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“I Don’t Hate Old Wide Receivers” starring Keyshawn Johnson

I don’t hate old wide receivers.

I do, however, have different expectations for them.

After what seems like the ten millionth twitter debate I’ve had about wide receiver age, I thought it was necessary to clear up a couple things.

1) Being an older prospect doesn’t mean a receiver can’t have a good NFL career.

A major source of confusion related to my age-adjusted work is that people seem to think that “if a player plays his final college season at age 23, Jon Moore automatically thinks he can’t be good in the NFL.” That is a false statement.

Similarly, people seem to think that “Jon Moore always prefers younger prospects to older prospects”. That is also a false statement.

What I do prefer is when receivers perform above their age expectation. To help explain this, I’m going to use a visual representation, since that paints a clearer picture. For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to call upon a recent twitter conversation with my friend Sigmund Bloom, posited the following criticism: “…age stuff is questionable because Keyshawn Johnson, Marvin Harrison, Joey Galloway and Roddy White were all 24 year old rookies and they’ve had good careers.” I’m really glad he said this because it lends some important insight into how we can add context to the age discussion.

Here is a look at the college careers of those four players, plotted against the college careers of NFL receivers who had 150+ point fantasy seasons since 2005. This is the same age curve I use to examine NFL Draft prospects.

Old guys are good too trajectory_dot

Notice that, compared to the trendline for 150 point fantasy receivers, Keyshawn and Marvin Harrison were comfortably above their age-expectation in their final two seasons. Similarly, Joey Galloway and Roddy White each had one season well above the trendline. That is to say that, at this late stage of their college career, they were playing at a level that would indicate they could become WR1 types in the NFL.

Without getting into the math, I have a way of rolling age and performance into one number. Here is how these “old guys I hate” score in the on-field component of my system:

  • Marvin Harrison – 90th percentile
  • Joey Galloway – 81st percentile
  • Roddy White – 76th percentile
  • Keyshawn Johnson – 75th percentile

More important than the percentile is the fact that, with all these guys, despite their older age, they score quite well in my system.

2) The performance expectations vary for different players based on their age.

Being old, by itself, isn’t a bad thing. It’s bad when an older player’s production isn’t much better than a young player. Let’s pretend for a minute that Keyshawn Johnson, in his final season (age 23.4) had only 30 percent market share of receiving yards–scroll back up and find the black dot on the previous graph, which represents this hypothetical data point (23.4 and 30). Got it? As you can see, that kind of performance at Keyshawn’s “advanced age” would be clearly below the trendline. That would be bad.

On the other hand, check out this graph, which shows the most productive 21 year old receivers in NFL history and what they did in their college careers. Note that Mike Evans, in his final college season, had almost exactly 30 percent market share, but that data point falls right on the trendline (20.4 and 30) compared to the Keyshawn “black dot data point” which fell well below the line.

Best 21 yo NFL WR trajectory

This is what I mean when I say that the expectation is different based on age. Both the data points in question are at 30 percent market share, but because of a three year difference in age, those performances mean very different things. That is to say, being old isn’t automatically a bad thing and being young isn’t automatically a good thing; what’s important is how a player performs relatives to his age expectation (a.k.a. the trendline).

As an example of what an unfavorable prospect’s trajectory would look like, I’m adding one more graph of top 100 picks who looked underwhelming in my system; all but one have gone on to have underwhelming NFL careers. Oh, and I’m adding Kenbrell Thompkins too because I took so much flack for hating on him during the 2013 preseason.

Underwhelming old guys

Okay, so Kelvin Benjamin had some redeeming value as the fourth most-targeted receiver of 2014, but after that are you really excited about any of these guys who were top 100 picks? Cordarrelle Patterson? Bueller?

Again, the ages of the players isn’t what’s important; the critical thing is how they fare from an age-production perspective. As a rule of thumb, guys should be around these threshold at these ages:

  • Age 20 – 30 percent market share of receiving yards or more
  • Age 21 – 35 percent
  • Age 22 – 40 percent
  • Age 23 – 45 percent

Closing thoughts

I hope this sheds some light on the idea of how age factors into the equation. To be perfectly clear, it’s not a fool-proof paradigm, but it is helpful in understanding prospect development. As you peruse the 2015 NFL Draft Age Database, keep this article in mind and remember that age doesn’t predict success, it just helps contextualize performance.

If you’re interested by this concept of prospect age and want to learn more, shoot me an email at TheCFX@gmail.com. I’m currently researching age-adjusted production for offensive and defensive players with the goal of publishing an ebook around March 15. Shoot me an email and I’ll let you know when it’s ready for your enjoyment.


Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a cohost of Rotoviz Radio – A Fantasy Football Podcast.  Continue this conversation with him on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.

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