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Turning 29 has not been kind: Wide receivers showing rapid decline

Do wide receivers “matter”?

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Syndication: Arizona Republic Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

This Sunday’s game between the Rams and Vikings will feature the top two receivers in the NFL in receiving yards, each on one end of the twenties spectrum: Cooper Kupp has 1,625 yards at age 28, Justin Jefferson has 1,335 yards at age 22.

Drafted only three years apart, the two receivers are separated by six years of age and both would be consensus picks on anybody’s current list of the top-10 players at that position. Which other receivers might join them on a list based on 2021 value? We could start with those who were just named to the Pro Bowl:

  • Davante Adams, 29
  • Deebo Samuel, 25
  • Tyreek Hill, 27
  • Ja’Marr Chase, 21
  • Keenan Allen, 29
  • Stefon Diggs, 28

Combined with Kupp and Jefferson, that’s eight solid receivers that virtually everyone can agree on.

If we wanted to expand this list out to 12 names, we could add 1,000-yard receivers:

  • Chris Godwin, 25
  • Diontae Johnson, 25
  • Tyler Lockett, 29
  • D.J. Moore, 24 (986 yards)

Let’s even move the list up to 20 names—the top-20 receivers in the NFL right now—by adding eight more. I’ll use a combination of FootballOutsiders’ DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Average) and regular yards to include eight more players and their current age:

  • Mike Evans, 28
  • Christian Kirk, 25
  • Hunter Renfrow, 26
  • Brandin Cooks, 28
  • CeeDee Lamb, 22
  • Terry McLaurin, 26
  • Jaylen Waddle, 23
  • DeVonta Smith, 23

While we can quibble of the names who are on and the ones who are not (Marquise Brown, Michael Pittman, DK Metcalf, Tee Higgins, Darnell Mooney, A.J. Brown, etc.), surely you have noticed what I’ve noticed.

Not a single player older than 29.

Go back to the year 1999, the season in which Kurt Warner changed everything just so that he could one day inspire a movie that be directly targeted to Brenda and Kurt Warner, and of the 26 players to cross the 1,000-yard threshold, seven were at least 30 years of age:

Jimmy Smith*, Tim Brown*, Cris Carter*, Rocket Ismail, Tony Martin, Ed McCaffrey, and Terance Mathis.

*Pro Bowl

In 2000, six of the eighteen 1,000-yard receivers were at least 30, including 34-year-old Tim Brown and 35-year-old Cris Carter.

In 2001, 10 receivers of that age crossed over 1,000 yards, including 39-year-old Jerry Rice: 83 catches on 125 targets, 1,139 yards, 9 touchdowns. Rice caught 1,023 career passes after turning 30:

Skip forward to 2009, a decade after the GSOT, when Game of Throws became Game of Thrones, elder statesmen wideouts were still able to thrive in the NFL.

Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss, Hines Ward, Donald Driver, Chad Johnson, and Derrick Mason were all at least 31, and had at least 1,000 yards.

Consider not only the career lifespans of players like Rice and Moss, who we know transcend almost all other receivers to come along in the last 50 years, but also the likes of “really really good” wideouts like Reggie Wayne, Hines Ward, Donald Driver, and Derrick Mason:

  • Wayne’s career spanned 14 seasons, all with the Colts, and he was 36 in his final season
  • Ward’s career spanned 14 seasons too, all with the Steelers, and he was 35
  • Driver’s career went for 14 seasons, all with the Packers, and he was 37 at the end
  • Mason’s career was 15 seasons, roughly split between the Titans and Ravens, and he was 37 when he played for the Texans and Jets in 2011

Before we even get to the modern era, I’ll pose this question to you: Do you expect Cooper Kupp to play 14 seasons with the Rams? Do you expect Justin Jefferson to be capable of starting for the Vikings in 2033, when he will be 35?

Maybe you do. Maybe they will. What trends have we seen in the last 10 years of football?

From 2010 to 2013, the number of 1,000-yard wide receivers (not TE, not RB), rose from 16 to 17 to 19 to 23. The number of those players who were at least 30 went from two to three to five, then back down to three. So the percentage of 1,000-yard wideouts went from 12.5-percent in 2010 to 26.3-percent in 2012, but then fell back to 13-percent in 2013.

