News & Analysis

Dynasty fantasy football: Age tendencies of the top quarterbacks

Sep 9, 2018; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Dynasty fantasy football isn’t necessarily harder than redraft. You have the same information, the same data as everybody else, just like any fantasy league. The difference is that, when you make a mistake, the mistake can last much longer.

In that way, it’s a lot like the real thing. For example, imagine where the Indianapolis Colts franchise would be today if the team had opted for Ryan Leaf in 1998. Or in other sports, where would the Trail Blazers be if they had taken Michael Jordan over Sam Bowie or Kevin Durant over Greg Oden? You never want to make a mistake, but if you’re going to make one, you want it to be in a situation where it won’t hurt you much.

In redraft, you want to pay attention to a player’s age. But in dynasty, you have to. A 24-year-old has far more value than a 32-year-old, all else being equal. The big question is how much the value changes at each position. Over the next few days, we’ll look at the performances by age at each position to see how aging and performance can be connected. We’re looking at the last 12 years, in part because that’s when PFF started tracking fantasy performance and in part because that feels like about the right range to look at players of the most recent generation.

First up: Quarterbacks.

(All ages are the player’s age as of Dec. 31 of the given season.)

Age range

The top-12 fantasy quarterbacks each year have been, on average, 29.5 years old. That ranges from a sample-low average of 27.7 years in 2012 to a sample-high of 31.5, only two years later in 2014. The average has been over 30 years old in four of the last five years, owing to an aging cohort of dominant quarterbacks that includes Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and the 2004 draft class.

That’s general, though. Let’s look at how the ages of the top-12 finishers break down overall, with 144 player-seasons in our sample over the last 12 years.

Materially, a player is no more likely to be a top-12 player at age 23 or age 33. Only four quarterbacks have done it before 23 (Josh Freeman in 2010, Cam Newton in 2011, Robert Griffin III in 2012, Jameis Winston in 2016), and the population unsurprisingly drops off a cliff after age 33, but in the middle there, there have been at least nine and no more than 12 top-12 QBs at every age.

When do they first develop?

In our 12-year sample, 33 different quarterbacks have had their first career top-12 season. Of those 33, 23 (70%) have done so at age 25 or younger, 29 (88%) at age 27 or younger. The only exceptions: Matt Schaub in 2009 at age 28, David Garrard in 2008 at age 30, Chad Pennington in 2008 at age 32, and Alex Smith in 2017 at age 33. Notably, those four quarterbacks went on to have exactly one more top-12 season the rest of their careers (so far, since Smith and technically Schaub are still active).

In other words: If a quarterback hasn’t had a top-12 season by age 25, he’s not very likely to ever do so. If he hasn’t done it by age 27, you can just about close the door.

Staying power

Using the age at which players first reach the top-12, we can look at the staying power of those performances. This needs to be done on a rate basis, as it’s not fair to penalize a guy who was top-12 in 2007 for not being one in 2018, and it’s not fair to give a guy who was top-12 in 2007 and stayed there for 10 years significantly more credit than one who did so in 2017 and has only had one year to do it again. So we're looking at the percentage of seasons in which a player was on a roster that he finished as a top-12 quarterback, broken down by the age at which he first reached the upper echelon.

Three quarterbacks in our sample had their first top-12 season at age 27. Tony Romo (six times in eight seasons) and Kirk Cousins (three for three) managed to maintain their top performances regularly, while Tyrod Taylor (zero times in two years) has fallen off, but overall, 27-year-olds have in a small sample maintained their performance better than any other age.

For bigger samples, though, we have to look at players age 22-25. The youngest age at development, the 22-year-olds, struggled, with three of four (Winston, Griffin, and Freeman) never (yet?) reaching the top-12 again, and even Newton doing so in barely half his seasons. The 23- and 25-year-olds have been fine.

But that’s for guys’ first seasons as a top-12 quarterback. To expand upon it, I looked at all top-12 quarterback ages in the last 12 years and the frequency at which those quarterbacks managed to do it again.

There’s some internal logic here. Guys who have a big season early in their careers might be for real or they might not, but no matter what, they’ve bought themselves some cachet, some extended rope they can play with in pursuit of reproving themselves. But by the time they are 27, either they’re for real or they aren’t; teams aren’t predisposed to giving an extended trial to a 27-year-old who has never shown it before. The percentage holds basically steady from 27-year-olds right up to 38-year-olds (where our sample is very limited — it’s basically just Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre). There haven’t been any 39-year-olds with a top-12 season who played again — Brees did it last year, and both Brady and Favre missed the mark as 39-year-olds — but then we’re right around the same percentage for 40-year-olds (even on a tiny two-guy sample).

The takeaway here is that if you are considering a guy who was a QB1, your odds are actually better with a slightly older quarterback; the sample of guys at a younger age is far more dotted with one-hit wonders.

Current samples

In the last three years, nine quarterbacks have had their first top-12 seasons. By age, they are:

Based on the information above, you’d want to bet hard against Taylor or Smith ever reaching that threshold again — and, given Smith’s injury and Taylor’s relegation to backup, that felt safe even without doing this analysis.

Beyond that, the ages indicate we have to go case-by-case. Prescott has been top-12 all three of his seasons, so while he might not be among the league’s elite quarterbacks, his rushing keeps his fantasy stock high. Mahomes and Watson were two of the league’s best fantasy performers last year, with little reason to doubt their staying power so long as they remain healthy. Those three are solid bets to repeat as top-12 quarterbacks at least occasionally if not regularly.

So then, we need to look at Winston, Mariota, Goff, and Wentz. Only Goff (first top-12 in 2017, repeated in 2018) has made it back to the top-12 since first doing so. Unscientifically, I would rank the odds of each of them being top-12 in 2019 as Goff, then Winston, then Wentz, then a big gap before Mariota.

Who could get there

By my reckoning (and not considering incoming rookies) there are 10 quarterbacks who have never been top-12 finishers who could, if you squint just right, make an argument for getting there eventually.

  • Derek Carr, Case Keenum, Nick Foles, and Jimmy Garoppolo are all going to be 28 or older. Keenum is obviously the longest shot here, and Garoppolo has extenuating circumstances of backing up Tom Brady holding him back, the odds are against these four ever cracking the upper echelon of producers.
  • Mitchell Trubisky will be 25, entering one of the sweet spots for development. The others are younger: Baker Mayfield at 24; Josh Allen at 23; Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold, and Josh Rosen at 22. Mayfield is obviously the prize here, but if he doesn’t reach the top-12 within the next season or two, the odds start to go the other way.

For every freak of nature like Tom Brady, who had his first top-12 season in 2002 at age 25 and did so again in 2018 at age 41, you get a Peyton Manning, who was the No. 1 fantasy QB in 2013 at 37, No. 5 in 2014, and out of the league at age 40. Or a Matthew Stafford, who reached the top-12 in 2011 as QB6, finished in the top-12 five of the next six years, but fell to QB20 in 2018 at age 30 and looks to be unlikely to get back any time soon if ever. Or even an Alex Smith, who finished a career-high QB4 in 2017, went to Washington with all sorts of supposed under-the-radar potential and fell flat.

But if you’re entering a dynasty startup this season, here’s what you want to look for: A quarterback with at least one top-12 season under his belt who is around 27, erring (surprisingly?) to the older rather than the younger. That would mean, just based on this little study, your best bet right now might be Andrew Luck. He'll be 30, he has five top-12 finishes in seven years. Mahomes and Watson are great, and I'm not telling you to bet against them. But the numbers say there's a bigger chance they fade than the more established Luck.

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