The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Wide Receiver (Fantasy Football)
Welcome back to “The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Player” series. In my first article, I analyzed the career arc and fantasy production by age for the running back position. And while having a running back is absolutely crucial for your championship run, a stable and productive core of wide receivers can be the backbone of sustained dynasty dominance. So for this article, we will take a look at the wide receiver position, answering the following questions:
- Can they be early contributors for your dynasty teams?
- When can we expect a player to reach their peak potential for fantasy?
- When should you trade away a wide receiver to maximize value?
To analyze the career arc of a wide receiver, I am leveraging 21 seasons worth of data from 2000 to 2020. The scoring format assumed in this analysis is PPR points per game, with a minimum of 8 games played. As always, this data was sourced from Pro Football Reference.
Historical WR1 and WR2 Finishes by Age
To start things off, I analyzed the likelihood of a wide receiver finishing as a top-12 player for fantasy. If we take a look at every single WR1 finish over the last 21 seasons, we see a very noticeable trend in the graph above. About 48.4% of the sample size is concentrated within the 25 to 28 age group, with each age accounting for at least 11% of the total WR1 seasons since 2000. Per this information, the peak age of a wide receiver is likely at age 26 with a 13.1% sample size.
Furthermore, it becomes inherently clear how rare it is for a rookie or even a sophomore to finish as a WR1. In fact, the 21 to 23 age range accounts for only 12.7% of the total sample size. These results also coincide with my draft capital correlation research where I concluded that the likelihood of a player averaging WR1 numbers in their first three seasons is fairly low. Of course, the probability increases if a prospect enters the league as an early declare, with high draft capital, and elite college production. But even among first-round wide receivers, only 5.26% average top-12 production within their first three years in the league. In short, remain patient with Ja’Marr Chase and DeVonta Smith. They will absolutely contribute to your dynasty teams but do not expect WR1 production right out of the gate. This further highlights just how special Justin Jefferson’s rookie season was, finishing as the WR9 in PPR points per game in 2020. In fact, Jefferson is the only 21-year old player since 2000 to finish as a WR1.
If we shift our focus to every WR2 season since 2000, the conclusion is fairly similar. Once again, we see a slow buildup in ages 21 to 23, with the peak age highlighted at age 26. Another significant takeaway from both of these datasets is that the WR1 sample size begins to dip significantly after age 29, indicating that WR1 production is less likely after passing that threshold. However, the WR2 sample size remains fairly strong at 7 to 9% per year from the ages of 27 to 31. This would indicate that wide receivers do not drop off immediately after their peak years. Instead, if they were fantasy-relevant during their prime, they have the potential to remain productive eight to ten years into their career.
And to conclude this segment, listed below are some of the most productive players over the last two decades:
- Terrell Owens leads all WRs since 2000 in WR1 finishes (9 total)
- Larry Fitzgerald leads all WRs since 2000 in top-24 finishes (11 total)
- Julio Jones leads all *active* players since 2000 in WR1 (8) and top-24 finishes (9)
- Justin Jefferson is the youngest to finish as a WR1 since 2000 (age 21)
- Jerry Rice is the oldest to finish as a WR1 since 2000 (age 40)
Sample Size from 2000 to 2020
The Lifecycle of a Wide Receiver
To better understand the career arc of a dynasty wide receiver, I narrowed down my sample size to highlight players that were in the league a minimum of eight seasons. Therefore, I am primarily focusing on wide receivers drafted from 2000 to 2013, analyzing each season from their career over the last two decades. That gives us a sample size of 73 players, headlined by some of the most elite receivers in Julio Jones, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, and Larry Fitzgerald. If we plot out their PPR production over that timespan, we see that the most productive year for this sample size is at age 26. Not only is the PPR per game average at its highest (12.5), the most PPR points in my sample size were accumulated at that age (13,110.2). In addition, we do not see precipitous fall after their peak. In fact, the PPR average continues to hover around 12 points up until the age of 29.
To no surprise, after age 31, the shaded area in the graph diminishes drastically, signaling the true decline of the wide receiver position. The per-game averages decrease as well, though they remain well above 9 points even through age 37. How is that possible? For one, those numbers are heavily skewed by the small sample size of receivers that remain productive that far into their career. In fact, of the receivers drafted from 2000 to 2005 in my dataset (33 total), only two players (6%) played a season at age 37, and only six players (18.2%) had a top-24 season after the age of 31. In short, a wide receiver can absolutely remain productive late in their career; however, the likelihood of being an impact starter after the age of 31 is fairly low.
