Out with the Old, In with the Who?
By Jason Wood
August 30th, 2011

Back when many of us were first getting into fantasy football, there were a lot of assumptions that we based our draft strategies on, but many of those assumptions weren't tested empirically. A decade ago, most fantasy pundits would've told you:

  • You have to target RBs early, as many as three in the first four rounds
  • Waiting for your quarterbacks is essential to success
  • Tight ends are irrelevant
  • Receivers "break out" in Year 3
  • Never draft anyone over 30 as their play falls off dramatically
  • But entering the 2011 season, we know that most of these truisms are either incorrect or, in most cases, far too absolute. Today let's examine the "never trust anyone over 30" rule.

    30-and-Over Fantasy Stars

  • In 2010, four of the top six fantasy QBs were 30+ - Peyton Manning (34), Michael Vick (30), Tom Brady (33) and Drew Brees (31)

  • In 2009, four of the top seven fantasy QBs were 30+ - Drew Brees (30), Peyton Manning (33), Brett Favre (40) and Tom Brady (32)

  • In 2008, three of the top seven fantasy QBs were 30+ - Kurt Warner (37), Peyton Manning (32) and Donovan McNabb (32)

  • In 2010, two of the league's top 25 fantasy RBs were 30+ - LaDainian Tomlinson (31) and Thomas Jones (32)

  • In 2009, three of the league's top 25 fantasy RBs were 30+ - Thomas Jones (31), Ricky Williams (32) and LaDainian Tomlinson (30)

  • In 2008, one of the league's top 5 fantasy RBs was 30+ - Thomas Jones (30)

  • In 2010, four of the league's top 25 fantasy WRs were 30+ - Reggie Wayne (32), Terrell Owens (37), Santana Moss (31), and Anquan Boldin (30)

  • In 2009, seven of the top 25 WRs were 30+ - Randy Moss (32), Reggie Wayne (31), Chad Ochocinco (31), Hines Ward (33), Derrick Mason (35), Donald Driver (34) and Steve Smith (30)

  • In 2008, eight of the top 25 WRs were 30+ - Terrell Owens (35), Randy Moss (31), Reggie Wayne (30), Hines Ward (32), Derrick Mason (34), Donald Driver (33), Laveranues Coles (31), and Isaac Bruce (36)

  • In 2010, two of the top ten fantasy TEs were 30+ - Antonio Gates (30) and Tony Gonzalez (34)

  • In 2009, two of the top ten were 30+ - Dallas Clark (30) and Tony Gonzalez (33)

  • In 2008, one TE ranked in the top 10 (he was #1) over 30 - Tony Gonzalez (32)
  • As you can see, to avoid 30+ year old player as a rule is a recipe for failure, particularly at the WR and QB positions. Now that doesn't mean that the "30+ Rule" wasn't predicated on some logical assumptions, including:

  • Football is a violent sport
  • The average football career lasts only three or four years
  • Cumulative hits make it harder for players to maintain a high level of production
  • There is a compounding effect from injuries, even seemingly minor ones
  • As you get older it's harder to recover from bumps and bruises
  • With that in mind, and considering the condensed preseason we're had to deal with thanks to the NFL lockout, what if THIS is the year when older players are more prone to injuries? It's probably not going to matter, but WHAT IF? For the sake of it, here are a list of some 30+ year old players forecast to play key roles for their teams, and who stands to benefit if they get hurt or suffer a major falloff in production.

    Elder Statesmen of the QB Position

    Many of the league's best fantasy passers are in their thirties. In some cases, their loss would prove a negative for almost everyone on their team. In other cases, the backups would be serviceable enough that the star fantasy skill players would hold their own. The key is to know the names that are one injury away from taking over these high powered attacks.

    Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts (36) - Manning has seen his fantasy stock fall from a consensus top 3 choice to the bottom of the "elite" tier (top 7 or 8) thanks to offseason neck surgery. Manning is the league's iron man, and he'll do everything he can to suit up for Week One.

    Who Benefits if Manning Gets Hurt?

