This article is a guest post by Frank DuPont. You can follow him on Twitter here. You can also check out his new book at this link.
Are This Year's Top Wide Receivers Risky Because They're Old?
A quick check of wide receiver ADP reveals that several of the top wide receivers this year are getting up there in age. Consider that Andre Johnson, Roddy White, and Wes Welker will all be 31 at some point during the upcoming season and they're all being drafted in the top 10 among wide receivers. The age of 31 may not seem that old, but in the past five years only 11 times have WRs been 31 or older while also being drafted among the top 10 players at that position. Of those 11 times, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens account for about 5 of those instances.
The relationship that age has to your fantasy draft isn’t especially clear cut. We know that wide receivers probably peak in their abilities when they're in their mid-20s. But from that point until the receiver hits 33 or 34, the dropoff isn't dramatic. A wide receiver might lose 20% of his per game production in that time. Consider that a wide receiver that experienced a peak season of 15 standard fantasy points per game could reasonably still be expected to score perhaps 12 fantasy points per game in their 30s. Also, being over 30 didn’t prevent Moss or Owens from having career years in 2007 and 2005 respectively.
Things become a little messier when you consider that the 20% that I mention above is just an average. Each player is probably going to age a little bit differently and their decline might not be a straight line.
For instance, Marvin Harrison was 35 when he was the third wide receiver off the board in 2007. He was coming off a 1300 yard, 12 touchdown season. Harrison only appeared in 5 games in 2007 and over the entire rest of his career he only had 700 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Despite being the second wide receiver to come off draft boards in 2010, Moss seemed to hit something of a wall at 33 years old. He played on three NFL teams that year and probably hit your waiver wire at some point in the season.
Chad Ochocinco was chosen as the ninth wide receiver in fantasy drafts in 2008 when he was 30 years old. Ochocinco compiled just over 500 yards that year, breaking his run of 6 consecutive seasons where he had at least 1100 yards. He would have something of a bounce back season in 2010, although his production that year occurred mostly in just a few big games.
The point in mentioning these seasons where perceived top 10 players at their position fell off is to illustrate that sometimes the previous season doesn’t give us any clue that the drop is coming. It’s also true that age can catch up to even the best players. Perhaps the best way to assess the risk of whether this year’s crop of older receivers might have some downside risk is by looking at players that they might be similar to and see if those similar players stayed productive into their 30s.
Andre Johnson is similar on a number of levels to three wide receivers from the recent past. Keyshawn Johnson, Jimmy Smith (JAX), and Michael Irvin are all similar to Johnson on various measures. They are all big receivers. Irvin is the smallest of the group and he was regarded as a big receiver for his era. Also, as we'll see in the following tables, they are also all comparable in terms of their production. First let’s look at Andre Johnson from age 25 to present:
Andre Johnson, Age 25 -- Present
Age 25, 16 Games, 103 Receptions, 1147 Yards, 11.1 Y/R, 5 TD
Age 26, 9 Games, 60 Receptions, 851 Yards, 14.2 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 27, 16 Games, 115 Receptions, 1575 Yards, 13.7 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 28, 16 Games, 101 Receptions, 1569 Yards, 15.5 Y/R, 9 TD
Age 29, 13 Games, 86 Receptions, 1216 Yards, 14.1 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 30, 7 Games, 33 Receptions, 492 Yards, 14.9 Y/R, 2 TD
Then, here are the stats for Michael Irvin, Keyshawn Johnson, and Jimmy Smith.
