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Fantasy Football: At What Age Does A Wide Receiver Decline? (2019)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 16, 2019

Contrary to public perception, a wide receiver’s decline doesn’t start in his late 20’s

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There are certain topics that come up throughout a fantasy owner’s life cycle that force him to question everything he’s heard. If you don’t know what I mean, I’m talking about a stereotype that’s associated with fantasy players in which you don’t particularly believe to be true.

Whenever I hear such stereotypes, I want to do my best to try and debunk them to prove whether they’re right, or if someone just made it up one day and everyone else believed it to be true. One of the biggest ones I’d questioned was the timeline in which a player declined. At what age do certain positions start falling off?

Read about the running backs here
Read about the tight ends here

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard wide receivers start to decline around the 28-year-old mark, and many in the dynasty industry think you should consider selling before the cliff. That’s where we’ll start today, the wide receiver position. To be clear, I’m not telling you a wide receiver’s body doesn’t start breaking down or fatiguing once he gets to a certain age (believe me, that starts before 28 years old), but it doesn’t mean they can’t produce more fantasy points per game with the experience they’ve gained over the years.

The only way to test whether this was true was to go through a large sample size of data. I’ve accumulated a 12-year sample size with only one requirement to be included. The wide receiver must have had 50 or more targets to be included in the sample, as this will eliminate players who never get a shot at a young age, and those who fizzled out of the league after a few years. By doing that, we’re making it a stronger study, though it’s important to note that if we included everyone, the numbers would strongly help the older wide receivers who stuck around in the league, but we wanted to make this an even playing field. After removing the players with less than 50 targets, we’re left with a total of exactly 1,000 individual seasons, more than enough for a conclusion.

Upside (Top-Five Potential)

When drafting a player in the early rounds, you want to ensure they can not only live up to their draft position, but hopefully exceed it. Is there a player falling down draft boards due to his age and perceived drop-off? This chart identifies when a player may lose some of that elite potential.

Sample Age Top-5 Finish
19 21 0.00%
60 22 5.00%
111 23 4.50%
121 24 5.79%
124 25 6.45%
120 26 7.50%
96 27 8.33%
94 28 5.32%
65 29 12.31%
58 30 5.17%
41 31 7.32%
31 32 3.23%
20 33 0.00%
16 34 6.25%
11 35 0.00%
11 36 0.00%
2 37 0.00%

 

Looking at this chart, it’s clear that a wide receiver doesn’t fall off at the age of 28. In fact, he hits his fantasy prime at the age of 29. Some will say that it’s skewed results due to the players who are still playing at that age are likely top-notch, but you mustn’t forget that we removed all players with less than 50 targets. A wide receiver holds tons of value through his age 31 season, though that’s where we start to see a drop-off in elite production.

Once a receiver turns 32, his elite fantasy days are likely over, as there’s been just 2-of-91 players who’ve been able to finish top-five after turning 32 years of age. Meanwhile, we’ve still yet to see a 21-year-old wide receiver finish top-five, though that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We see a clear escalator in potential from 22 through 29, with the prime years from 27 to 31.

If there’s someone in your dynasty league who wants to sell a wide receiver because he’s “rebuilding,” take advantage and buy wide receivers in the 27-31 range. If you have a wide receiver who’s going to be 32, it’s time to lower your expectations. Some prominent players who have already hit that mark or will in 2019 include: Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, Julian Edelman, and Larry Fitzgerald. Some players who are getting close to that mark in 2019 include: Julio Jones (30), T.Y. Hilton (30), Antonio Brown (31), Golden Tate (31), and A.J. Green (31).

WR1 Numbers (Top-12 Potential)

Now that we know a wide receiver loses his elite upside at the age of 32, what about performing as a consistent WR1 for your fantasy team?

Sample Age Top-12 Finish
19 21 5.26%
60 22 11.67%
111 23 13.51%
121 24 14.88%
124 25 16.94%
120 26 14.17%
96 27 15.63%
94 28 15.96%
65 29 20.00%
58 30 12.07%
41 31 17.07%
31 32 16.13%
20 33 0.00%
16 34 12.50%
11 35 9.09%
11 36 0.00%
2 37 0.00%

 

This chart looks like more of the same, though you do get one more year of WR1-type production, as the age of 32 doesn’t have as steep falloff. In fact, age 32 is the fourth-highest mark on the chart, though it gets really ugly after that. Just 3-of-60 (5.0 percent) wide receivers who were 33 or older posted a WR1 season. This is something you likely knew, as teams typically draft another wide receiver to potentially take over for their aging star, which lowers their target potential and upside. It’s also important to note that those three individual seasons came from just two players, who both happen to be Hall of Famers (Larry Fitzgerald in 2017 and Terrell Owens in 2007, 2008).

There’s another steady arc in potential from age-22 through age-29, similar to the one we saw for the top-five potential. It’s clear that wide receivers take some time to develop and have a steady curve that levels out a bit from 29 to 32 but have a steep drop-off after that. If you have a few wide receivers who are 30 or 31 years of age and aren’t going to be contending this year, it’s probably best to unload them while their value is still in the WR1 range.

WR2/WR3 Numbers (Top-24 and Top-36)

Some fantasy owners want safety on their roster, even if they know the player may not offer WR1-type upside. Maybe they went RB-heavy in the first few rounds and want to choose some high-floor options at wide receiver. This chart should help identify which players offer the most stability to fantasy rosters.

Sample Age Top-24 Finish Top-36 Finish
19 21 26.32% 36.84%
60 22 30.00% 38.33%
111 23 23.42% 37.84%
121 24 30.58% 45.45%
124 25 29.84% 45.97%
120 26 26.67% 39.17%
96 27 29.17% 44.79%
94 28 30.85% 43.62%
65 29 38.46% 46.15%
58 30 22.41% 44.83%
41 31 29.27% 53.66%
31 32 25.81% 41.94%
20 33 30.00% 45.00%
16 34 43.75% 50.00%
11 35 27.27% 45.45%
11 36 9.09% 36.36%
2 37 50.00% 50.00%

 

This is what you should consider the “startable” years of a wide receiver’s life. There’s obviously a catch to this, as only the best-of-the-best are playing beyond 30 years old, but it’s still reassuring to know guys like Julian Edelman and Larry Fitzgerald have roughly a 50/50 shot at finishing as a startable fantasy option. Despite recency bias saying that rookie wide receivers can’t produce, they absolutely can, as 23-of-79 players at the age of 22 or under finished as top-24 receivers.

What We Learned

It all comes back to the reason I wanted to do this article in the first place. Everyone told me that wide receivers decline around 28 or 29 years old, which turned out to be absolutely not true. If anything, his prime fantasy years may still be ahead of him. Sure, almost all wide receivers lose upside once they hit 32 years old, but they still have just as good of a shot at WR2 production as anyone else. If you’re in a dynasty league and nobody wants those players, take advantage of that. 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.

Read about the running backs here
Read about the tight ends here


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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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