At What Age Do Wide Receivers Decline? (Fantasy Football 2020)
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 set the record straight. I’ll either debunk them as something someone made up one day that everyone believed to be true, or I’ll prove they’re right. 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?
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 13-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 1,080 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.
This is much different than the running back chart you’ll see tomorrow. No wide receiver has finished top-five in their age-21 season. Upside is clearly ramped up for wide receivers from age 21 all the way up to age 27, with an odd dip at age 28, then the biggest number of them all at age-29, as a whopping 11.6 percent of 29-year-old receivers have finished top-five, more than three percent higher than the next best mark.
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 from every age. This chart clearly shows that 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. 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 27-30 age range. Players who are age-32 and beyond this season are: Golden Tate, Emmanuel Sanders, and Julian Edelman. Players who are getting close to that mark: Julio Jones (31) and T.Y. Hilton (31).
WR1 Numbers (Top-12 Potential)
Now that we know a wide receiver essentially loses his elite upside when he turns 32, what about performing as a consistent WR1 for your fantasy team? It’s tough to get into elite territory, and I’m sure many would take WR1 production, right?
Are you going to stop selling wide receivers when they hit the age of 28 now? If this chart won’t do it, nothing will. From age 28 through 31, we see three of the top four percentages on the chart. It gets pretty ugly after the age-32 season, though, as just 4-of-64 receivers finished as top-12 receivers. And looking closer, it was just two receivers who accomplished that, though they both did it twice (Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Owens), and are both Hall of Famers.
There’s a steady arc in the percentages, and it’s clear that a wide receiver’s prime is from age-25 through age-32. There are sure to be outliers, but again, do not unload wide receivers who are 28- or 29-year-old studs. If there’s one reason to sell, it should be when a wide receiver is 30 or 31 years old and you’re not going to be competing for two years. Outside of that, veteran wide receivers are tremendous values.
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 and what should be considered “startable” years of a wide receiver’s life.
|Sample||Age||Top-24 Finish||Top-36 Finish|
We see a similar tier among top-24 production as we did in the top-12 tier, though it extends through age-34 on this chart. The biggest takeaway while looking at this chart is something many have forgotten after watching a great rookie class in 2019. Wide receivers often take time to develop, so it makes sense to see just 81-of-208 (38.9 percent) receivers finish as top-36 options in-between the ages of 21-23, then seeing that number spike to 44.7 percent in their age-24-25 seasons. This is a good time to remind everyone that JuJu Smith-Schuster is just 23 years old (will be 24 late this year).
What We Learned
Wide receivers don’t decline after 28 years old from a fantasy perspective. In fact, their prime might be in-between 29 and 31. Depending on what you want/need out of them, they really don’t decline until they’re 33 years old. Even then, you can likely get WR2 or WR3 production, as they have just as good of a shot as everyone 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.