For the purposes of looking at Roddy White, we'll use two receivers from the recent past in our comparisons. Both Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne are reasonably close to White in terms of production at comparable ages and also in terms of size. White, Wayne and Holt are all medium sized receivers, closer to the 200 pound range.
Let's look at these three receivers in the same way that we looked at the Andre Johnson-similar receivers.
Roddy White, Age 25 -- Present
Age 25, 16 Games, 30 Receptions, 506 Yards, 16.9 Y/R, 0 TD
Age 26, 16 Games, 83 Receptions, 1202 Yards, 14.5 Y/R, 6 TD
Age 27, 16 Games, 88 Receptions, 1382 Yards, 15.7 Y/R, 7 TD
Age 28, 16 Games, 85 Receptions, 1153 Yards, 13.6 Y/R, 11 TD
Age 29, 16 Games, 115 Receptions, 1389 Yards, 12.1 Y/R, 10 TD
Age 30, 16 Games, 100 Receptions, 1296 Yards, 13 Y/R, 8 TD
Torry Holt, Age 25 -- End of Career
Age 25, 16 Games, 81 Receptions, 1363 Yards, 16.8 Y/R, 7 TD
Age 26, 16 Games, 91 Receptions, 1302 Yards, 14.3 Y/R, 4 TD
Age 27, 16 Games, 117 Receptions, 1696 Yards, 14.5 Y/R, 12 TD
Age 28, 16 Games, 94 Receptions, 1372 Yards, 14.6 Y/R, 10 TD
Age 29, 14 Games, 102 Receptions, 1331 Yards, 13 Y/R, 9 TD
Age 30, 16 Games, 93 Receptions, 1188 Yards, 12.8 Y/R, 10 TD
Age 31, 16 Games, 93 Receptions, 1189 Yards, 12.8 Y/R, 7 TD
Age 32, 16 Games, 64 Receptions, 796 Yards, 12.4 Y/R, 3 TD
Age 33, 15 Games, 51 Receptions, 722 Yards, 14.2 Y/R, 0 TD
Reggie Wayne, Age 25 -- Present
Age 25, 16 Games, 68 Receptions, 838 Yards, 12.3 Y/R, 7 TD
Age 26, 16 Games, 77 Receptions, 1210 Yards, 15.7 Y/R, 12 TD
Age 27, 16 Games, 83 Receptions, 1055 Yards, 12.7 Y/R, 5 TD
Age 28, 16 Games, 86 Receptions, 1310 Yards, 15.2 Y/R, 9 TD
Age 29, 16 Games, 104 Receptions, 1510 Yards, 14.5 Y/R, 10 TD
Age 30, 16 Games, 82 Receptions, 1145 Yards, 14 Y/R, 6 TD
Age 31, 16 Games, 100 Receptions, 1264 Yards, 12.6 Y/R, 10 TD
Age 32, 16 Games, 111 Receptions, 1355 Yards, 12.2 Y/R, 6 TD
Age 33, 16 Games, 75 Receptions, 960 Yards, 12.8 Y/R, 4 TD
These comparisons offer some interesting insights. Holt was an amazingly consistent receiver almost from the time he entered the league until the time he turned 30. After age 30, it's not that Holt wasn't a productive receiver, it's just that by the standard he set prior to that point, he wasn't nearly as good. The range that you could expect Holt to perform at went from 1300-1600 yards in his prime to being in the range of 800-1200 yards after he turned 30.
Reggie Wayne's career has been a little different than Holt's. Wayne took longer to become a number one receiver, likely due to Marvin Harrison's entrenched role with the Colts. But then Wayne has also stayed productive at a later age than Holt did. Wayne had a career high in receptions at age 32. But his dropoff last year looked dramatic. Some amount of Wayne's drop in production was no doubt due to the loss of Peyton Manning, but Wayne also didn't look like he had the ability to separate last year.
For purposes of evaluating White, one thing that I think is worth paying attention to is each receiver's yards per catch. When receivers pass 30 years old and then end up down in the 11-13 yards per catch range, I do think it is a sign that they are having increasing difficulty getting open downfield, and they also aren't able to do as much with the ball in terms of yards after the catch. White is slipping into that 12-13 yards per catch range.
Welker is the most difficult player to find historical comparisons for. This is probably somewhat related to the same reason that Welker went undrafted after having a 3,000 receiving yard career at Texas Tech. Much of what NFL teams do is engage in pattern matching and Welker doesn't fit any particular pattern of success for NFL wide receivers. He is his own outlier.
