Player age is a popular topic in the fantasy community, especially during draft season. Key players who have been consistent performers will start to slip down draft boards due to concerns about their inevitable decline. A small number of players will buck trends to remain fantasy relevant well into their 30s, but eventually all players retire — yes, even Brett Favre.
There are many preconceived notions about the impact that age has on each of the offensive skill positions. The most popular theory is that running backs hit a wall when they turn 30, but do historical trends validate this concern? Wide receivers and tight ends are generally lumped together and believed to be productive for a few more years than running backs. Do in-line and wideout pass-catchers really decline at the same rate, and at what age does this happen?
I needed answers, so I built a database that includes every player who has thrown, caught, or rushed since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger. That's data for over 5,000 players in 9,850 games spanning 42 years. By analyzing the historical trends we'll be able to target players entering their age of peak performance, identify undervalued veterans with solid years of production left, and avoid players on the verge of decline.
Studying the Trend
It should come as no surprise that the consistency and longevity of quarterbacks is far superior to all other positions. The typical franchise quarterback will produce solid numbers from ages 25 to 36, which is why owning a top-tier quarterback is so important in building a successful dynasty team.
After considering numerous sample sizes, the most useful results came from limiting the data to quarterbacks who finished in the top 15 for at least two years. All fantasy scoring is four points per passing touchdown and minus one for each interception.
Breaking Down the Decades
Fantasy totals have obviously changed a lot over the past four decades as the game has evolved, but for the purposes of age analysis, the rate of decline is more important than absolute point differentials. Therefore, I normalized all of the points to 2011 based on the average performance of the top 15 quarterbacks from each season. Grouping players by the decade of their rookie year allows us to analyze whether changes to the game have impacted player longevity.
The graphs for each decade are fairly similar. During the key years from 23-35 (where sample sizes are the largest), the average variance from their composite is only 0.78 points. The data outside of that age range is a bit more scattered because the sample sizes on the far ends of the graphs are smaller, but overall the decline trends haven't changed significantly over time.
I cut off the 34-year-old data point for rookies in the 2000s because it was pretty much just Tom Brady’s stats from last year, creating a misleading upward spike. None of the sampled rookies from this century have played a game after turning 35.
Applying What We Have Learned
Historically quarterbacks start to hit their stride at 25, and there are a few players who could see a bump in production if they follow this trend. The Jets’ dynamic duo, Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, will both be 25 at the start of the season, and Andy Dalton and Sam Bradford both turn 25 during the season. Unfortunately, Sanchez and Tebow (Sanchbow?) hurt each others' value, Dalton already overachieved a bit last year, and Bradford has a dreadful supporting cast. I don’t think any of them are poised for a breakout year.
On the downhill side of the graph, turning 37 marks the end of the road for quarterbacks. Matt Hasselbeck turns 37 in September, and if the number of man-crushes that PFF Fantasy staffers have on Jake Locker is any indication, Hasselbeck probably won’t start many games for the Titans this year.
The next-oldest fantasy-relevant passers are Peyton Manning at 36, Tom Brady turning 35 in August, Drew Brees at 33, and Carson Palmer turning 33 in December. I’m not worried about Brady, Brees, or Palmer having big drop offs in 2012, but for dynasty purposes, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brady only has three solid years left in him.
Manning is a big concern for me, and I probably won’t own him in any of my leagues this year. Age is part of the issue, but building chemistry with a new team, missing all of last season, and having major surgery are all big red flags. These are some serious obstacles to overcome, even for one of the greatest to ever play the position.
Quarterbacks face their sharpest decline after their 14th season. Last year would have been Manning's 14th year if he had played. Despite some positive reports coming out of the Broncos' organized team activities (OTAs), I have him ranked lower than most people. He’s 13th in my quarterback rankings, and I won’t be counting on him as my QB1 in any leagues.
To contrast quarterbacks, my next two articles will focus on the sharp decline of running backs. In addition to analyzing their age-based decline, we’ll look at running backs' decreased productivity as they accumulate more career touches. This will give us insight into the value of older players with “less mileage on their tires,” like Michael Turner and Fred Jackson.
Share your thoughts and chat with Austin on Twitter @AustinNFL.