|Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson and Frank Gore are in the minority as every-down NFL running backs.|
Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he's concerned Falcons running back Michael Turner, at 29, will break down at the rugged pace he's been on since joining the team in 2008.
Turner, one of the top tailbacks in the league, has averaged 27 carries a game (888 carries in 43 games) over the past three seasons. He's cranked out 3,941 yards and 23 touchdowns in that span, which makes it easy to understand why Atlanta puts the ball in his hands so much.
Turner's backup, Jason Snelling, is a valued free agent, and Atlanta doesn't want to lose him but likely won't pay huge dollars to retain him, which might explain the Falcons' decision to draft Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers. Though Turner's load could be eased some, the offense doesn't function as well without him, as was proven in 2009 when he sustained an ankle injury and only played in 11 games.
It's not so much the mileage that breaks down running backs. It's age and the pounding. For backs such as Turner, who rarely are brought down by just one tackler, the abuse is serious. That, in part, is why teams have gotten away from the workhorse running back for the most part. Data also has proven that when backs reach 30, productivity tends to wane.
Let's evaluate where some of the NFL's workhorse backs are currently situated:
Chris Johnson, Titans: With his breakaway running style, it's hard to think of Johnson as a workhorse back. However, over the past two seasons as the starter, CJ2K has touched the ball 768 times. In his three-year career, he has 1,062 touches combined. That's 151 more touches than Turner in the same timeframe.
Maybe Thomas should be more concerned about Johnson's durability, especially with Johnson weighing less than 200 pounds.
Johnson's running style doesn't cause him to take too many direct blows. We've seen a lot of running backs, such as Warrick Dunn and Edgerrin James, avoid taking unneeded punishment by the way they protect themselves. Johnson, to this point, fits into that category. Still, maintaining the pace he's on is going to open him up to some big shots.
Johnson is only 25 -- he's four years younger than Turner -- so he should be able to tote the mail at the pace he's been for a few more seasons.
Adrian Peterson, Vikings: Peterson's nickname, "All Day," is so appropriate because of the steady diet of touches he gets when he clocks into work. In four highly productive seasons, Peterson has averaged a shade under 300 carries (1,198 total).
That load could be just as heavy this season with a rookie quarterback (Christian Ponder) likely the starter for a good chunk of the season. If Minnesota doesn't re-sign wide receiver Sidney Rice, Peterson could be even more involved. His backup, Toby Gerhart, showed a lot of promise as the season went on so he could be used more to spell Peterson, but don't expect Peterson's role to change much. Keep in mind that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave came from Atlanta, where Turner was used as a bell cow.
Peterson is arguably the best and most special back in the NFL. He also runs most violently. He delivers and absorbs some of the most crushing blows in the league. That could affect his longevity more than the number of times he has the ball in his hands.
Steven Jackson, Rams: Jackson, who turns 28 next month, surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the sixth straight season. There is no questioning his toughness, durability or commitment. He wants the ball as much as possible. He's averaged 268 carries in his seven seasons, but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Jackson has been one of the Rams' top receiving threats as well, totaling a minimum of 38 over the past few seasons and maxing out at 90 in his incredible 2006 season when he rushed for more than 1,528 yards. All told, Jackson averages 315 touches per season -- 375.5 over the past two. That is putting in work.
New offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might reduce Jackson's load in his more pass-heavy offense. The addition of a free-agent running back such as Darren Sproles also could prolong Jackson's career.
Frank Gore, 49ers: Gore has been the core of the 49ers' offense, and there is little reason to think that will change under new coach Jim Harbaugh. There's no reason, too, when you have a player as good as Gore, who turned 28 last month and is coming off a season-ending hip fracture that limited him to 11 starts, the fewest since his rookie year in 2005.
Gore has never rushed for more than 260 attempts in a season, which definitely is a lot but manageable for a player like him. He is involved in the receiving game, nabbing at least 43 catches in each of the past five seasons. Still, unless he has another injury, he should have plenty left for the next few seasons. San Francisco drafted Kendall Hunter out of Oklahoma State to provide depth alongside sledgehammer Anthony Dixon.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: At 26, Jones-Drew should be entering his prime. He's only been the primary ball carrier the past two seasons, but in that span he has carried a load. He's totaled 611 carries and 87 catches. He's combined for 3,406 rushing and receiving yards, as well as 23 touchdowns.
That's doing a lot of work, especially for a player who stands 5-foot-7, 208 pounds. Is it a wonder he's a fantasy football gem?
Jones-Drew also has a pretty solid backup in Rashad Jennings, who just finished his third season. Jennings averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 84 runs last season and also had 26 catches. This tandem could be viable for years, and Jennings' ascension also could ease some of Jones-Drew's burden.
Cedric Benson, free agent: All indications are that the 28-year-old Benson will re-sign with the Bengals. Both sides seemingly want a reunion because both could serve each other well. Benson has been the fixture at tailback the past two seasons, and he's surpassed 1,100 yards both times. Cincinnati also doesn't have much depth, so without Benson they'll be busy in the free-agent market trying to find a player who fits better than Benson. That guy isn't out there.
As much as the Bengals seemingly got away from running the ball like they did in 2009, Benson had a career-high 321 carries, 20 more than the previous season. His yards per carry dropped, though, from 4.2 to 3.5. The drop-off didn't seem to happen because of diminished skills. Cincinnati just couldn't figure things out offensively.
Having to try to ram rod through the Steelers and Ravens twice a season isn't good for any running back's career, but Benson hasn't sustained a ton of wear and tear, yet. At the pace he's on, though, the workload could seem cumbersome in two or three years, which is why he better line up a good contract now.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89