Projecting Wide Receiver Production Based on Age
After a 2011 season in which he participated in only seven games and tied his career-low for touchdowns, Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson exploded for 112 receptions and 1,598 yards in 2012. The breakout wasn't really too surprising for one of the game's elite receivers; Johnson had three prior 100-catch seasons and two years with at least 1,500 yards. We know that Johnson won't be able to continue his dominance forever, but when will his decline strike?
Over the past few weeks, I've examined the age of decline for running backs and quarterbacks. I found that running backs enter the NFL at near peak efficiency, and it's usually a gradual decline from there. Meanwhile, quarterbacks can play at a high level well into their 30s. Looking at the numbers, the career outlook for wide receivers falls somewhere between that for running backs and quarterbacks.
Like quarterbacks, wide receivers take some time to develop. As you might recall from earlier articles, there have been only six rookie wide receivers since 2000 to finish in the top 24 at their position. That's pretty remarkable, especially when you consider that three of them - A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Torrey Smith - came in a single year.
Unlike quarterbacks, however, wide receivers can't sustain a high level of play into their mid-30s. They're more like running backs in that they typically see a gradual decline once they hit their peak. That peak has historically come at age 26. Actually, the three-year window from ages 25 to 27 is often the most productive for wide receivers. Over the past decade, receivers in each age of that range - 25, 26, and 27 - have produced over 97 percent of their peak production, as a whole.
If we loosen the parameters of "peak production," you can see that receivers can be quite productive for a fairly long period of time. Historically, they've been at or near 90 percent of their peak production from ages 24 to 31 - a period of time much longer than that for running backs, who are at or near 90 percent of peak production from ages 23 to 28.
So what's the age of decline for wide receivers? As usual, there's no single number after which receivers become ineffective, but they usually see a semi-steep drop in production around age 28, and then another around age 33. Actually, if a 27-year old wide receiver who just hauled in 100 receptions for 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns followed the typical wide receiver career path exactly, he'd post around 90 grabs for 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns in the following season and, by age 33, those numbers would drop to right around 75 catches for 1,125 yards and seven scores. By age 35, most wide receivers are washed up. The few that remain in the league typically have a difficult time putting up respectable fantasy numbers.
Using the Wide Receiver Aging Chart
Going back to Andre Johnson, we know based on historic data that a drop in production is likely. If you're projecting Johnson to duplicate his 2012 numbers in 2013, you'll probably be disappointed. It's not as if Johnson can't do it or that his stats will follow the typical wide receiver aging pattern to a tee, but rather the likelihood of continued dominance decreases each year, especially as he enters his mid-30s.
While we can certainly use historic decline rates in re-draft leagues for players like Johnson, the numbers are far more useful for those in keeper or dynasty leagues. If you're looking at two receivers with similar production, but one is coming off of his age 24 season and the other off of his age 27 season, your choice should be clear.
Let's break it down. Suppose both your 24 and 27-year old targets recently recorded 90 catches for 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns. If you're in a league that allows you to keep players for three years, you might assume there isn't much difference between the two receivers; the 27-year old should be fine until he's 30, right?
Not so fast. If each receiver's future production resembled that of the average wide receiver, their projected numbers over the next three seasons would be quite different:
24-Year Old: 296 catches for 4,605 yards and 32 touchdowns (949 PPR points - 316 points per season)
27-Year Old: 246 catches for 3,819 yards and 27 touchdowns (790 PPR points - 263 points per season)
Pretty remarkable, huh? The "same" players in terms of overall talent and situation, on average, would be separated by 53 points per year based solely on a three-year gap in age. So if you want to know why you should have A.J. Green ranked ahead of Calvin Johnson in dynasty leagues, this is it.
Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft. He also runs the "Running the Numbers" blog at DallasCowboys.com and writes for the New York Times.