This is a rudimentary way of evaluating “wide receiver value”:

  • Yards are hardly everything
  • 1,000-yards is arbitrary
  • The passing eras of 1999, 2009, or 2019, are all dramatically different
  • Even choosing age 30 is arbitrary

But it really doesn’t matter if you want to be arbitrary or if you want to hide behind a security blanket called “analytics”, the name of the game is no different: There’s no way to slice this bread and not have it tell you that the average age of a good wide receiver—or at least the wide receivers being employed and targeted most often—has gone down SIGNIFICANTLY in the last 20 years and even in the last five years.

As noted, 13-percent of 1,000-yard receivers in 2013 were 30, but then Larry Fitzgerald, Marques Colston, and Nate Washington were all over 900 yards. Veteran receivers were still quite valuable.

That basically continued from 2014-2016:

2014:

1000-yards: 21

30+ WRs: 3

2015:

1000-yards: 22

30+ WRs: 3

2016:

1000-yards: 23

30+ WRs: 6

Only five years ago, 26-percent of 1,000-yard receivers were at least 30 years old. Those players were Jordy Nelson, Julian Edelman, Pierre Garcon, Fitzgerald, Mike Wallace, and DeSean Jackson, all names that most football fans are completely familiar with and they were playing just a decade after that Hines Ward/Reggie Wayne list that I mentioned earlier.

  • Nelson’s career spanned 10 seasons, 9 with Packers, retired after 33
  • Edelman’s career spanned 12 seasons, all with Patriots, retired after 34
  • Garcon’s career spanned 11 seasons, mostly split with Colts, WFT, retired after 32
  • DeSean’s career has spanned 14 seasons, 8 with Eagles, is playing now at 35

(Fitzgerald fits in the mold with Moss, Rice, and his career went 17 seasons, all with Cardinals—he’s currently 38)

Then something interesting happened in 2017: the number of 1,000-yard wideouts dropped from 23 to 13.

Only one of those players was over 30: Fitzgerald, who had basically reformed his career into that of a possession receiver, dropping from 8.1 yards per target and 13.9 YPC between ages 21 and 28, to 6.9 yards per target and 10.7 YPC over ages 29-37.

But maybe the next generation of 30+ receivers was just starting to come into their own in 2017.

WRs who were 29 in 2017: Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Dez Bryant

Surely these players would be valuable for many more seasons to come, if history was any indication of what we could expect in the future. Unfortunately—and this is something that analytics seems to consistently miss—history does not predict the future.

Antonio Brown

Probably the greatest wide receiver from 2013-2018 (ages 25-30), Brown averaged 114 receptions, 1,524 yards, and 11 touchdowns per season over those six seasons, all with the Steelers.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Brown’s downfall began during the Steelers-Raiders-Patriots mayhem of 2019 and since then his numbers are: 14 games, 78 catches, 957 yards in three seasons.

“Ok, but Antonio Brown is an (insert insult)”!

Fine. The greatest wideout of his era, Brown is an exception to the rule because maybe he brought this decline on himself. Who else then?

A.J. Green

The fourth overall pick in 2011, Green had every right to at least be the next Andre Johnson. From age 23-29, he averaged 135 targets, 79 receptions, and 1,173 yards per season. Since turning 30, Green has struggled to stay healthy and when he’s on the field he’s nowhere near the dominant presence he once was; even with a resurgence in Arizona this year, Green is still not one of the top 40 players at his position.

Doug Baldwin

Not the 1,500-yard player that some of his peers were, Baldwin no less was setup for long-term success like a Derrick Mason would be in the decades before him. He made the Pro Bowl at age 29, but Baldwin was not the same player at 30 and he never played in the NFL again after that season.

Golden Tate

Playing with Matthew Stafford from ages 26-29, Tate averaged 93 receptions and 1,056 yards per season. Since turning 30, he dipped to 52 and 620. Tate is out of the NFL this year, so his career ended at 32.

Dez Bryant

Who could have had a better argument as the next Chad Johnson or a mini-me version of Terrell Owens? Dez spent his entire 20’s with the Cowboys, peaking in 2014 when he was 26-years-old: 88 receptions, 1,320 yards, 16 TD.

The next three seasons with Dallas were disappointing, he tore his Achilles when he was 30, and his brief comeback in 2020 with the Ravens resulted in 47 yards over six games.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The types of wideouts who we used to expect to get 14 seasons, then 11-12 seasons, now look to be getting at most eight or nine seasons. And these are the good wide receivers.

