on some wheel routes and connecting with Allen for two big gainers. His nine-yard rush was a career-high, and it brought his career total up to seven rushing yards. (Yes, he had negative-two yards rushing coming in to the 2018 season.)

Positional Outlook

I’m going to take some heat for this, but I have to put it out there: the Bills should move on from both McCoy and Ivory next year. There are a ton of options in the free agent market at the position, and the $12.05 million the team has committed to them in 2019 could be better spent in other areas. Yes, the team would still be on the hook for around $3.4 million by cutting both, but they could sign a free agent, draft a rookie, and still have money to spend elsewhere.

Yes, it’s possible that the offensive line struggles (and that’s being polite) were the main cause of the poor rushing attack this year, but it doesn’t help McCoy’s or Ivory’s case that two lesser-known talents (Murphy and Ford) ran behind the same offensive line and averaged more yards per rush, albeit in a much smaller sample size. Murphy, especially, looked just as shifty and far more decisive with the ball in his hands, and at a fraction of the price.

The Bills certainly aren’t up against the cap, which Beane mentioned when asked about McCoy specifically, so the Bills don’t necessarily need to move on from a financial standpoint. From a performance standpoint, it makes sense to cut bait on a player a year too early as opposed to a year too late. While pairing Shady with a younger rusher acquired via free agency (T.J. Yeldon?) or the NFL Draft (David Montgomery?) could work, McCoy doesn’t seem the type to embrace sharing the spotlight...or the carries.

If picking between the two, Ivory is the definite goner for me. Saving $2.25 million is worth it, leaving only that $750,000 dead cap hit on the docket for next year. Murphy should stay through the summer, as should Ford and DiMarco. Jones should be allowed to sign elsewhere.

While LeSean McCoy will probably be a Buffalo Bill in 2019, I’m not sure it’s a sound decision. I hope that I’m wrong, but history isn’t on the side of that argument.