Fantasy Football: At What Age Does A Wide Receiver Decline?

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Apr 11, 2017

We’ve always been told that a wide receiver’s decline starts in his late 20’s. Should you be selling Julio Jones just because he’s 28 years old?

We talked about what a dynasty draft pick is actually worth last week (if you missed it, read it here), so it’s only natural that we continue along the dynasty arena and discuss when it’s time to move on from a player. It’s the question that we all wish we had answers to – at what age does a player drop off in production?

After going through the research process, I can tell you that it varies by position, so this mini-series will break down wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends individually. While quarterbacks have their own arc, it’s a lot more difficult to show their decline, because if a quarterback is still starting in the league at age 35, he’s probably pretty good. Therefore, the numbers would be heavily skewed towards older players, when all it does is take a smaller sample size. You do have those issues with other positions as well, but not nearly as much as the scarce quarterback position (only 32 starting spots available).

Today we’ll be starting with the wide receiver position, which is the one that there are likely the most questions about. To this point in time, most generally accept the idea that wide receivers begin their decline after the age-27 range, making them prime “sell” candidates. Some players who’ll be entering their age-28 season this year include T.Y. Hilton, Julio Jones, Terrelle Pryor, and Rishard Matthews, so should you be concerned?

I’ve gone back through the last 10 years, looking at players of all ages, with just one requirement to be included in the sample. All the players included needed to see at least 50 targets in that particular season, because those who didn’t likely aren’t fantasy relevant. This became a sample size of 831 individual player seasons, and while some ages have more players than others, it’s a solid sample size.

Upside (Top-Five Potential)

Whatever your poison is when drafting or determining who you’d like to keep on your dynasty team, you want a player who can increase his stock the following year with top-five upside. For that reason, the chart below should give you an idea as to when a wide receivers upside disappears and when it peaks.

Players Age Top-5 Finish
15 AGE 21 0.0%
53 AGE 22 5.7%
94 AGE 23 4.3%
93 AGE 24 6.5%
98 AGE 25 6.1%
100 AGE 26 7.0%
83 AGE 27 8.4%
77 AGE 28 6.5%
53 AGE 29 11.3%
49 AGE 30 4.1%
34 AGE 31 8.8%
26 AGE 32 3.8%
18 AGE 33 0.0%
15 AGE 34 6.7%
10 AGE 35 0.0%
11 AGE 36 0.0%
2 AGE 37 0.0%

As you can see, the prime age for a receiver to finish top-five at his position is at 29 years of age. Naturally, only some of the best receivers in the game last into their thirties and see 50 targets in a season, so when you notice that just two of 71 wide receivers from age-32 and on have finished top-five in fantasy, it shouldn’t shock you. Some prominent players who’ve reached this range as we head into 2017 include: Jordy Nelson, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin.

It appears that the prime age range for a wide receiver is from age-27 to age-31, where 23 of 296 players, or 7.7 percent of them finished top-five. As for how old they need to be in order to hit their prime, there isn’t much of a ramp-up with wide receivers, as some catch on as early as age-22, but never earlier than that.

Bottom line, you want to try and move your wide receivers before they hit the age-32 cliff. There are some who still view the aforementioned Nelson as a top-15 dynasty wide receiver, but I’d caution against that, and would try to move him myself.

WR1 Numbers

Now that we know once a player reaches the age of 32, his upside is almost non-existent, but what about his functionality as a top-12 guy (WR1)?

Players Age Top-12 Finish
15 AGE 21 6.7%
53 AGE 22 11.3%
94 AGE 23 14.9%
93 AGE 24 16.1%
98 AGE 25 15.3%
100 AGE 26 13.0%
83 AGE 27 15.7%
77 AGE 28 16.9%
53 AGE 29 18.9%
49 AGE 30 12.2%
34 AGE 31 20.6%
26 AGE 32 19.2%
18 AGE 33 0.0%
15 AGE 34 6.7%
10 AGE 35 10.0%
11 AGE 36 0.0%
2 AGE 37 0.0%

Although 32-year old wide receivers lack massive upside, you can see that they posted the second-highest WR1 percentage, giving you a trade window for someone like Nelson, as he can still provide you some value before eventually tailing off like some of the greats before him have. Again, age-33 is the end for a wide receivers WR1 days, as just two of 56 wide receivers were able to finish as a WR1. It’s been a long, fun run for Brandon Marshall, but his drop-off already started in his age-32 season. It’s time to say goodbye to Mr. Marshall.

We see a similar trend to the upside numbers with WR1 potential, though the prime age range looks to be age-28 through age-32, which goes against the conventional wisdom that a wide receiver tails off after the age of 27. Some notable players entering their prime (Age-28 or Age-29) for WR1 numbers include: T.Y Hilton, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, and Jeremy Maclin.

WR2 and WR3 Numbers

Players Age WR2 Finish WR3 Finish
15 AGE 21 26.7% 40.0%
53 AGE 22 32.1% 39.6%
94 AGE 23 25.5% 39.4%
93 AGE 24 28.0% 44.1%
98 AGE 25 27.6% 40.8%
100 AGE 26 26.0% 41.0%
83 AGE 27 30.1% 45.8%
77 AGE 28 33.8% 46.8%
53 AGE 29 35.8% 41.5%
49 AGE 30 22.4% 44.9%
34 AGE 31 32.4% 61.8%
26 AGE 32 26.9% 42.3%
18 AGE 33 33.3% 50.0%
15 AGE 34 40.0% 46.7%
10 AGE 35 30.0% 40.0%
11 AGE 36 9.1% 36.4%
2 AGE 37 50.0% 50.0%

This is the chart that explains the most, as it shows you how long a wide receiver can provide at least “startable years.” You can clearly see a ramp up in this chart for the younger wide receivers, as those from age-21 to age-26 averaged WR2 numbers just 27.3 percent of the time, while those who were age-27 and older posted WR2 numbers 30.7 percent of the time. There are obviously players that fizzle out of the league by the time they’re 30 years old, which is why you see the sample size fall when you get to that range. But as suspected, those who hang around into their thirties are often able to post top-24 or top-36 numbers, despite their lack in upside.

What We learned

Conventional wisdom has always told us that a wide receiver starts his decline around age-27 or age-28, but if this article has taught you anything, it should be that their prime fantasy football years are still ahead of them. Again, the game we play doesn’t care about whether or not a player is in his prime physical shape, because if it doesn’t equal fantasy points, it doesn’t matter to you, the fantasy player. Don’t sell your stud wide receiver when he’s 27, 28, or even 29 years old, instead wait until he posts another solid year at age-31, and then sell him.

More Analysis
At what age do RBs decline?
At what age do TEs decline?

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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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