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At What Age Do Wide Receivers Decline? (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 14, 2021

Don’t give up on Julio Jones just yet, dynasty managers

There are things you’re told when you start playing fantasy football that you believe to be true. I mean, why would anyone want to lie to you? One of those things was the age that fantasy players stop producing. What would they have to gain by telling you a player falls off a cliff at a certain age?

When I became a full-time analyst and had time to research things like this, I wanted to give you concrete answers. When does a fantasy player stop producing like an elite option? When does he stop offering top-12 upside? Top-24? You’ve stumbled upon the correct article.

We’ll go position-by-position to answer that question, as it varies. Today, we’ll talk about the wide receiver position. 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 14-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. After removing the players with less than 50 targets, we’re left with a total of 1,168 individual seasons, more than enough for a conclusion.

Here are the links to the study on other positions:
Running Backs
Tight Ends

Upside (Top-Five Potential)

When drafting a wide receiver 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
26 21 0.0%
72 22 4.2%
131 23 4.6%
138 24 5.1%
145 25 5.5%
148 26 8.8%
123 27 8.1%
101 28 6.9%
69 29 11.6%
66 30 6.1%
45 31 6.7%
36 32 2.8%
22 33 0.0%
18 34 5.6%
12 35 0.0%
13 36 0.0%
3 37 0.0%

 

This doesn’t look anything like the running back chart. No wide receiver has finished top-five in their age-21 season. It would appear age doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to wide receivers, though we do see the number ramp up from their age-21 to age-26 season, highlighting when most are at the tail end of their rookie contract. And what do you know? Of the 69 wide receivers to play at age 29, we’ve watched 11.6 percent of them finish as a top-five fantasy option, the highest mark on the chart, putting the idea that wide receivers fall off at age 28 to bed.

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. The idea is that if you give a 24-year-old and a 31-year-old the same number of targets, we want to know who’s more likely to produce (it’s the 31-year-old). 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, as that’s arguably their prime. Players who are age-32 and beyond this season are: Julio Jones (32), T.Y. Hilton (32), Antonio Brown (33), A.J. Green (33), and Emmanuel Sanders (34).

WR1 Numbers (Top-12 Upside)

Now that we know most wide receivers lose elite upside when they turn 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?

Sample Age Top-12 Finish
26 21 7.7%
72 22 9.7%
131 23 13.7%
138 24 13.0%
145 25 15.2%
148 26 16.9%
123 27 17.1%
101 28 16.8%
69 29 18.8%
66 30 13.6%
45 31 15.6%
36 32 13.9%
22 33 4.5%
18 34 11.1%
12 35 8.3%
13 36 0.0%
3 37 0.0%

 

Please tell me you’re going to stop selling wide receivers when they hit the age of 28 now. If this chart won’t convince you, nothing will. Wide receivers are in their prime fantasy years from age-25 through age-32, according to this chart. It gets really ugly after that, though, as just 4-of-68 wide receivers who played at age-33 and beyond have finished as a top-12 option. Upon looking closer, it was just two receivers who accomplished that; 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
26 21 26.9% 38.5%
72 22 29.2% 40.3%
131 23 24.4% 38.9%
138 24 29.0% 44.2%
145 25 27.6% 43.4%
148 26 29.1% 41.2%
123 27 31.7% 46.3%
101 28 32.7% 45.5%
69 29 37.7% 46.4%
66 30 24.2% 45.5%
45 31 26.7% 51.1%
36 32 22.2% 38.9%
22 33 31.8% 45.5%
18 34 38.9% 44.4%
12 35 25.0% 41.7%
13 36 7.7% 30.8%
3 37 33.3% 33.3%

 

For those who suggest Julio Jones is worth just WR3/4 prices in dynasty, I suggest you stop thinking that now. In dynasty, you should be playing with a three-year window in mind, and if this chart highlights anything, it’s that he’ll have another three years of top-24 production. It’s a smaller sample size, sure, but seeing 34-year-olds posting top-24 numbers 38.9 percent of the time, the highest mark on the chart, it gives the older guys hope.

It’s easy to forget that wide receivers take time to develop after watching guys like A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and Justin Jefferson the last couple years, but this chart is your friendly reminder that wide receivers typically take time to develop.

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 or 34 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.


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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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