We know that the same wide receivers tend to finish as top fantasy producers year after year. But we also know that age matters. What happens when these truths intersect? The answer will help us evaluate Larry Fitzgerald as he enters his age-34 season.
I generated end-of-season point-per-game fantasy rankings (0.5 PPR) for every wide receiver who played at least eight games since 1990. I then screened for the most Fitzgerald-like players — those who had at least two top-24 seasons in the past three years and were coming off a WR13-24 season at age 33. That screen yielded 10 players, not including Fitzgerald:
Multiple top-12 seasons
- Irving Fryar. The quintessential late bloomer, Fryar was drafted first overall in 1984 but didn’t post his first 1,000-yard season until age 29. At age 34, Fryar moved from Dan Marino’s Dolphins to Ty Detmer’s Eagles. Against all logic, he posted the two best fantasy seasons of his career in Philadelphia, posting 1,195 yards and 11 touchdowns at age 34 and then 1,316 yards and 6 TDs at age 35. The clock struck midnight in 1998, but Fryar collected a paycheck until age 38.
Multiple top-24 seasons
- Jimmy Smith. Smith posted seven straight 1,000-yard seasons heading into age 34, and he likely would have continued the streak but for a four-game substance abuse suspension in his age-34 season. Smith benefitted from adequate, but not elite, quarterback play. He finished his career helping Byron Leftwich and David Garrard guide the Jaguars to the playoffs in 2005.
- Rod Smith. Smith outlasted Ed McCaffrey and benefitted from Jake Plummer’s late-career renaissance with Mike Shanahan. He led the Broncos in receiving at ages 34 and 35, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. After producing a meager 512 receiving yards on 94 targets at age 36, he retired and made way for Brandon Marshall.
- Derrick Mason. Mason started the trend of late-career wide receivers moving to Baltimore and posting adequate fantasy stats. He posted four low-end WR2 seasons between ages 31 and 35. His only down season was at age 33 when Steve McNair gave way to Kyle Boller for 10 games. The Ravens drafted Joe Flacco in 2008, and Flacco helped Mason put a respectable finish on his career.
One top-24 season
- Donald Driver. Driver benefitted from playing with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers for his entire career. At age 33, Driver settled in nicely as the Packers’ number two option behind Greg Jennings, but it didn’t last long. He posted one more WR2 season before falling behind James Jones and Jordy Nelson in the pecking order.
- Steve Smith. Smith’s age-34 season looked like the end of the road. He fell behind Greg Olsen as the Panthers’ leading receiver and posted only 745 receiving yards on 110 targets from Cam Newton. He rebounded with Joe Flacco in Baltimore, posting a low-end WR2 finish at age 35. And he exploded in his age-36 season; through seven games, he was on a 16-game pace of 105 receptions for 1,531 yards and 7 touchdowns. Alas, he tore his Achilles in Week 8 and missed the rest of the season. He returned for a still-impressive low-end WR3 finish at age 37.
Fade to Gray
- Hines Ward. Ward showed few signs of decline, posting four straight WR2 seasons from age 30 to age 33. But Mike Wallace, 10 years Ward’s junior, showed up and took Ward’s lunch money. In Wallace’s breakout season, Ward (age 34) saw fewer than 100 targets for the first time in nearly a decade. After Antonio Brown took over as the Steelers’ second receiving option the following season, Ward retired.
- Roddy White. White didn’t give way to Julio Jones as many fantasy analysts predicted. He posted two of his best seasons at ages 30 and 31, playing alongside Jones. But White struggled through a hamstring injury in his age-32 season, posting his worst season with Matt Ryan. He rebounded for a productive age-33 season, but he struggled again at age 34. The Falcons released him, and he retired after failing to sign with another team.
- Tony Martin. Martin is the least Fitzgerald-like of this cohort. Martin posted his first of four 1,000-yard seasons at age 30. But he scored 14 of his 56 career touchdowns in his magical age-31 season with the Chargers. Aside from that, he was a reliable WR2/3 from age 29 to age 34.
- Mark Duper. Super Duper doesn’t show up in my data until age 31, but he was a star in his prime. From age 25 to age 27, he produced at a 16-game pace of 68 receptions for 1276 yards and 9 TDs. Duper spent nearly his entire career with Dan Marino, but he retired before his age 34 season.
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As Fitzgerald supporters will surely note, he has the best career resume of any of these players. And, if anything, he’ll have a greater role in the offense than he had in 2016. But he hasn’t posted a WR1 season since age 28 — at least in points per game. And he relies on Carson Palmer, who turns 38 in December. I’m not comfortable taking on age risk at quarterback and wide receiver, so I’m generally avoiding Fitzgerald at his WR27 redraft ADP. In dynasty, though, I’ll gladly get him at his WR53 cost. If he posts a top-24 season at age 34, he’s reasonably likely to do it again at age 35.