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Career Arcs: Wide Receivers

A historical look at the career arc of a wide receiver and what it may mean for wide receivers in 2013.

Unlike running backs, who I profiled here, wide receivers generally have much longer careers and a considerably longer peak. In this installment of Career Arcs I'll examine the careers of 116 past and current receivers to see what we can tell about this year's crop of pass catchers. While they may age better than those toting the rock 300 times a season, they still age...and the effects of that age can have a major impact on your fantasy season.

Sure, we all know about the famed third year breakout...and no one will be surprised to hear that Steve Smith should be approaching the end of his career, but what else does the data tell us? First let's look at the arc.

While there is a much more elongated span of steady productivity from receivers (years 3-12) there's a pretty definitive peak from years 6-8. I think this is later than we generally think of as a receiver's peak, so I wanted to look at a few reasons for the spike. The first is the security found in these years. For the purposes of this article I've identified a dud year as any year in which a receiver scored less than 100 fantasy points. Last year, some notable names below this threshhold were Dwayne Bowe, Hakeem Nicks, and Pierre Garcon. In terms of dud season prevalence, year eight (10.3%) is the lowest and year seven (11.1%)  is the second lowest. Year six comes in at #4. In contrast, the dud percentage is 51.2% in years 1-4 of a players career and 31.3% after season nine.

Of course, the other side of the spectrum is the stud years. These are the years that win fantasy championships. I've classified these as any year above 200 fantasy points. These years are extremely rare in both the first four years of a players career and after season nine with both groups coming in at just over 5%. Not surprisingly, the most common year for a receiver to have a stud season was year seven (20%). Clearly we need to look at the receivers heading into their seventh season:

The chart shows something else interesting, and it's something we've witnessed over the last few seasons. While there is a drop off after year eight, the arc is pretty flat from years 9-11. Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson all fit into this timeframe over the past few seasons and they've all continued to perform at or above our expectations. What we've not seen is a player after year twelve continue that trend. In fact, no player in the study has ever had a stud season after year twelve and the dud rate balloons to over 50%. Here are the receivers with twelve or more years experience in the NFL:

Now I've not mentioned the young stud receivers because so many receivers start slow that the chart doesn't really apply to the likes of A.J. Green or Julio Jones. In fact, they're in near uncharted territory. Of the 117 receivers in the study only Randy Moss, Marques Colston and Joey Galloway scored at least 150 fantasy points in each of their first two fantasy seasons. Colston suffered a thumb injury and only played in 11 games in his third year but both Moss and Galloway posted career highs in fantasy points the next season. In other words, we've likely not seen the best of these two fantasy studs.

At the end of the article I'll post the stud and dud percentages by year, but first a three quick fantasy anecdotes from the data:

  1. Mike Williams is an interesting case study in that he posted the fourth best rookie season in the study, turned in a dud as a sophomore, and then bounced back to produce WR2 numbers in 2013. Only two receivers in the study had a similar path; Anquan Boldin and Chris Chambers. Both posted WR2 or better numbers in year four and had at least one more year of WR1 production.
     
  2. If you're looking for reason to hope for a resurgent Larry Fitzgerald, here it is. Fitzgerald scored a career low 104 fantasy points in year nine of his career, and that isn't as rare as you would think. Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, and Michael Irvin all had similarly terrible ninth years only to bounce back in year ten with WR1 numbers. In fact five of the top twelve tenth-year performances came from players who scored 129 fantasy points or less in year nine.
     
  3. Calvin Johnson is only the fourth receiver to post a stud season in both his fifth and sixth seasons. The first three were Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, and Jerry Rice. All three did it again in year seven...and year nine...and nearly again in year eleven (Owens came four points shy).

I'll leave you with the stud and dud percentages by season for receivers. Next up, quarterbacks.

Year
Stud
Dud
Year
Stud
Dud
Year
Stud
Dud
1
0.9%
74.1%
6
15.7%
17.7%
11
7.4%
18.5%
2
7.9%
50.5%
7
20.0%
11.1%
12
12.0%
28.0%
3
4.7%
34.1%
8
7.7%
10.3%
13
0.0%
36.8%
4
8.5%
35.2%
9
17.1%
14.3%
14
0.0%
47.1%
5
16.4%
26.2%
10
6.3%
21.9%
15
0.0%
57.1%

Follow Heath Cummings on Twitter @heathcummingssr


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