Michael Irvin, Age 25 -- End of Career
Age 25, 16 Games, 93 Receptions, 1523 Yards, 16.4 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 26, 16 Games, 78 Receptions, 1396 Yards, 17.9 Y/R, 7 TD
Age 27, 16 Games, 88 Receptions, 1330 Yards, 15.1 Y/R, 7 TD
Age 28, 16 Games, 79 Receptions, 1241 Yards, 15.7 Y/R, 6 TD
Age 29, 16 Games, 111 Receptions, 1603 Yards, 14.4 Y/R, 10 TD
Age 30, 11 Games, 64 Receptions, 962 Yards, 15 Y/R, 2 TD
Age 31, 16 Games, 75 Receptions, 1180 Yards, 15.7 Y/R, 9 TD
Age 32, 16 Games, 74 Receptions, 1057 Yards, 14.3 Y/R, 1 TD
Age 33, 4 Games, 10 Receptions, 167 Yards, 16.7 Y/R, 3 TD
Keyshawn Johnson, Age 25 -- End of Career
Age 25, 16 Games, 70 Receptions, 963 Yards, 13.8 Y/R, 5 TD
Age 26, 16 Games, 83 Receptions, 1131 Yards, 13.6 Y/R, 10 TD
Age 27, 16 Games, 89 Receptions, 1170 Yards, 13.1 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 28, 16 Games, 71 Receptions, 874 Yards, 12.3 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 29, 15 Games, 106 Receptions, 1266 Yards, 11.9 Y/R, 1 TD
Age 30, 16 Games, 76 Receptions, 1088 Yards, 14.3 Y/R, 5 TD
Age 31, 10 Games, 45 Receptions, 600 Yards, 13.3 Y/R, 3 TD
Age 32, 16 Games, 70 Receptions, 981 Yards, 14 Y/R, 6 TD
Age 33, 16 Games, 71 Receptions, 839 Yards, 11.8 Y/R, 6 TD
Age 34, 16 Games, 70 Receptions, 815 Yards, 11.6 Y/R, 4 TD
Jimmy Smith, Age 25 -- End of Career
Age 26, 16 Games, 22 Receptions, 288 Yards, 13.1 Y/R, 3 TD
Age 27, 16 Games, 83 Receptions, 1244 Yards, 15 Y/R, 7 TD
Age 28, 16 Games, 82 Receptions, 1324 Yards, 16.1 Y/R, 4 TD
Age 29, 16 Games, 78 Receptions, 1182 Yards, 15.2 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 30, 16 Games, 116 Receptions, 1636 Yards, 14.1 Y/R, 6 TD
Age 31, 15 Games, 91 Receptions, 1213 Yards, 13.3 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 32, 16 Games, 112 Receptions, 1373 Yards, 12.3 Y/R, 8 TD
Age 33, 16 Games, 80 Receptions, 1027 Yards, 12.8 Y/R, 7 TD
Age 34, 12 Games, 54 Receptions, 805 Yards, 14.9 Y/R, 4 TD
Age 35, 16 Games, 74 Receptions, 1172 Yards, 15.8 Y/R, 6 TD
Age 36, 16 Games, 70 Receptions, 1023 Yards, 14.6 Y/R, 6 TD
Does a review of the careers of these comparable players offer any insight into what we might expect from Andre Johnson?
First, Jimmy Smith remained productive until he left the NFL. While you can see that Smith had his last season of better than 1200 yards at age 32, he still had three more 1,000 yard seasons before he retired. But it's worth noting that Smith's 2001 (age 32) season was the last one that he could be reasonably described as being the equivalent of a fantasy WR1.
Keyshawn Johnson is similar to Andre Johnson, but of the comparison group, Keyshawn's career is easily the worst. However, before we dismiss the comparison between Keyshawn and Andre Johnson, it's useful to remember that Keyshawn really was regarded as a top talent. He was the number one overall pick in his draft class. When he was traded from the Jets to the Buccaneers he garnered two first round picks in the trade. He no doubt suffered at least in part from being on Tampa Bay teams that weren't very good at throwing the ball. During the 2000 season Keyshawn caught just under 900 yards receiving, although his yardage was about 31% of the Tampa Bay total that year. However, for our purposes we are primarily interested in the point where Keyshawn dropped off in the level of production that he had established earlier in his career.
Keyshawn actually never experienced a dramatic fall off. He did have one season that was shortened due to his feud with Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden. But otherwise Keyshawn's falloff was gradual. He went from being an 1100 yard, 8 touchdown type receiver to gradually providing maybe 80 or 90% of that production. Probably the only real line of demarcation that exists in Keyshawn's stat line is that after age 32 he went from averaging 13 yards per reception to about 11 yards per reception.
Finally, Irvin is also a good comparison for Johnson. Like Johnson, Irvin was the undisputed number one receiving option on his team for most of his career. In terms of Irvin's decline as a player, the 1997 season is probably the last time that Irvin was in the top 10 in the NFL at the position. He ranked in the top 10 in both yards and touchdowns that year. During the 1998 season, when Irvin was 32 years old, he caught just one touchdown.