The life of an elite NFL feature back is getting shorter and shorter. I don’t mean that they’re dying at a young age, just that a guy can be the man on his team for just a handful of years, and that lifeline seems to be getting shorter. It seems like just a few decades ago, it’d be the same handful of guys racking up 1,000 yard season for years on end. Now a guy is likely to have one or two, and then be replaced by the next young, healthy back. It’s evident this season when you watch guys like Ladanian Tomlinson and Marion Barber no longer getting the bulk of their teams’ carries. It seems like just yesterday guys like these were dominant on the field, and now are relegated to sharing duties with younger guys. In other sports, you could look at league leaders from five years ago and the majority of those guys are still putting up numbers. I took the top ten rushers from 2006, and it looks like all ten of those guys would be lucky to total 1,000 yards combined this year…
SHAUN ALEXANDER, SEA. 1,880 yds: 2005 was Alexander’s 5th and final 1000 yard season. He donned the cover of Madden 07, but failed to tally as many yards as he did in 05 over the next three seasons, his last in the NFL. He totaled 1612 yards over his next two years in Seattle, before adding 24 more in 2008 on the Redskins. That was his final season.
TIKI BARBER, NYG. 1860 yds: Barber totaled 6 1000 yd seasons over a span of 7 years, and though you could argue he retired still in his prime, it was clear that Barber’s days were numbered, which probably prompted his retirement somewhat. Barber’s last season was 2006, but he knew Brandon Jacobs was the back of the team’s future.
LARRY JOHNSON, KC. 1750 yds: Johnson was the man for about two years there. He had back to back 1700+ yard seasons in 05 & 06. It was more personal issues that caused him to fall out of favor in KC, but it’s clear he isn’t a feature back anymore. He racked up just 204 yards last year backing up Cedric Benson in Cincinnati, and this year, he’s backing up Clinton Portis in Washington.
CLINTON PORTIS, WAS. 1516 yds: Portis may be the exception on this list, but he certainly hasn’t been the poster child for consistency. He missed half of last season, just like he did in 2006. He went over 1,000 in each of the other six seasons in which he’s played double digit games, though, so this year will most likely be the telling sign of whether he’ll be around for one more.
EDGERRIN JAMES, IND. 1506 yds: James was showing no signs of slowing down in 2005, but the Colts thought enough to let him go in favor of the younger Joseph Addai. Edge went to Arizona for two more 1,000 yard seasons, but it was clear during his tenure there that he was just holding down the spot until someone like JJ Arrington or Tim Hightower were ready to fill in. James spent his last season, 2009, in Seattle carrying the ball just seven times for 46 yards.
LADANIAN TOMLINSON, SD. 1462 yds: After eight straight 1000 yard seasons to begin his career, LT has been in the twilight of his career for about three years now. Although he may get more carries than anyone else in the Jets’ backfield, it’s clear they’re more optimistic about Shonn Greene and Joe McKnight.
WARRICK DUNN, ATL. 1416 yds: Dunn enjoyed a longer than normal career as a feature back, with five 1000 yard seasons over a span of nine years. In 2008, Dunn went back to Tampa for one last run, where he racked up a respectable 786 yards.
THOMAS JONES, CHI. 1335 yds: Thomas Jones may be the other exception along with Portis. He currently has a streak of five seasons going over the 1000 mark, but Kansas City may very well be his last stop. He’s still number one on the depth chart, but Jamaal Charles figures to be the guy going forward for the Chiefs.
WILLIS MCGAHEE, BUF. 1247 yds: McGahee had a promising start to his career in 2004, where he gained over 4,500 yards in his first four seasons. It’s been all downhill since his first season in Baltimore, as Ray Rice is already the man for the Ravens, and Leron McClain is even presumably a more attractive option carrying the ball.