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The Age of Decline - Wide Receivers

Andre Johnson Hurt

We started off this series by looking at the extremes on the decline spectrum. Quarterbacks are rock-solid well into their 30s, and running backs drop off sharply after 26. We also learned that rushers in their 30s have a tough time defying age trends even if they have low career touch counts.

Now it's time add receivers into the mix to see how they compare to rushers and passers. First we'll use the broad trends to inform our dynasty strategy. Then we'll call out a few 28-year-olds who do not belong on your fantasy team, cash in on an undervalued 26-year-old who will easily exceed expectations, and break down the reasons why one elite 31-year-old receiver is headed for a dramatic, early decline.

Note: All scoring in this article is standard, non-PPR.

Studying the Trend

The sample size of “fantasy relevant” receivers matches what we used for running backs. To be included, each player had to finish in the top 30 at his position at least twice in his career. Hundreds of players have met that criterion since the 1970 merger.

I modified the far end of the wide receiver line so that Jerry Rice’s numbers wouldn’t convince you to draft a team of 39-year-olds. If you tally all of the catches made by wideouts at 38 and 39, Rice had more than all of the other players combined. He then went on to play 49 more games in his forties. If you think a receiver is the next Jerry Rice, no graph should dissuade you from drafting him for your fantasy team.

Fantasy Output of WRs as They Age (1970-2011)

Receivers maintain most of their value until they hit 35 and clearly don't suffer from the same sharp decline as running backs. While wideouts don't quite have the consistency and longevity of quarterbacks, the wise dynasty owner will pair quarterbacks with receivers instead of running backs when building the foundation of their team.

Because quarterbacks really begin their long plateau at 25, wideouts reach their maximum productivity later than any other position by peaking at ages 26 and 27. It's important to exercise patience with this late-blooming position when deciding whom to keep from year to year. Conversely, be on the lookout for other owners bailing on receivers too soon. You may be rewarded by finding players with mediocre stats who have the skills worthy of a second chance.

Breaking Down the Decades

Much like we saw in the quarterback and running back breakdowns, the decades have a distinct overlap during the most productive ages. The average variance from the composite is only 0.48 points from ages 24 to 32, which is the tightest overlap of any position.

PPG of WRs by Decade as They Age (1970-2011)

The spike for 26-year-olds who entered the NFL before the 80s is due to stellar play by Wes Chandler, Cliff Branch, James Lofton, and Dick Gordon. Impressive late-career seasons from Jerry Rice, Irving Fryar, Cris Carter, and Tim Brown create the resurgence at 34 and 35 for rookies from the 80s. Most players who started in the NFL in the 2000s haven't turned 33 yet, leading to a graphical drop-off because of the small sample size.

Jumping off of the Cliff (35-plus years old)

As we saw in the first graph at the top of the article, the productivity of wide receivers really takes a dive after 34, making it hard to get excited about the comeback attempts of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Plaxico Burress. Since Moss is the only employed member of this elderly trio, he’s being taken the highest with an ADP of WR43. That’s pretty high for a receiver who has been given the dreaded “snap count” designation in a mediocre pass offense. Besides, he only has 10 catches since week five of 2010.

Moss' upside is causing his ADP to creep upwards, but don’t convince yourself that any receiver, especially one over 34, still has his upside from five years ago. Moss may be worth a late-round flier as the sixth receiver on your team, but there are plenty of young players that I’d prefer to take a chance on.

Reaching the Peak (26-27 years old)

Calvin Johnson, Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson, Mike Wallace, Steve Johnson, and Pierre Garçon will all hit the peak performance ages of 26 or 27 by mid-season. Megatron, Nelson, and Garçon are being drafted appropriately based on their situations and skill sets, but my rankings differ from ADP on Wallace, Steve Johnson, and Cruz.

Despite finally reporting to the Steelers today, Wallace is still being taken too high with a average draft position (ADP) of WR14. Antonio Brown had 309 more receiving yards than Wallace over their last 11 games despite playing 183 fewer snaps. The only reason Wallace caught more touchdowns over that span is that he vultured a pass intended for Brown in week 9. Wallace may be the more physically gifted receivier, but Brown is the better fantasy option.