THE LAST FOUR YEARS

Following that dip to only thirteen 1,000-yard wideouts in 2017, the number went back up to 18 in 2018, then 25 (nearly double the 2017 total) in 2019.

The combined number of age-30 receivers among those 43 names: three. That is just 7-percent of all 1,000-yard receivers in that two-year span. Down from 26-percent only a couple of years earlier.

But then, turning 30 was not necessarily even the really big concern for a wideout then. Turning 29 may be just as bad.

2018:

1000-yards: 18

30+: 1 (Antonio Brown)

Age-29: 2 (Julio Jones, TY Hilton)

2019:

1000-yards: 25

30+: 2 (Julio, Julian Edelman)

Age-29: 1 (John Brown)

You can drop this number down from 1,000 yards to 800 yards and it really will not make much of a difference. The reality is that you cannot adjust this by any measure and suddenly find a bunch of super talented 29+ year old wide receivers who I managed to cherry pick out of this article. Those players do not exist like they did 20, 10, or even five years ago. If there was any, you’d at least expect that list to include...

Julio Jones

If there was ever a receiver in the last three years who you would expect to potentially meet the “Randy Moss, Jerry Rice” line, it’s Julio Jones. From ages 25-30, Jones consistently crossed over 1,400 yards and he averaged: 103 receptions, 1,564 yards, 6 TDs.

Then last season, at 31, Julio started to show signs of decline with the Falcons. He was traded to the Titans for basically a second round pick and here are his numbers with Tennessee: nine games, 26 receptions, 376 yards, 0 TD.

2020-2021

Last season, Marvin Jones led all 30+ wide receivers with 978 yards. Signed as a free agent by the Jaguars, Jones has 56 catches for 624 yards this season.

The next-closest were Cole Beasley, Adam Thielen, Jones, Hilton, and Emmanuel Sanders. Those five players were between 726 and 967 yards. All five are on pace to have lower totals in 2021, even with the 17th game added onto the schedule. Some, especially Jones and Hilton, look much worse.

Some of this downfall has to be attributed to injuries, which is part of getting older, but that only strengthens the point that wide receivers are getting pushed out of the league at an earlier rate than ever: one bad injury can end a career now, not necessarily because the tank is empty but because the team assumes less risk by replacing said veteran through the draft—and the draft is not only more rich with wideout talent than ever, but teams are also looking for pass-catchers at tight end and running back more than previously.

The Falcons trade Julio Jones for a second round pick, draft Kyle Pitts, save a ton of money

The Bengals part with A.J. Green, draft Ja’Marr Chase, get younger, healthier, and richer

The Giants sign Kenny Golladay and the Ravens add Sammy Watkins, but this doesn’t prevent either team from drafting a wide receiver in the first round this year; which was smart because Golladay and Watkins do seem a lot older than their counterparts and they’ve got a ways to go before turning 30

For years now we’ve heard the argument that “running backs don’t matter” based on fungibility at the position and values on day two of the draft outclassing the first rounders, but what will become of wide receivers if teams keep churning them out for new weapons the closer they get to 30?

“Whatever happened to...?”

Going into the 2021 season, PFF ranked the top-32 wide receivers in the NFL and I want to highlight some of those names with updates on how their 2021 season is going:

