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How Old is Too Old? Calvin Johnson and the Significance of Age in Overall Production

LeVeon Bell

If you’ve been paying attention to the fantasy football and NFL draft chatter on twitter, you probably have gathered that player age is going to be the hot button, similar to WR size a year ago.

For more on age significance and declination on RotoViz:

Amari Cooper and the 2015 NFL Draft Age Database

Forever Young: Age is a Significant Predictor of NFL Draft Position

Keenan Allen, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Why Breakout Age is the Skeleton Key

The Phenom Index: A Breakthrough in Wide Receiver Evaluation for the NFL Draft

Further to the Issue of Age and QB Prospects

Unlike the size debate, there’s a fairly firm understanding that even the best NFL players see their production decline over time. The game is visceral and taxing physically. Similar to your vehicle, no matter how well you take care it, eventually it will break down. The other component to age that is unlike the size discussion, the NFL is keen on this as well. Being keen on this idea likely has more to do with the process of eliminating older players (like cars) that are likely to break down, but older skill players simply make up a small portion of rostered players in the league.

rosters

 

In 2014, 87.4 percent of all backs and pass catchers were under the age of 30. Whereas “big wide receivers” still make up the smaller portion of the pie in the receiver landscape, age is constantly getting squeezed downhill. Whether due to physical breakdown, performance, contractual obligations or all of the above, NFL skill positions are filled with youth regularly. That isn’t a revelation, but at least we have visual representation as we look at age declination in overall performance. There aren’t going to be a lot of strong producers that are old because they simply aren’t being rostered. That in itself has bearing.

I sent these out as a series a tweets yesterday, and I’ll throw a few bullet points in, but the goal is just to place this data as a reference point. This is descriptive data with some predictive elements, so here’s the breakdown of the top PPR fantasy scoring positions by each position since the NFL merger.

Running Backs

RBSCORING

  • A lot of age declination data has been done in the past on running backs, so this no surprise. If you’re interested in a breakdown point per game style throughout the decades, Austin Lee did a chart illustrating them for Pro Football Focus. The reason I’m going away from the game by game production is I personally feel like missed time is to be expected as careers move on and in the end, overall production is what’s counted.
  • 82.6 percent of all top 36 scoring seasons (1,338 of 1,620) have come at age 28 or younger. That number jumps up to 86.3 percent when looking at the top 12 scoring backs from each season. 2014 was no exception as 10 of the top 12 backs this past season were 28 or younger, 20 of the top 24 and 28 of the top 36.
  • The average number of backs per season at age 30 or older is 3.8 in the top 36, 2.2 in the top 24 and just 0.9 in the top 12. Only Fred Jackson (33) and Frank Gore (31) were over 30 this past season and finished inside the top 24. Players who will be 30 next season are Justin Forsett, Matt Forte and Rashad Jennings. You may want to make a play for Lorenzo Taliaferro, Ka’Deem Carey and Andre Williams if you believe those clubs don’t make significant additions this offseason.
  • As a whole, the entire position as it lays out today is about to undergo a total upheaval. With so many of the current producers being on the downslope of the age trend, and so many young rookies funneling into the position this draft, it could be a great time to get out ahead on many of those producers and stock up on as much youth as possible. Not all will hit, but filling your basket with as many eggs as you can is the optimal approach heading into this spring.

Wide Receivers

wrscoring

  • The slope for secondary and third receiver production drops evenly, but the elite scorers fight off age declination to a higher degree. The main pocket to strike in acquiring age that is paired with talent is 23-29 as that makes up 75 percent (405 of 540) of the top 12 scoring group.
  • Your last shot at garnering close to peak return in value for a stud receiver is just before they turn 30 years old. This is likely the final offseason that Jordy Nelson and Calvin Johnson will carry their full trade value. Those players are still capable of squeezing out quality seasons down the road, but the window for max return is nearly closed at that age.
  • Speaking of Johnson, he is surely going to be a hot topic in all formats this offseason. I’m already fairly excited to possibly have an opportunity to acquire him in the second round of seasonal drafts, as his production thus far fits with what we’d expect, based on this graph. When it comes down to the debate of who should be taken ahead of him, I actually think it has less to do with Johnson himself and more to do with the presence of  five to six other true WR1’s closer to their age apex. In a vacuum, why chase production when Antonio Brown (27), Demaryius Thomas (28), Dez Bryant (27), Julio Jones (26), A.J. Green (27) and even Odell Beckham (23) will all be smack in the middle of their prime period of production.

Tight Ends

 

te2

  • Just like receivers, elite tight ends fend off father time. The 23-29 year old target range for max output is the same for tight ends, as 77.9 percent (421 of 540) of top 12 scoring seasons fall in that age range. Their max production window is much smaller, however as elite tight end production peaks at age 25.
  • There have only been 17 top 6 scoring seasons from tight ends aged 31 or older (0.4 per season) with six of those coming from Tony Gonzalez. This past season was the first time Antonio Gates reached that age threshold and his was the only such performance this season.
  • The question that still isn’t answered is how the position has transitioned as the NFL game has evolved, since not every tight end is really contributing heavily blocking like they once were. 14 of the top 20 tight end scoring seasons ever have come since the 2000 season. That list is littered with Gonzalez, Gates, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, players that are premier fixtures of their offenses. It’s possible that the shelf life can be extended by those who are more receiver than blocker, but we haven’t reached a point where there’s enough evidence to make that conclusion. After all, we’ve seen Graham, Gates and Vernon Davis all suffer from injuries recently.

Overlapping Arcs

ALLAGE

  • Running backs have a much shorter learning curve which lets them shine at a younger age, but the fall off is much steeper than the other positions and you rarely see any elite production from older backs.
  • Receivers have a longer, more level linear line over the two, likely attributed to less physical wear and tear and more players being on the dance floor. This can help you out when deciding to sell a player for another at a different position. Dealing a player like Jamaal Charles for T.Y. Hilton may be tough to stomach based on recency bias, but may be an optimal play as an example.

One of my favorite posts from Papa Viz is the Dynasty Value Age Matrix for receivers, so hopefully we see something similar for the other positions and a possible cross over with all players. There’s a lot more that can be uncovered here and I hope to follow up by looking at which areas of production decline the most as a player progresses through his career. I’d also like to fit something in with quarterbacks as well. There are no absolutes. Age is another variable though that can play in your favor, even if it requires a tough sell or purchase on your end. Apply this info as a factor in those leagues as well as how you’ll be handling the incoming rookie class.

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