At WR26, Steve Johnson stands out to me in this bunch as the most likely to outperform his ADP. He hasn’t missed a game over the past two years and ranks 18th in points per game (PPG) among players missing fewer than nine games. Over that span, he's also one of only seven players with back-to-back 1000-yard, 75-catch seasons. There is a plethora of solid WR2 options in this year’s draft, but Johnson will outperform the majority of them.

I'm also higher on Victor Cruz than most analysts. Don’t dismiss last year’s five touchdowns of more than 67 yards as “flukes.” Not all of them were broken coverages and miraculous bobbles. Even if you took away his three longest touchdowns, he still would have been a top-10 wideout despite playing only 28% of the snaps in weeks one and two.

Descending Gradually (28-34 years old)

There’s a fairly steady downhill slope for receivers in their late 20s and early 30s that isn’t nearly as dramatic as it is with running backs. The ADP of most of these players already accounts for decreased productivity and a lower ceiling. However, some of these players are being drafted as if they still have their upside from a few years ago.

Miles Austin’s reoccurring hamstring issues and Santonio Holmes’ terrible quarterbacks make them prime candidates to fall victim to the 28-year-old mini drop-off. Both are being drafted five spots too high with ADPs of WR20 and WR35, respectively.

In September, Robert Meachem turns 28 and Malcom Floyd turns 31. Meachem has the only top-30 finish of the pair, and that was three years ago. Without Vincent Brown and Ryan Mathews to take defensive pressure off of their pass-catchers, the Chargers are primed for their traditional, slow start. It’s unlikely that I’ll be drafting any San Diego receivers.

Anquan Boldin is 32 with an ADP of WR33. He hasn’t been a championship-caliber fantasy starter since the middle of 2008, averaging a mere 7.9 PPG over the past three-and-a-half years. I’d much rather draft a WR3 or WR4 that actually has some upside, which puts Boldin outside of my top 50.

It's the last hurrah for 33-year-olds, Reggie Wayne and Steve Smith. Smith’s ADP as a high-end WR2 is a few spots too high after the Carolina passing attack fizzled in the second half of last year. However, Wayne is poised to live up to his ADP as a solid WR3 with Andrew Luck’s strong preseason showings. Wayne is toeing the precipice of decline by turning 34 in November, but he should improve a little on his WR29 numbers from last year.

Roddy White, Wes Welker, and Brandon Lloyd will all be 31 for the majority of this year. Their ADPs seem appropriate in redraft leagues, but this is the dynasty season to look for the opportunity to maximize their values and trade them away to a contender.

While the ADP of most of the 31-year-olds don’t concern me this year, there’s one high profile player that’s sending off some serious alarm bells for me. Be wary of drafting Andre Johnson…

Andre Johnson (31 years old)

Andre Johnson is nearing the mini-dropoff that tends to bite 32-year-old receivers. He’s being drafted as the third receiver in most drafts, and that’s way too high for a player who has missed 11 of his team’s last 20 games due to three different soft-tissue injuries.

Even more concerning for Johnson, is the big shift in offensive philosophy in Houston. With the emergence of two 1,000-yard backs, a stellar offensive line, and a much-improved defense, they tied Denver for the most rushing attempts and had the third fewest passing attempts last year. They ran 54% of the time compared to 42% in each of the previous two years.

Some people think Houston favored the running game last year because Johnson and Matt Schaub were injured. However, the Texans actually ran the ball more often when both Johnson and Schaub were in the lineup, leaning on the ground game for 55% of their plays.

Johnson certainly has upside and will put up a few big games this year, but there are too many concerns for me to trust him as my WR1. He’s the 13th receiver in my rankings and won’t end up on any of my teams.

Unless your league awards bonus points for punching Cortland Finnegan, steer clear of Johnson on draft day.

What's Next?

The last installment in my Age of Decline series will cover tight ends, whose aging trend is distinctly different from that of wide receivers. We'll draw broad conclusions based on a graphical comparison of all of the positions and examine how the tight end data is skewed by two of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game. Then we'll wrap up the series by using age trends to identify some tight ends to target and others to avoid.


Share your thoughts and chat with Austin on Twitter @AustinNFL.

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