  • QB Kerry Collins - Collins was coaxed out of retirement to play in Manning's place if necessary. While Collins has never been a great NFL QB, he'll have an opportunity to help desperate fantasy teams given the vast array of weapons in the Colts corral

  • RBs Joseph Addai and Delone Carter - The Colts would at least try to have a more balanced offense, which means more touches for their two top runners. This would be a questionable upgrade though because the offset would be fewer trips into the red zone
  • Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (34) - Fantasy owners have already lived through one season without Brady, so this is far from a hypothetical exercise. Brady is coming off another MVP season and is a top 5 fantasy option in all formats.

    Who Benefits if Brady Gets Hurt?

  • QB Brian Hoyer - Had the offseason been longer, the answer to this question might have been rookie Ryan Mallett, because Hoyer was the apple of several team's eye. But he's still a Patriot, and as we saw from the year Matt Cassel took over, the Patriots system can function well even without its star. Hoyer is an accurate, smart decision maker and there's no reason to think he couldn't deliver fringe QB1 numbers in the same way Cassel did. He's not Tom Brady, but few are.

  • New York Jets - A Brady-less Patriots may be the only way the Jets actually win the AFC East
  • Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (31) - Vick was just handed a 6-year, $100 million contract extension capping what is unquestionably the most remarkable turnaround story in NFL history. We saw last year that Vick has few equals as a fantasy producer, when healthy, but we also saw his play fall off on the margin as the season wore on. With major question marks on the offensive line, and an aggressive running style, Vick is an above average injury risk - particularly for a QB that's coming off the board 1st or 2nd in most leagues.

    Who Benefits if Vick Gets Hurt?

  • QB Vince Young(?) - On the surface, Vince Young is the obvious beneficiary and someone fantasy owners could be intrigued by given his athleticism. Remember, Young was a top 10 fantasy QB thanks to his legs as a rookie, and if Michael Vick can develop into a passer under Andy Reid, so can Young. But Young has been inconsistent in camp, and it's not clear how much the coaches trust him yet.

  • QB Mike Kafka(?) - Kafka outplayed Vince Young this preseason, in practice and in limited game snaps. But the cerebral 2nd year passer with the quick release appears set to play QB3 again in 2011. But as we saw last year, Vick went from QB3 to franchise star, so Kafka might surprise if Reid feels Young isn't yet in command of the Eagles complex system.

  • TE Brent Celek - Brent Celek and Michael Vick didn't have great chemistry last year, and have made it a point to iron out those timing issues this preseason. But realistically Celek would benefit more than the other Philadelphia skill players because neither Young nor Kafka would be as apt to throw the ball downfield with abandon. That means more short passes; which helps the young tight end.
  • Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys (31) - Romo missed 10 games last year with a broken collarbone and missed time in 2008, so there is some precedent in Dallas for having to forge ahead without their franchise quarterback. With a revamped and inexperienced offensive line, fantasy owners need to understand the alternatives.

    Who Benefits if Romo Gets Hurt?

  • QB Jon Kitna - Kitna is an elder statesmen himself (39 in September) but played well in Romo's stead a season ago (237 yards and 1.6 TDs/game). He clearly understands the offense and has the trust of the coaching staff and the huddle.

  • TE Jason Witten - Witten has been known as an elite pass-catching TE that somehow never gets into the end zone. But last year he found pay dirt nine times thanks in no small part to Kitna.
  • Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (32) - It's ironic that were it not for shoulder concerns, Brees would have never ended up in New Orleans as the Chargers opted to hand the keys to Philip Rivers and the Miami Dolphins balked after agreeing to sign Brees in free agency. Brees has been an iron man in his five seasons in New Orleans, which may be why the Saints feel comfortable with an untested Chase Daniel as the #2.

    Who Benefits if Brees Gets Hurt?

  • QB Chase Daniel - Daniel is reminiscent of Brees in some ways. Both are short (6'0"), both played roles on 2nd tier teams competing in major conferences, and both have Sean Payton's trust. Daniel's road has been bumpier, signing as an undrafted free agent by Washington and then being waived, only to land in New Orleans. We haven't seen much from Daniel, but the fact the Saints - Super Bowl contenders - are comfortable with him says a lot.