Welker's 2011 season was a career year and finding comparables for it are almost impossible. Wide receivers who might be close statistically aren't close to Welker in size. Wide receivers who are close in size aren't close statistically. Marvin Harrison is somewhat close in size and statistics, but a quick glance at either receiver shows that they aren't very similar players. Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Brett Perriman had one season that was close to Welker's 2011, but the rest of Perriman's career wasn't close to Welker.
Welker may actually be a case where analysis of historical comparables leads us to say something that isn't really part of the conversation in fantasy football punditry. I don't know. We don't know any more after looking at a list of Welker comparable receivers because there really aren't any. Perhaps a reasonable method for forecasting Welker's 2012 season would be to look at the years that he's played in New England and then project a slight drop (not a dramatic drop) from the average of the production he usually compiles each year.
While the comparable players we've looked at haven't given us any concrete conclusions on when our subject players might see an age related drop in production, they have hopefully informed our sense that an age related drop becomes more likely each year that a player is in the league after 30. We have a range to expect a drop and that range is probably from 30 to 33, with a drop becoming increasingly likely each year. When you're drafting your fantasy team this year, perhaps a reasonable way to think about a potential age related decline for Andre Johnson, Roddy White and Wes Welker is this: "It probably won't happen this year, but it might."
I think there is another consideration that should also be added to this conversation. In many cases a top wide receiver is going to remain productive from a fantasy standpoint even as their value to their team might be declining. Older players can't get open as easily. They are hopefully accounting for loss of athleticism with better route running. But in many cases they are playing against defensive backs who are 10 years younger. Older players might require more targets to compile the same amount of production that they accounted for when they were younger. From a fantasy standpoint that is fine for us if we own that player. But from the standpoint of the team that they play on, it's less than ideal.
What can happen then is that the team can start looking at their other options. Consider that when New England cut Randy Moss loose in 2010, they did it amid a chorus of taunts from other teams that Moss had lost a step. While New England had largely stood up for Moss during that chorus of taunts, they were actually throwing the ball elsewhere. When Chad Ochocinco had what was, for him, a terrible season in 2008, Cincinnati had another option in T.J. Houshmandzadeh. When Marvin Harrison experienced his sharp decline, the Colts had another option in Reggie Wayne.
Perhaps a good question to ask regarding this year's older wide receivers is whether they might continue to get the ball even if they've lost a step. Basically, do their teams have any other options? On this count, Andre Johnson certainly seems to be in the best situation. Of the wide receivers we've looked at, he is the one who seems to be his team's only option. Roddy White is in the unfortunate situation of entering the later stages in his career while his team also has one of the NFL's freakish physical specimens in Julio Jones. It's not difficult at all to imagine that if White is not an efficient option for the Falcons, they could increasingly turn to Julio Jones. Wes Welker is in a situation that is not as clear as Andre Johnson, and not as muddy as Roddy White. While the Patriots now have a host of other options, their willingness to use the franchise tag on him speaks to their desire to utilize him this year. Also, while New England has the league's best tight end duo along with the newly added Brandon Lloyd, none fill the same role that Welker does. You could also probably convince me that Welker, who ran a 4.65 40 yard dash coming out of college, never required elite athleticism for his production and he might be the best suited to continue to be productive as his athleticism diminishes.
The last point that I might make here is that being drafted in the top 10 at a position in fantasy football is often a vote of confidence in a player's safety as an option. It's a sign we think they're low risk. But as players pass the age of 30, they are increasingly a higher risk. From 2007 to 2011, there were 34 wide receivers who were less than 30 years old and were also drafted in the top 10 at the position. Of those receivers, only five of them averaged less than nine standard fantasy points during the season they were drafted in the top 10 at wide receiver. But of the 16 wide receivers who were 30 or older, six of them scored less than nine fantasy points per game. You can think of nine fantasy points as being the "over/under" on whether you're going to be legitimately disappointed in your fantasy WR1.
Scoring Less Than Nine Fantasy Points Per Game (Top 10 ADP Among WRs)
30 or Older: 37.5%
Under 30: 14.7%
While we don't have any concrete evidence that any of the receivers we're looking at will fall off this year, it does look like the over 30 group of wide receivers lacks a basic property that we look for when drafting the top 10 at a fantasy position. They lack safety.
If I had to bet what kind of season each of these receivers are going to have, I would probably bet that they will have seasons close to their career averages, but slightly worse. But then there is also the risk that they might run into a wall that some players run into when they pass 30 years old. If that does happen, you'll be sick that you drafted them.