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The Wrong Read – Episode 11: How Much Does Draft Age Matter?

Welcome to the 11th installment of the “The Wrong Read,” an article series that reflects on recent podcast episodes and digs deeper into the ideas explored there. Sam Bradford is now on IR, so we’ll officially have to wait till next season for his 50-touchdown campaign.1 Still, it was fun to speculate on how he might get there.

One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2017 season has been the emergence of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, long one of RotoViz’s favorite prospects because of his elite-level production at a young age. Smith-Schuster is the youngest player in the NFL, yet managed to post seven receptions on 10 targets for 193 yards and a touchdown in his second game as an NFL starter. He’s currently on pace for about 850 receiving yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, despite being third on Pittsburgh’s WR depth chart for much of the season. Needless to say, the future looks bright, and fantasy owners are expecting big things.

On the latest episode of RotoViz Radio, guest Pat Daugherty even mentioned that he would consider ranking Smith-Schuster ahead of Corey Davis if he were putting together rankings for the 2017 class right now. One of the most frequently cited reasons for preferring Smith-Schuster is his age. His youth gives him an advantage, the theory goes, over older players in similar situations. But is this the case? And if so, why?

Breakout Age and Draft Age

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled at RotoViz about the importance of breakout age. Shawn Siegele called it the skeleton key for WR prospect evaluation. Smith-Schuster does have an elite breakout age, but that’s not exactly the argument currently being used to tout him. Rather, his rise up rankings is based in part on his current age. So the question is whether an NFL player’s current age is also important, in addition to breakout age. Are younger players at an advantage for fantasy purposes over comparable yet older players?

This question has been explored a bit before. Fantasy Douche asked whether we ought to be age-adjusting NFL WR production, and found enough to suggest age is significant. We can also get at this question another way. What we’re really interested in is Smith-Schuster’s age relative to other players in similar situations, such as other rookies. The relationship between age and NFL experience is a function of draft age. Siegele has already found that draft age is one of the Holy Grail components for evaluating WR prospects. In his analysis he discovered the “hits” tend to be about six months younger than the “misses” on average when drafted. And Jon Moore’s Phenom Index uses draft age as a key component. So we know that draft age is important. But is there some way to quantify the difference draft age makes once players enter the NFL?

Quantifying the Impact of Draft Age

I’m not sure this is the best method, but it was both easy and instructive. I looked at every WR player season since 2000 and compared the PPR points scored in that season with the player’s age when drafted, to see if there was any meaningful relationship between draft age and PPR scoring for WRs in any season. I’m not looking only at rookie seasons, or at best seasons, but at all player seasons since 2000, meaning most players (i.e., anyone who has played multiple seasons since 2000) show up more than once. This is not a huge problem though, because the question I’m trying explore is how players drafted at a younger age tend to perform in the NFL. Producing multiple good seasons is part of the performance I want to measure. The results are pretty encouraging. The graph below shows the average PPR points scored in a season, broken out by draft age.

The takeaway here is hard to miss: players drafted at a younger age tend to outperform. The average season by a player who played his first season at age 21 goes for over 120 PPR points. The “Age 21” cohort is the only group of players to average more than 100 PPR points across all player seasons.2 We see a steep drop-off from the “Age 21” to the “Age 22” cohort. And there is a steady decrease in PPR points per player season as draft age increases.3

Of course, averages are easily skewed by drastic outperformers or underperformers. Perhaps a more helpful way to look at this would be to measure the chance a player in each cohort has to achieve a certain level, say, 200 PPR points. It sounds arbitrary, but 200 PPR points has historically been good enough for about a top-24 WR finish. In 2016 the WR24 was Mike Wallace, who scored 200.8 PPR points. If we look at the percentage of player seasons that have exceeded 200 PPR points by draft age, the results are just as clear, if not more so:

Nearly 20 percent of player seasons by those who were 21-year-old rookies have gone for over 200 PPR points. No other cohort has achieved 200-point seasons even 14 percent of the time. Since 2000, no player whose rookie season was played at age 27 or older has produced a 200-point season.

What’s Going On Here?

Based on these findings, the answer to my title question would appear to be something on the order of “a whole heck of a lot.” Seeing exactly how large an impact draft age has had on NFL production is, frankly, surprising—the results are more dramatic than I would have expected. So what’s going on here? The best explanation is probably found in the name of the Phenom Index: players who are drafted at a young age—who can compete with and even overachieve against older players—tend to be phenomenal talents. Smith-Schuster’s draft age may in fact be a sufficient reason to move him up in the rankings—there’s a very good chance he was being undervalued before.

I’m not sure I’m quite ready to move him ahead of Davis, whose Dominator Rating exceeds anything Smith-Schuster or most other WRs achieved. But, based in part on his draft age, Smith-Schuster is in the conversation to become an elite NFL wide receiver for multiple seasons, and he should be the second-ranked WR in the 2017 class.

  1. He only would have needed about six touchdowns per game from this point in the season.  (back)
  2. Smith-Schuster is currently only 20, but he will turn 21 before the season ends, so he goes in the “Age 21” cohort. For the sake of comparison, Davis is already 22—and if the Titans somehow make it to the divisional round of the playoffs, Davis will turn 23 before his rookie season ends. He’s still in the “Age 22” cohort.  (back)
  3. The right side of the chart, where we see the “Age 30” cohort outperforming both the “Age 28” and “Age 29” cohorts, is due to small sample size. Since 2000, only three seasons have been played by WRs who were 30 years old as rookies. All three were played by Michael Lewis, a receiver who never played college football but instead played in semi-professional leagues and the Arena Football League before eventually finding a spot on the Saints’ roster, with whom he spent most of his career. Only one WR season since 2000 was played by someone who was a 29-year old rookie—Gary Banks played minor league baseball for several years before playing football at Troy University and subsequently being signed by the Chargers as an undrafted free agent.  (back)
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