The NFL is an unforgiving sport and no position is arguably more taxing than running back, where careers are seemingly always cut short.
DeMarco Murray became the latest running back to retire earlier than expected when the three-time Pro Bowler announced his decision on Friday, ending his seven-year career at the age of 30.
Murray is only a season removed from leading the AFC in rushing yards with 1,287, while compiling 12 total touchdowns and 53 receptions with the Tennessee Titans. This past year he managed only 659 yards, seven touchdowns and 39 receptions as the younger Derrick Henry saw his opportunities rise.
That’s the harsh reality for running backs though. One season you’re putting up league-leading numbers and the next you’re looking for a job, as Murray was forced to do after being cut by the Titans on March 8.
Before being cut, Murray still had two years left on his contract, which was going to pay him $6.5 million this coming season and $6.75 in 2019.
A similar fate could be waiting for other veteran running backs with plenty of mileage on their tyres.
Murray ranked seventh among active players in career rushing attempts with 1,604, but his have come in a shorter period of time than the running backs ahead of his on the list, who have each been playing since 2009 at the latest.
Those six players are Frank Gore (3,226 carries), Adrian Peterson (2,574), Marshawn Lynch (2,351), LeSean McCoy (2,185), Chris Johnson (2,163) and Jonathan Stewart (1,699).
Not every player is the same, but in trying to identify running backs who could potentially retire next, the best indicators are age, effectiveness, mileage over a single season, and wear and tear over a career.
Gore is by far the oldest of the bunch at 35 and has the most career carries, but the new Miami Dolphins running back has been remarkably durable over the second half of his career, playing all 16 games each of the past seven seasons.
He’s been a featured back every season of his career except his rookie campaign, and while his effectiveness slipped the past three years with Indianapolis, where he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, the Colts still chose to give him plenty of touches.
Still, he’s had the benefit of not crossing the 300-carry mark in any season since his second year back in 2006, avoiding the benchmark that has been known to cause a regression in the following seasons.
With Miami, Gore likely won’t get nearly the same workload, but he could still have value as a reliable, steady hand in the backfield.
Lynch, McCoy and Stewart are all on teams at the moment, so barring them being cut, they should be on the field for another season.
That leaves Peterson and Johnson, who are both free agents at the moment, as players who could hang up their cleats sooner than later.
Peterson has played in just 13 games since the start of the 2016 season and often looked his age (33) during that span, but he had a relatively strong finish to this past season after being traded to the Arizona Cardinals, with whom he had two contests of over 134 rushing yards.
He’s a physical specimen and maybe the most athletic running back the NFL has ever seen, but even Peterson should struggle to remain effective going forward. He’s topped 300 carries a staggering four times in his career, including 327 in his last full season in 2015.
Maybe another team will come calling and take a chance on Peterson, but it seems like he’s nearing the end of a Hall-of-Fame career, if he’s not there already.
The same can be said of Johnson, who has been nothing more than a change-of-pace back the past two seasons.
He at least hasn’t carried the ball more than 200 times since 2013 and had both of his 300-carry seasons come at the beginning of his career, which may mean he still has something left in the tank now.
But based on how inefficient Johnson was with his touches the past two seasons, it’s hard to see a team bringing him on and giving him much of a role.
Retirement beckons for every athlete at some point, but if you’re a running back in the NFL, it could sneak up on you sooner than you could have imagined.
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