Theories about age and fantasy football have been around for as long as the game itself has. Running backs fall off after age 30, wide receivers blow up in their third year, and so on. While there are exceptions to every rule, we've generally found that by following the statistical evidence we can avoid a majority of the pot holes on the road to our next fantasy championship. With that being said, what we really need is more statistical evidence, right?
While I'm doing this study for all positions, I don't believe any is as important in 2012 as the wide receivers. If you've looked over our staff rankings for 2012, you'll see that mine are not very similar to the majority, and I think this article will probably go a long way towards explaining why.
Once again, let's get started with the evidence. Below is the average fantasy production for 40 of the top wide receivers of all-time based on how many seasons they've been in the league.
The first major difference that you notice from the running back's career arc is that it takes receivers longer to get to their peak. While running backs are generally as good as they're going to get by year three, receivers have a fairly steady climb all the way through their fifth or sixth season. As such, the "peak" for the top 40 receivers fell from years five though seven.
The second major difference is the longevity of a wide receiver's career. Twelve years into their career, wide receivers are still producing at better than 75% of their peak, running backs hit that point in season 9. Still, there is a drop off at year seven, and it remains fairly steady after that.
Like I did with the running backs, I wanted to find the most likely season for receivers to have a stud (220+ points) or dud (0-90 points) season. As expected, the years with the most stud season were right in the middle of the peak, years five and six, with more than 33% of all such seasons between the two of them. Here's a look at the top receivers entering their fifth or sixth seasons in 2012:
Calvin Johnson Jordy Nelson Dwayne Bowe Steve Johnson DeSean Jackson Pierre Garcon
There are definitely some wild cards in there with DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe and Pierre Garcon, but history tells us that at the end of 2012 two to three of those receivers will be at the very top in terms of points scored.
The second most important thing behind finding studs is avoiding duds. Year six was great for that as well, but the absolute safest year for receivers in terms of getting good production and minimizing the risk of a dud was actually year seven. Here are your top year-seven receivers:
Brandon Marshall Marques Colston Greg Jennings Santonio Holmes Lance Moore Miles Austin
Now, when I say that year seven is safe, it's important to note that history says one of those seven receivers will have an absolute dud of a year, and you'll be lucky if any of them are studs.
So what are the worst years for duds? Obviously the rookie year is extremely risky, but besides that year two and twelve are filled with land mines. Now, generally year two busts are players that are not successful in year one, so I'm not too concerned about A.J. Green and Julio Jones. In fact, of the 40 players studied there were only three that were good in year one and duds in year two. None of those three were anywhere close to the level of Green or Jones. That leaves us with the year-12 receivers for our most likely duds:
Steve Smith Reggie Wayne Santana Moss Chad Johnson
The last thing I want to cover is the decline, because it's what separates my projections from the masses at this point. The career arc above makes a very good case for the longevity of receivers, which may make it odd that I'm using that data to justify my lower rankings for four of the five guys you see in the category at the end of this article. What that chart doesn't show is the lack of truly stud seasons after the seven year of a players career. The odds of a player have a stud season after his seventh year in the league was 4.6%...and that's for the greatest receivers of all-time. Take out Jerry Rice and those odds fall to 3.3%. So I think it's prudent to expect that these superstars will remain viable receivers for the next four to five years but I have a hard time seeing them landing in the top three in fantasy points in 2012 or beyond.
Below is a list of my top 20 wide receivers and where they fit on the career arc.
Years 1-4 (on the rise)
Victor Cruz Julio Jones A.J. Green Torrey Smith Dez Bryant Percy Harvin Mike Wallace Hakeem Nicks Kenny Britt
Years 5-7 (prime)
Jordy Nelson Pierre Garcon Steve Johnson Calvin Johnson Brandon Marshall Greg Jennings Marques Colston
Years 8+ (on the decline)
Roddy White Wes Welker Larry Fitzgerald Andre Johnson
As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.