Should a 32-Year-Old Frank Gore Really Be an Early-Round Fantasy Football Draft Target?
In 10 NFL seasons, Frank Gore has never posted a yards per carry rate below 4.1. He has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the past four seasons. He has rushed for 1,000 yards in eight of his last nine seasons. The last year he failed to do so was in 2010, when he rushed for 853 yards in only 11 games. Since then, he hasn't missed a game.
Right now you’re probably thinking, "Hey, this Frank Gore guy might be good at football." And if that is what you were thinking, I’d say you were right -– pshh, if you said it two months ago. Because, you see, back in May, something terrible happened; it was Frank Gore’s birthday, and...he turned 32.
If you weren’t aware, 32 is a dark and mysterious age where fantasy running back production goes to die -- a Bermuda Triangle sort of age, where seemingly talented, borderline Hall-of-Fame worthy running backs fall off of a cliff never to be heard of again. Do you believe in ghosts, the Tooth Fairy, or magic in a young girl’s heart? I do, but I’m not necessarily buying into this fantasy narrative.
While there does seem to be a correlation between a running back’s bust rate and his age over 30, where I differ is that I don’t think it’s the only argument. So, instead, I'll try to make the case for Gore and investigate the counter-narrative that even a ham sandwich could be a fantasy RB2 running in this offense (implication being that a ham sandwich is superior to Trent Richardson [It is. Don't believe me? Try trading him away for a sandwich in any dynasty league, not gonna happen]).
Ageism in America
Going all the way back to 1920, there have been only 23 30-year-old 1,000-yard rushers, 12 31-year-old 1,000-yard rushers, and then just 6 32-year-old 1,000-yard rushers. In case you're a dynasty owner looking at Gore, there have been only three 1,000-yard rushers over the age of 32 (although two of them did it twice).
Of the 11 (we're excluding Gore here) 31-year-old 1,000 yard rushers, only three of these running backs repeated the next year. That would mean Frank Gore has only a 3/11 (27%) chance of repeating this year, right? Well, of those 11 backs, two retired. So really, maybe it's a 33% chance. And then out of those other six, only two played more than 13 games. So maybe if Gore, who hasn't missed a game since 2010, can stay healthy, he has a 3/5 (60%) chance. And actually, one of these two running backs (Thomas Jones) still managed 896 yards his age-32 season.
Warrick Dunn was really the only one who fell off a cliff with a 3.2 yards per tote average in his age-32 season. And yet, he still ran for 720 yards despite the low efficiency, and the next season at 33, he rushed for 786 yards on 186 attempts for a 4.2 yards per carry average. So, how strong is the correlation? I'm not sure, but it does certainly seem as though it might not be the death sentence that some are making it out to be.
There are other factors that might go into this that may help make Gore's case -- the notion that modern sports science has extended the average lifespan of running backs in the NFL, the fact that he's joined a more potent offense, and that, despite his age, the Colts have invested a good deal of money in him and have said they "envision him as a workhorse and every-down back".
While his age may indeed bring about a higher injury risk or the Colts might have to limit his carries due to the fear of early wear and tear, it's not yet clear if that is already built into his ADP where he's currently being drafted in the mid-third round, or RB14.
From Shaky Town to the Crossroads
The narrative running counter to the "a 32-year-old running back is basically dead" narrative is that the Colts running game is a plug-and-play situation similar to what Denver has been since the Peyton Manning acquisition. So let's dig a little deeper and see if this notion holds any validity.
This isn't exactly an Pro Bowl-caliber squad of running backs. Richardson and Brown are both projected third men on the totem pole for their perspective teams in 2015, Bradshaw is still an unsigned free agent, and Herron was a relative nobody before Week 12 of last season.
Yet, over the past two seasons, with the exception of Trent Richardson (who might just be really bad at football), every Colts running back with at least 40 rushing attempts in a year has had a yards per carry average of at least 4.50. Last year, Ahmad Bradshaw had a 4.72 yards per carry average, while Herron's was 4.50. In 2013, Bradshaw's was 4.54 and Donald Brown's was 5.26 (the next year with San Diego it was 2.62).
In 2013 with the Colts, Donald Brown had 8 touchdowns on just 129 total touches. Last season, Ahmad Bradshaw finished eighth among all running backs in fantasy PPR points per game with 15.9 while splitting time with Trent Richardson (who, despite being bad at football, still managed to put up 10.3 points per contest in his first eight games).
From Week 12 until the end of the regular season, Dan Herron averaged 11.1 points per game. In the playoffs, when Indy realized it was finally time to stop wasting snaps on Richardson, Herron averaged 20.6 points while splitting time with Zurlon Tipton.
Indianapolis' offense doesn't just appear to be much more conducive to fantasy running back success than the average NFL team, but the San Francisco offense appears to have been one of the least hospitable.
This year, Frank Gore will be leaving a 49er offense that ranked 25th overall in points, 20th in yards per game, and 20th in plays from scrimmage to go to a team that ranked 6th overall in points, 3rd in yards per game, and 2nd in plays from scrimmage. He’s leaving a team that averaged 1.9 touchdowns per contest to go to a team that averaged 3 last year.
