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Robinson: NFL getting younger at RB

| Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

To former Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, it's a description that soon will be as outdated in major college football as the terms “flying wedge,” “drop kick” and “single wing.”

Goodbye, senior running back.

With most running backs out of the NFL by their 30th birthday, Davis said pressure is mounting on the best backs to shorten their college careers and get into the league as soon as possible.

Of the record 103 early entries into the NFL draft this year, 18 are running backs, more than any other position except wide receiver (19).

“Guys are starting their clock a lot earlier now versus coming in as a senior when you're 22 years old and having to get a new contract at 26,” said Davis, an NFL Network analyst. “If I'm coming in as a sophomore, a 19-year-old kid, when he's 22, 23, he gets a second contract.”

In other words, get your yards — and your money — as fast as you can. Or risk not getting them.

While quarterbacks can play deep into their 30s — Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are perfect examples — running backs are pretty well used up by their late 20s.

Over the past 20 years, only Emmitt Smith (2001) of Dallas and Ricky Williams (2009) of Miami had 1,000-yard seasons at age 32 or older. And over the last half-century, only two backs — John Riggins of Washington and John Henry Johnson of the Steelers — had 1,000-yard seasons at 34.

There's another reason to forego the final one or two years of college: Teams are looking to go younger at running back to save money.

This past season, the Steelers drafted and started 21-year-old Le'Veon Bell, whose 860 yards rushing easily were the most by any running back in team history before his 22nd birthday. No other runner had more than 237 yards by that age.

“A running back coming out of college, you might be paying him $300,000. A veteran makes $900,000 or $1,000,000. So teams are opting for a younger back and getting rid of the older back,” Davis said. “Running back has the shortest shelf life of any position in football, so are you going to go with a 22-year-old running back or a 30-year-old running back?”

Davis knows firsthand. He ran for at least 1,117 yards in each of his first four seasons, including 2,008 yards on a career-shortening 392 carries at age 26 in 1998. But he was out of the league by age 29 after rushing for only 1,194 yards in his final three seasons.

While Bell is part of the ongoing trend — leaving college before a senior season — he's going against another trend.

Because most running backs don't have extended careers, more teams are dividing carries among multiple backs.

The Steelers were an exception. Once Bell got healthy, his 164 carries over the second half of the season were the third most in the league, trailing only Zac Stacy (174) and Ryan Mathews (168).

“If I'm a coach, I want two backs. I don't want my team held hostage by one guy,” Davis said. “But you prefer to have a consistent back who can do it all.”

Even if it's for only a short time.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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