  • RBs Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram - There's absolutely no question that New Orleans would dramatically shift the run/pass ratio if Brees went down, and that would give both Ingram and Thomas a chance to have fantasy value in the same way Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams did a few seasons ago in Carolina.
  • QBs of Note

  • David Garrard, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars (33) - Garrard needs to play lights out to keep Blaine Gabbert on the bench

  • Donovan McNabb, QB, Minnesota Vikings (35) - Christian Ponder is the long-term answer, but Joe Webb may get the start if McNabb gets hurt early in 2011

  • Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Tennessee Titans (36) - Jake Locker is the future in Tennessee
  • Elder Statesmen of the RB Position

    The RB position is the least likely to feature 30+ year old stars, and 2011 shapes up to be no different. Nevertheless, there are a few RBs playing key roles that are keeping a door closed on a potential young, breakout star.

  • Thomas Jones, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (33) - Jamaal Charles (and his fantasy owners) would be the big winners. In spite of Charles' explosiveness, HC Todd Haley remains hell bent on giving Jones equal work. It's hard to imagine he would be stubborn enough to hand off Jones' 200+ touches to the likes of Jackie Battle and Dexter McCluster.

  • Ricky Williams, RB, Baltimore Ravens (34) - On the surface the main beneficiary of a Williams injury would be starter Ray Rice. The Ravens would have no choice but to give Rice the goal line carries they may earmark for Williams. Jalen Parmele and Anthony Allen would be the other names to keep in mind.

  • LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, New York Jets (32) - Tomlinson has been a valuable alternative to Shonn Greene, but his time as a plus contributor is coming to an end. Tomlinson isn't going to steal any carries from Shonn Greene unless Greene plays poorly, so the big winner if LT gets hurt would be rookie Bilal Powell. Powell has the skill profile to be an every down back in the right system. Remember that name.

  • Earnest Graham, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (31) - Graham doesn't hold much fantasy value, but he has secured the 3rd down role in Tampa Bay. That's relevant because a lot of fantasy managers are looking at LeGarrette Blount as one of their starters. Blount isn't going to get a chance to catch many passes with Graham on the roster, but I would think the team would be more willing to work Blount into passing downs otherwise. TE Kellen Winslow and slot receiver Dez Briscoe would also benefit, as the offense shifts toward throwing more short and intermediate routes versus dumping off to the swing back.

  • Derrick Ward, RB, Houston Texans (31) - Ward has been running as the #2 behind Arian Foster, and he'll be just valuable enough to make Ben Tate a non-factor. But if Ward were out of the picture, Tate would immediately become a HIGHLY intriguing backup to Arian Foster, and a possible top 15 fantasy RB if Foster got hurt.
  • Elder Statesmen of the WR Position

    The WR position has been the kindest to players in their 30s. The top 25 lists are littered with guys like Moss, Owens, Harrison, Rice, Ward, Driver, Mason, Bruce and on and on. This year is no exception, with 12 veteran WRs projected to play major roles for their teams.

    Anquan Boldin, WR, Baltimore Ravens (31) - Boldin got off to a slow start in his first season in Baltimore, but has looked much more in sync with Joe Flacco this preseason. His playing style means he takes more punishment than his peers, and that makes him an elevated risk even though he's on the lower end of the 30+ age group.

    Who Benefits if Boldin Gets Hurt?

  • WR Lee Evans - Evans was acquired to start opposite Boldin, and plays a different position. But given the lack of proven alternatives, Joe Flacco would inevitably target Evans even more with Boldin gone; although the Ravens offense probably would take a step back in the aggregate

  • TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta - Both 2nd year tight ends will get more work this year because of Todd Heap's release, but the loss of Boldin would require a lot more base 2-TE sets

  • WRs Tandon Doss and Marcus Smith - Torrey Smith may have been the higher draft choice (2nd round), but Doss' game is the more suitable replacement for Boldin; who makes his living running good routes and going fearlessly over the middle. Marcus Smith is a flier, but he too projects as a better alternative than Smith.
  • Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts (33) - Wayne remains the Colts best receiver, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But he's getting older and the Colts are never short on alternatives. Unhappy with his new contract, Wayne could be a former Colt by no later than 2012, and these same players would stand to benefit then, as they would this season if injury opens the door.

    Who Benefits if Wayne Gets Hurt?

