Aging running backs come with plenty of risk for fantasy owners

Running backs take more physical punishment than any offensive skill position, so it's no shock that some break down around the age of 30. Throughout the history of the NFL, even the best backs have seen their numbers fall, including Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Franco Harris and O.J. Simpson. This trend is part of the reason for the development of backfield committees, which utilize two or more players. The decreased carries keeps runners fresher by cutting down on wear and tear. But there are some veterans that remain vulnerable to decreased numbers, and owners should know their names to avoid potential busts in drafts. Here are 10 prominent runners that have had either excessive carries or endured multiple injuries heading into the 2010 season starts.

Ronnie Brown, Dolphins: Brown, who will be 29 at the end of the year, is coming off his second major injury in the last three years. After tearing up his knee in 2007, Brown injured his foot last season and was lost for the final seven games. While he is a talented player and can make an impact for owners, the Auburn product remains a risk-reward option in most fantasy drafts. Consider him in the low middle rounds as a potential No. 2 option.

Steven Jackson, Rams: Jackson isn't an older back - he'll be 27 when the season starts - but he makes our list for two reasons. First, he is coming off back surgery and has endured more than his share of ailments. Second, Jackson is going to cost fantasy owners a first-round pick in the majority of drafts. He is an insanely talented player with a favorable schedule, just be aware that he is going to come with risk and a high price tag.

Larry Johnson, Redskins: Since carrying the football an NFL-record 416 times for the Chiefs in 2006, Johnson hasn't been the same running back. Injuries and suspensions have drained him of much of his value, and at the age of 30 (he'll be 31 in November) he has little chance to resurrect his level of production. In a backfield that also includes Clinton Portis and Willie Parker, Johnson will have little more than late-round appeal in drafts.

Thomas Jones, Chiefs: Jones pulled a Curtis Martin act over the last two seasons, finishing in the top five in fantasy points among running backs on NFL.com despite being in his 30s. But the veteran back, who turns 32 in August, is certain to see a statistical decrease across the board in 2010. Now with the Chiefs, Jones will be second on the depth chart behind Jamaal Charles. Consider him a low-level flex option and a great handcuff.

Willis McGahee, Ravens: Once a fantasy star, McGahee has seen his numbers and value shrink in recent seasons. While he did rush for 12 touchdowns in 2009, the veteran played behind Ray Rice and saw a mere 109 carries. That was his lowest single-season total at the NFL level. McGahee, who turns 29 during the season, is an attractive handcuff for Rice owners but has little chance to re-emerge into a legitimate starting option.

Clinton Portis, Redskins: Portis was the top running back in fantasy football during the first half of the 2008 season, but injuries have caused his value to crumble ever since. He missed a total of eight games last season due to a concussion, and now he'll have to contend with Johnson and Parker in the backfield. Portis will also turn 29 in September and has a ton of wear and tear at the NFL level. He's a major risk to break down once again.

Chester Taylor, Bears: Taylor, who will be 31 in September, hasn't taken the same sort of punishment as most NFL backs his age. He's posted 300-plus carries in a single season just once, and has averaged a mere 97.5 rushing attempts since 2008. Now with the Bears, he'll share carries with Matt Forte and should be seen as no more than a potential flex starter. Taylor will have more value in PPR formats, but don't expect a major impact.

LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets: Tomlinson is the perfect example of what can happen to a superstar running back at the age of 30. Though he did rush for 12 touchdowns, Tomlinson also averaged a mere 3.3 yards per carry and failed to rush for 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. In New York, he'll serve as a complement to Shonn Greene and has little chance to re-emerge into an elite fantasy option. Consider him in the middle to late rounds.

Brian Westbrook, 49ers: Like Tomlinson, Westbrook's numbers and value took a major fall at the age of 30. He missed half of the 2009 campaign due to injuries and recorded his worst yardage and touchdown totals since 2002. He's now little more than a third-down back with added value in leagues that reward points for receptions. That's a far cry from the running back who was a surefire first-round selection just a few short seasons ago.

Ricky Williams, Dolphins: Williams, who'll be 33 at the start of the 2010 campaign, was a major contributor for fantasy owners last season. In the absence of Brown, the veteran tore off multiple 100-yard rushing performances and put up the numbers of an elite running back. With Brown returning, however, Williams will once again be relegated to a lesser role. Still, he's a viable middle-round pick and a solid handcuff for Brown in drafts.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Leave it in our comments section or send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com!

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