The Associated Press
It looks like LaDainain Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook could be getting the same birthday presents this year: decreasing productivity and plummeting value in fantasy football leagues.
Both longtime fantasy stars will turn 30 before the season, meaning they're almost certainly headed for a fall in 2009. That's a shocking statement for those two, but it's just what happens to running backs at that age.
There are exceptions, of course, but not many. Of the top 10 rushers in yardage in each of the past 20 seasons, only 15 have been 30 or older. That means 185 have been younger.
The most notable recent victim of the 30-year curse was Shaun Alexander, who struggled to 716 yards as a 30-year-old in 2007, just two years after his 1,880-yard season. Others include Edgerrin James (from 1,222 yards at age 29 to 514 at 30), Jerome Bettis (1,072 yards at 29 to 666 at 30), Ahman Green (1,059 yards at 29 to 260 at 30) and Stephen Davis (1,444 yards to 92).
Some lesser backs are also turning 30 this year - Jamal Lewis, LaMont Jordan and Chester Taylor -but the Tomlinson and Westbrook birthdays have dramatically shaken up fantasy draft cheat sheets.
Tomlinson, who struggled all last year with groin and toe injuries while being held to a career-low 1,110 yards, says he's eager to prove he can join the odds-defying group of backs who've succeeded at 30. That short list includesThomas Jones, who went over 1,300 yards last year, and NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith, who nearly hit 1,400 yards in 1999.
Tomlinson says he doesn't feel old and doesn't have any lingering health problems. He also says he's actually excited about sharing some carries in San Diego with backup Darren Sproles ‚Äî who many fantasy geeks figure will steal a lot of the traditional LT touches. Instead, Tomlinson sees the two working in tandem like when Michael Turner was his backup.
"Darren has proven he can do the exact same thing," said Tomlinson, who turned 30 on June 23. "He can come in and make sure I stay fresh throughout the game, then in the fourth quarter I can close out the game."
It's a great theory if it does work, but, again, history says it probably won't.
Even more indicators suggest big trouble for Westbrook. Not only will he hit 30 on Sept. 2, but he also has an injury history that got even more troubling with a pair of offseason surgeries.
Westbrook has never missed more than four games in a season, but he's also never played a full 16 in his seven-year career. (He has caused a whole lot of weekly anxiety to fantasy owners forced to watch the injury reports right up to game time because he's always on the injury list.)
Westbrook showed some major signs of wear and tear last year. While he did score 14 touchdowns, the 936 yards rushing were his lowest in three years and down about 400 from the previous year. He had 54 catches, but that was his fewest receptions in five years. And while he went for 4 yards a carry, that tied his career low.
In June Westbrook had surgery to remove scar tissue and bone fragments from his right ankle that was hurt most of last year. He was expected to wear a boot for about a month and then begin rehab. He also had surgery to clean out his left knee just after the season ended.
Despite all that, the team expects him to be ready for the regular season.
But keep an eye on his rehab, because Philadelphia just may be too optimistic here. If you draft him, don't bank on much production the first few weeks and be sure to take rookie second-round pick LeSean McCoy and/or any veteran free agents the Eagles sign late in the preseason.
Same with Tomlinson. It's a must that you take Sproles as his backup, and you may have to do it earlier than you'd like.
Who knows, though, maybe they'll both play looser now that fantasy geeks aren't pestering them whenever they're out in public.
"There's not a lot of pressure on me. … Now I can just kind of be that sleeper," said Tomlinson, who last year launched a tongue-in-cheek national campaign trying to urge fantasy players to take him with the first pick. "There's no need for me campaign - I'm not even in the race anymore."
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Fort Worth, Texas, contributed to this report.