Knowing that rostering a wide receiver past the age of 31 could leave you holding an empty bag, how do we identify a potential outlier who could produce past the prime of their career? Let us take a look at the six wide receivers that I mentioned above, who produced a top-24 season after the age of 31:
- Larry Fitzgerald
- Reggie Wayne
- Andre Johnson
- Steve Smith
- Anquan Boldin
- Roddy White
What do these players have in common?
- They were all drafted within the first 3 rounds (Four in the first round)
- They averaged 4.6 WR1 seasons by age 31
- They averaged 6.8 top-24 seasons by age 31
While these six players were clearly some of the best receivers over the last two decades, these numbers should still provide a rough blueprint for an aging, productive wide receiver. Of all the active players, someone who fits this mold perfectly and is approaching his age-32 season is Julio Jones. Assuming he stays healthy, I would not be surprised if he remains fantasy-relevant for a few more years. And just because he has been an outlier his whole career as a 6th round wide receiver, it is worth noting that Antonio Brown meets the production thresholds above despite missing most of the 2019 campaign. Regardless, he already proved in his age-32 season that he can continue to be an impactful fantasy receiver, finishing as the WR23 in PPR per game in 2020.
To conclude, players who produce well into their 30s are clearly outliers. Not everyone can be a Jerry Rice or a Larry Fitzgerald. Therefore, if a player is unlikely to meet the production thresholds outlined above, I would consider trading them during their peak instead of hoping that they can be an outlier past age 31.
The Peak and Decline
Finally, I charted out all 73 wide receiver peak seasons from my sample size. For reference, a peak year is defined as a wide receiver’s highest PPR per game average throughout their career. Taking a look at the results below, the conclusions align with the rest of my research. The graph clearly indicates that most wide receivers produce their best PPR season at age 26. In addition, the chart shows that a peak year can occur anywhere between the ages of 24 to 29, which accounts for 84% of this sample size. As for the inevitable dropoff in production, we see that it becomes extremely rare for a wide receiver to produce their best fantasy season after the age of 29.
But as I mentioned in my “Running Back Lifecycle” article, a peak year does not imply that a player was unproductive before or after their best season. In fact, the elite receivers maintain their high-end production leading up to or even past their peak year. A perfect example of this is Cardinals legend: Larry Fitzgerald, who produced his best seasonal average at age 24. How did he follow that up? Fitzgerald would go on to produce eight additional top-24 seasons, which included six WR1 finishes. On the other hand, there are two players who peaked later in their career despite having several productive years prior: Roddy White (29) and Reggie Wayne (28). And as I already mentioned above, both players would continue to produce well into their 30s.
Hopefully, this information was helpful as you build your championship rosters for the 2021 dynasty season. To summarize, here are some of the key takeaways from this article:
- Age 21 to 24: The likelihood of a wide receiver producing elite numbers in this age range is low; therefore, remain patient with your rookies. If a wide receiver has the profile, draft capital, and opportunity to become an impactful player, they will begin to emerge as a top-24 WR towards the end of this age range.
- Age 25 to 28: These are the most productive years of a wide receiver’s career, likely reaching peak dynasty value. In this age range, dynasty managers will need to evaluate what they have in a player. Per my research above, if a wide receiver produces four to five WR1 seasons by age 31, they have a higher chance of producing into their mid-30s. Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins come to mind as players who could produce well beyond their peak. If a player has not produced multiple WR1 seasons at this point in their career, I would attempt to trade them away by the end of this age range.
- Age 29 to 31: This is the beginning of the end for most wide receivers. The probability of a player finishing as a WR1 or WR2 declines heavily after age 30. In addition, we generally see a dip in PPR per game production by the end of this age range.
- Age 32 and older: The likelihood of a wide receiver producing a top-24 season is now very slim. However, elite wide receivers are the outliers and exceptions to this rule. History has shown that if a receiver was supremely productive for the first decade of their career, they are more likely to remain fantasy-relevant in the latter stages. This is why Michael Thomas is someone I would be willing to target at his current dynasty ADP, especially as a contender. He has produced WR1 numbers in four of his first five years and has the profile to be a producer later in his career.
If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out on Twitter @FF_MarvinE.