There has always been a strong correlation between a team's passing efficiency and the fantasy success of that team's starting running back. Our own JJ Zachariason made a compelling case last year looking at why we should be drafting running backs in highly-efficient passing offenses, if you want more evidence.
Last season, the Colts ranked as our seventh most efficient offense by Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), while San Francisco ranked 19th. I think there’s also good reason to assume that the Colts offense might be even more prolific than last year as well, as Dwayne Allen appears to be healthy and they've replaced Hakeem Nicks and the 36-year-old Reggie Wayne with Andre Johnson and first-round rookie wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.
A large share of Frank Gore's 2015 fantasy success will be tied to not just to his ability to score touchdowns, but also in his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. While he hasn’t had 30 catches in a season since 2010, there's reason to believe that could change this year.
Over the past two seasons, Colts running backs have averaged more than 100 targets per season. Last year, only one team threw to running backs less than Greg Roman’s 49ers' offense, while the Colts ranked 12th.
Since Roman took over as offensive coordinator of the 49ers in 2011, Gore averaged just 1.75 targets per game. Before Roman's arrival, between 2006 and 2010, Gore averaged 5.25 targets per game and was highly efficient on those targets, consistently ranking near the top among running backs in terms of Reception NEP per target. Meanwhile, according to that same metric last year, Dan Herron ranked 55th out of 59 qualified backs. Due to Gore’s career efficiency as a receiver and his ability as a blocker, I don’t see either Herron, Zurlon Tipton, or rookie Josh Robinson taking too many targets away from Gore.
In an article where I break down the potential target split for the entire Colts team, I projected a modest 66 targets for Gore.
Gore has a 68% career catch rate on 503 targets, which, for instance, was the same catch rate last year as Jimmy Graham and higher than guys like Shane Vereen, Jamaal Charles, Jordy Nelson, and Dez Bryant. If his catch rate stays consistent and the 66 targets are correct, that should be good for about 45 catches –- or tied for seventh most last year. And a career yards per catch reception rate of 8.4 would push him close to 380 receiving yards.
Running backs over the last two seasons in Indy have averaged five touchdowns per year through the air, and 8.5 on the ground. While Gore hasn’t exactly been a red zone monster the past few seasons (luckily, Dan Herron has been even worse), if the change of scenery can make him a dependable red zone option running the ball, then there should be plenty of opportunities for him.
Andrew Luck led the league last year with the most one-yard passing touchdowns (6), and the most passing touchdowns from three yards out (12). Perhaps if he had a more reliable running back than Trent Richardson, many of those scores would've been rushing touchdowns.
The Inconvenient Truth
According to our NEP data, Gore was actually below average in efficiency last year. Among all running backs with at least 50 carries, Gore finished 46th out of all 73 qualified running backs in terms of Rushing NEP per rush efficiency. Though, going back to our point about the San Francisco offense being an inhospitable wasteland for fantasy running backs, he still finished highest on his team with a per-rush NEP of -0.06 compared to Carlos Hyde's -0.09.
In 2013, he finished 42nd out of 67, again with a rate of -0.06, and again first on his team.
It’s hard to speculate how much better those numbers would have been on a different team, but it's a good sign that there was no decline from 2013 to 2014. And, it's important to note, his yards per carry also jumped from 4.1 in 2013 to 4.3 in 2014.
A quick look at Mike Clay’s article that looks into the impact certain defensive packages have on a running back’s yards per carry average might shed some light on our own efficiency metrics. By looking at the effect of the amount of defenders stacked at the line of scrimmage, we can better put a running back's averages into perspective.
For instance, it's easier to rush for a 4.3 yards per carry against four defenders in the box than it is against seven. Over the last three years, Gore has been at a tremendous disadvantage compared to every other running back in league, as in each of the last three years he has led the league in the number of carries against eight-plus defenders in the box. Last year he had 76 such rushes, while the second closest runner was Demarco Murray who had only 58 -- even though Murray had 137 more total carries.
A total of 81% of Gore's carries last year were against base defenses. To put that in perspective, Dan Herron only ran against a base defense 45% of the time last season. As a team, the 49ers had the third most rushes versus base defenses, while Colts running backs saw the 14th fewest. That was even worse for Gore in 2013, when a ridiculous 95% of his carries came against four or fewer defensive backs (the next closest rusher was Darren McFadden with only 86%).
Despite his age, NFL defenses were still paying a much greater deal of respect to Gore over the past two years, and he still held up more than adequately. Next year, while the offensive line might not be as strong, he’ll more than make up for it by facing against less defenders in the box in a much easier division and for a much more highly productive offense.
The Price Is Right
Last season, Gore finished as the 21st overall fantasy running back in PPR leagues. Over the final two weeks of last season, he rushed for a combined 302 yards. Outside of being seven months older today than he was then, there doesn’t seem to much to dislike about Gore’s fantasy potential this year. Based on everything we’ve looked at in comparing the two offenses and Gore’s lack of a declination, I’m compelled to draft him at or above his current average draft position. And our projections think he's priced right, too.