  • WR Pierre Garcon - Austin Collie was the top fantasy receiver in the NFL last year before getting concussed, so he's too easy to single out here. Collie makes his living gobbling up underneath stuff, and he's going to be featured with or without a healthy Wayne. But Garcon is more of a conundrum. He flashes moments of dominance, but has inconsistent hands which relegate him to the 3rd WR in terms of Manning's trust and targets. If Wayne gets hurt, Garcon becomes a major target in spite of his questionable hands.

  • TE Dallas Clark - Clark is already one of the top targeted tight ends, but he would be featured even more, and likely asked to stretch the field more frequently.
  • Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers (32) - Smith is in a difficult position as he'll either be catching passes from Cam Newton or Jimmy Clausen. But while healthy, Smith is sure to be one of the offenses focal points, along with TE Greg Olsen.

    Who Benefits if Smith Gets Hurt?

  • No One - Look, I could rattle off the other receivers on the roster like Armanti Edwards, Brandon LaFell, Legedu Naanee and Kealoha Pilares, but realistically none of these guys project as a plus #2 much less someone that could handle the attention of opposing team's #1 defensive backs. TE Greg Olsen is going to see a ton of targets regardless of Smith's status.
  • Donald Driver, WR, Green Bay Packers (36) - Driver is like the Energizer Bunny. He's been playing on bum knees for years, but continues to be productive and yet again broke camp as a starter. The problem with Driver's situation is that the Packers have a crowded route tree. If anyone gets hurt, all the others will materially benefit, and possibly gain fantasy relevance.

    Who Benefits if Driver Gets Hurt?

  • WRs James Jones and Jordy Nelson - The Packers could conceivably have four WRs with 50+ catches this year if they all stay healthy. Greg Jennings is the alpha dog and will get a ton of targets with or without Driver, but Jones and Nelson have the most to gain from Driver's absence. At this point, Nelson and Jones (who re-signed this offseason) are going to cannibalize each other, but without Driver, you could see one of them have a shot at 60-70 receptions.

  • Rookie WR Randall Cobb - Footballguys resident college pundits Matt Waldman, Sigmund Bloom and Cecil Lammey all have man crushes on the Kentucky Wildcat. Realistically Cobb has no redraft value in 2011 because he's a 5th stringer, but our trios of prognosticators believe Cobb could start for a number of NFL teams if the April draft had unfolded differently. The Packers are fans of 3- and 4-WR sets, and a Driver injury would vault Cobb into regular offensive snaps.
  • Chad Ochocinco (33) and Deion Branch (32), WRs, New England Patriots - The Patriots are loaded and there are no guarantees beyond Wes Welker in the Patriots passing tree. But both Ochocinco and Branch project as high upside fantasy options - for different reasons. Ochocinco is the perennial Pro Bowler who is finding a new lease on life, whereas Branch is the solid but unspectacular receiver who has an uncanny rapport with Tom Brady.

    Who Benefits if Ochocinco or Branch Get Hurt?

  • The Other Guy - First and foremost, if one of these guys gets hurt, the other becomes a full-time starter and a viable top 25 fantasy receiver in most weeks. Wes Welker plays a different position and is going to be in line to catch 100+ passes regardless.

  • TE Aaron Hernandez - This year the Patriots are going to play with lots of formations, but with all three veteran WRs healthy, we can expect fewer 2-TE sets. Hernandez is more at risk in that scenario than Rob Gronkowski because of Gronk's superior blocking skills. But Hernandez' WR-like skills would make him almost a quasi-starter if Branch or Ochocinco get hurt. He would have top 10 fantasy upside in that scenario.

  • WRs Brandon Tate and Taylor Price - the 3rd and 2nd year receivers are in a dogfight for a roster spot, but whoever ends up on the practice squad could see a new lease on life if Branch or Ochocinco got hurt. Either guy could emerge as a full-time starting outside receiver if given the chance.
  • Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (35) - Ward has seen his best days, but remains a key piece of the Steelers offense. His veteran status and leadership in the locker room make him a nominal starter opposite Mike Wallace, and at this point Ward's presence may be blocking the Steelers from peak performance - as he's keeping not one, but two very good receivers on the bench.

    Who Benefits if Ward Gets Hurt?

  • WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown - Some people prefer Sanders, others prefer Brown. I'm in the Brown camp, but both receivers have shown enough to suggest they're better overall pass catchers than Ward at this point. With Ward out of the way, the coaches could give these youngsters their due without risking a PR nightmare.

