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Age of the Declining Receiver


In my last article I broke down the running back situation for players that will be 30 or older this season. In this article I take a look at at the wide receiver position to see at what age the decline begins.

We all know that rookie wide receivers take time to develop, but there are some that pick up the offense faster than others. T.Y. Hilton last season had the best fantasy season of all rookie wideouts, finishing 28th overall among wide receivers. Still, you have to go back as far as 2003 to find a rookie that finished in the top-10 when Anquan Boldin finished third that season. So those expecting Tavon Austin to lead their team to a championship might want to curb their expectations.

We believe that a receiver’s breakout season happens in their third year in the league. Last season’s third-year receivers that finished in the top-10 were Dez Bryant (third among wide receivers), Demaryius Thomas (fifth among wide receivers) and Eric Decker (ninth among wide receivers). Victor Cruz, who was also in year three, finished 14th among wideouts.

35-Year-Old and Older Wide Receivers

So when is the big dropoff? It’s not always easy to tell like it is with running backs. Last season we saw Reggie Wayne at age 34 finish eighth among wide receivers. Every other player 35 years or older in 2012 failed to make the top-20.

In the last 10 years, the best season any player 35 or older has had is 2002 when Jerry Rice posted 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns. Notably, he finished ninth among fantasy wide receivers that season. Terrell Owens in 2008 and Rod Smith in 2005 are the only other receivers aged 35 or older that finished in the top-15 at wide receiver.

With Donald Driver, Brandon Stokley and Randy Moss not likely to play this season, Reggie Wayne and Plaxico Burress are the only receivers that are 35 or older. Wayne put up good numbers last year, catching 106 passes for 1,355 receiving yards and six touchdowns. There’s a chance that he could play well this season as T.Y. Hilton improves and Andrew Luck develops in year two. The question is, how much of a dropoff will Wayne have this year? Burress was a non-factor last season and posted just three catches with one touchdown in the final game of the year. He is currently buried in the depth chart behind Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Jerricho Cotchery. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got cut at the end of training camp.

31-34 Year-Old Wide Receivers

The next group consist of 22 players lead by Andre Johnson, Wes Welker, Roddy White and Steve Smith. No other receiver in this group finished in the top-20. Smith will be 34 this season while Johnson, Welker and White will be 32. Many predicted that Johnson would decline steeply before last season but he finished ahead of Welker and White for sixth among wide receivers. I think Johnson still has something left and will make a good draft day value as I can see people reaching for Victor Cruz or Jordy Nelson over Johnson. Welker will be going from one good quarterback to another. That doesn’t happen very often. With teams focused on Demaryius Thomas, Welker could see a ton of looks. The Atlanta Falcons offense looks to be as good as last season so I expect White to finish around 10th among wide receivers.

If I had to pick one name from this group that would decline significantly, it would have to be Steve Smith. Smith posted less receiving yards last year then he did in Cam Newton’s rookie season and he caught just four touchdowns. Surprisingly, Smith saw more targets then in 2011 and still had a decline in numbers. The rest of the receiving group will be of little help to Smith. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon don’t strike fear into defenses, and Smith will have a tougher time getting open.  

Unless you can grab Smith in the mid-to-late rounds, you’re probably better off passing on him. The list of names of other players in this group are Anquan Boldin, Santana Moss, Nate Burleson, Malcom Floyd and Brandon Lloyd (if he gets signed).

26-30 Year-Old Wide Receivers

The final group we are going to look at are players between the ages of 26-30. There are about 72 players in this group and some might not make a team this year because their play has already declined. I was surprised to find that out of the 72 names on the list, only six players finished in the top-20 among receivers. After No. 1 Calvin Johnson and No. 2 Brandon Marshall, only Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson, Victor Cruz and James Jones finished in the top-20. Players that you would expect to rank higher are players such as Larry Fitzgerald, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace.

A closer look at the numbers shows that while six of the top-20 were in this age group, five of the top-20 were players 30 or older and players that were 25 years or younger accounted for nine of the top-20.

If you expand those rankings to include all receivers in the top-50, Reggie Wayne is still the only receiver in this group that made the top-50 for those older than 35. The age group of 31-34 added just four players for a total of eight receivers in the top-50. For the 26-30 group, an additional eight players are added for a total of 14 receivers in the top-50. Receivers in the group of 25 years or younger have 14 receivers included in the top-50 for a total of 23 of the top-50. That is almost half of the receivers in the top-50.

In conclusion, you always want to be cautious of players that are getting older at the skill positions. A player’s elite skills can diminish at any point of their career but you can expect a significant drop from players after age 30. Thirty-seven of the top-50 players were 30 years or younger, with 23 of those players being 25 or younger.

One of the worst things in fantasy football is to draft a player that has played at a high level only to dropoff considerably. For example, Marvin Harrison was a stud wide receiver from 1999 until 2005. He posted 1,100 yards or better in each of those seasons with double-digit touchdowns. Then, in 2007, he played just five games, and in 2008, his last season, he posted just 636 yards and five touchdowns.

This will help me in preparing for my draft by allowing me to identify those few receivers that are older while grabbing the younger players that have more upside and will provide depth.

Good luck in your draft preparation.

Thanks for reading.

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