  • TE Heath Miller - Ward has made his living across the middle, he's a first down machine. That's Miller's role, too. Brown and Sanders can stretch the field, but it's Miller that would become Big Ben's new safety blanket.
  • Santana Moss, WR, Washington Redskins (32) - Moss is the least appreciated veteran star in the league at this point. Unlike some of the other 30+ guys, Moss is coming off another 1,000-yard season and is a quality fantasy starter. His QB situation is questionable, but the preseason has opened a glimmer of hope in what looked desperate two months ago.

    Who Benefits if Moss Gets Hurt?

  • WRs Terrence Austin and Anthony Armstrong - Armstrong started opposite Moss last year, and in a way looked like the Moss of years past. Armstrong makes his living getting downfield, which is how Moss first came into the league (but Moss has now become an intermediate weapon and pitch perfect route runner). For now Armstrong is in a time share with Jabar Gaffney, but he would get first crack at the #1 job in Moss' stead. Austin has been balling all preseason, and has worked his way into the WR rotation. He won't see many snaps if things go according to plan, but has the kind of open field ability that would suit the Skins well if Moss gets hurt.
  • Plaxico Burress (34) and Derrick Mason (37), WRs, New York Jets - Mark Sanchez has a long way to go before he can carry two much less three WRs to fantasy stardom. As it stands now, Santonio Holmes is the only WR on the roster worth a high draft pick, with Mason and Burress each playing their very specific roles.

    Who Benefits if Burress or Mason Get Hurt?

  • The Other Guy - Holmes is going to get his touches above all else, but it probably will take an injury to one of these veterans to make the other an every week fantasy option. Burress has more value if all three are healthy, so he would get the nod into possible Top 25 status without Mason. Mason, at 37 years old, would be more of a bye week filler if Burress gets caught up in another ankle issue or some other malady.

  • TE Dustin Keller - Keller is going to lose key looks in the red zone to Burress, in my estimation. If Burress goes down, Keller vaults back into the conversation as a late round TE that could deliver Top 10 numbers.

  • WR Jeremy Kerley - The rookie 5th rounder has been the story of training camp, but isn't going to see the field much as the 4th receiver. He wouldn't have much fantasy value as the 3rd guy, but he could do enough to show the Jets the he might be capable of starting in 2012 or 2013 - which would be music to dynasty owner's ears.
  • Elder Statesmen of the TE Position

    Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark are consensus top 5 fantasy TEs, with Gates holding down the top spot, and there are a number of other veteran TE starters who are potentially holding back a high upside youngster.

    Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers (31) - Gates is amazing, a future Hall of Famer, but he's been injury prone. This isn't a situation we have to speculate on, we know how it'll play out.

    Who Benefits if Gates Gets Hurt?

  • WRs Patrick Crayton and Seyi Ajirotutu - Neither Randy McMichael nor Kory Sperry can replace Gates, and the Chargers won't try. Instead Norv Turner will use more 3- and 4-WR sets

  • RBs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert - the RBs are already a big part of the Chargers passing attack, but this tandem could both catch 40+ receptions without Gates for a prolonged period of time
  • Dallas Clark, TE, Indianapolis Colts (32) - Like Gates, we KNOW what will happen if this sure-handed star receiving end gets hurt.

    Who Benefits if Clark Gets Hurt?

    TE Jacob Tamme - Tamme was an instant fantasy star in Clark's absence, and would be a must start again in 2011 under the same scenario

    WR Austin Collie - Collie should see plenty of action anyway, but without Clark across the middle, Collie would be Peyton Manning's principle motion option

    Other Veteran TEs

  • Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons (35) - Gonzalez' targets would flow to some combination of WR Harry Douglas and perhaps RBs Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers

  • Ben Watson, TE, Cleveland Browns (31) - Not many people realize Watson was the 13th ranked fantasy TE last year, and his absence would make Evan Moore a VERY intriguing sleeper. Moore has the athleticism to put up WR-like numbers without Watson eating up snaps

  • Visanthe Shiancoe, TE, Minnesota Vikings (31) - Shiancoe may find a new lease on life with Donovan McNabb under center. But if he gets hurt, rookie Kyle Rudolph becomes a waiver wire option
  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

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