  • 2. DeAndre Hopkins — The 29-year-old has played in 10 games and his season-high is six catches for 87 yards (total: 42 catches, 572 yards, 8 TD)
  • 4. Allen Robinson — The 28-year-old has played in 10 games and his season-high is 68 yards (total: 32 catches, 353 yards, 1 TD)
  • 5. Julio Jones — Total: 26 catches, 376 yards, 0 TD
  • 7. Michael Thomas — “Thomas was limited by injury in 2020 and didn’t quite live up to expectations when healthy, earning a 78.9 receiving grade and generating 1.93 yards per route run for the year. But he has still been one of the three highest-graded and most productive (2.47 yards per route run in career) wide receivers since entering the league in 2016.” The 28-year-old has played in seven games over the last two years.
  • 9. Adam Thielen — The 31-year-old has missed two games, he has 64 catches for 686 yards, 10 TDs
  • 16. Keenan Allen — At 29, Allen remains a productive threat, albeit with a better QB than most of these other names (total: 92 catches, 1,007 yards, 5 TD)
  • 18. Odell Beckham, Jr — Turned 29 last month; OBJ has 33 catches for 443 yards in 11 games with the Browns and Rams
  • 19. Kenny Golladay — Turned 28 last month; Golladay was considered a risky free agent signing by many and the result is 31 catches on 62 targets, 477 yards and zero touchdowns in 11 games
  • 21. Jarvis Landry — Turned 29 last month; Landry has 38 catches on 62 targets, gaining 397 yards and one touchdown; he’s caught four touchdowns over the last two seasons
  • 22. Tyler Lockett — The 29-year-old remains productive and he has five 100-yard games this season
  • 23. Cole Beasley — The 32-year-old has seen his Yards/game drop by 20, his Yards/target drop by almost three full yards, and he is averaging only 8.4 yards per catch
  • 24. Antonio Brown — He actually has three games of 90+ yards and a TD this season out of only five appearances—none since Week 6. Whether Brown has a future in the NFL is unclear
  • 27. DeVante Parker — Soon-to-be 29, Parker has missed half of the season and he is averaging 65 yards per game, down from 75 yards per game two years ago, albeit with a new QB
  • 29. Robert Woods — The 29-year-old Woods was having roughly the season expected of him prior to tearing his ACL in Week 9; how much this injury impacts Woods’ future prospects is a matter of debate that I am clearly keenly interested in
  • 30. Cooper Kupp — Yeah, just wanna point out that Cooper Kupp was PFF’s 30th-best wide receiver going into the year... “He isn’t higher on this list because of his ability, or lack thereof, to effectively win on his own from the outside.”

Of the 15 wide receivers on PFF’s preseason list from this year who were over or nearing 30 (Davante Adams was ranked first and coincidentally today is his 29th birthday), I would argue that at least 12 have been disappointing for one reason or another. What’s perhaps most interesting is that in addition to the names above, there were also quite a few other disappointments (Corey Davis, Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper, DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Will Fuller, Courtland Sutton) and who knows, we might see more than 20 new names in PFF’s rankings to open next year.

That’s a lot of turnover and I guarantee that they will be on average, much younger than the 2021 list.

How will this impact the LA Rams?

Finally, we have to talk about Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Odell Beckham, Jr.

Robert Woods - Turns 30 on April 10, 2022

The team will have to decide whether or not to keep Woods at a salary of $15.7 million, release Woods prior to June 1st for $3.6 million in savings, release Woods with post-June 1 for $10 million in savings, or renegotiate a new deal with Woods to lower his salary cap.

The Rams drafted Van Jefferson in the second round in 2020 and have already gotten a taste of how the offense can operate with him starting over Woods; it would be surprising if the team sees Woods as a “$15 million receiver” coming off of ACL surgery.

Odell Beckham Jr - Turns 30 on November 5, 2022

Beckham will be a free agent in March. His most recent game with 90 or more yards was October 13, 2019. Barring a dramatic turnaround in the next two months, Beckham should not be a priority free agent for the Rams or anyone else. Which is quite a statement—

In some ways, Beckham kind of created this world of spectacular young wide receivers that we live in today. His one-handed catch against the Cowboys was arguably one of the top-five plays of the decade and even if he didn’t invent the technique, he popularized outstanding grabs and suddenly the magic of the position grew by leaps and bounds in the seasons since.

OBJ could once lay claim to being the most famous player in the entire National Football League, but even before he turned 29 he appeared to be a shadow of his former self. Blame it on injuries if you want to, the fact is that one “OBJ” case would be an exception; when there isn’t a single 30+ “OBJ” in the league, it means that the rule says: You can’t be a wide receiver over 30 anymore.

Beckham will likely spend next summer “looking for the right fit for my talents” instead of being subject to a bidding war for his services and that says A LOT.

Cooper Kupp — Turns 29 on June 15, 2022

In saying nothing negative at all about Cooper Kupp whatsoever, I am confident that 2021 will be the best season of his career. Probably by a lot. That’s what happens when a wide receiver challenges for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year; it’s not like being Aaron Donald or a quarterback, very few players lead the NFL in receiving more than once.

Kupp went from 65 yards per game with Jared Goff last season to 116 yards per game with Matthew Stafford this season. The “Stafford Effect” could mean that Cooper Kupp just gets to be a much more dominant player for a few years and barring an injury, what would hold him back? Very little.

However, a completely rational and sane Falcons fan would have said the same thing about Julio Jones after he had 1,677 yards in 2018 and 1,394 yards in 2019.

A rational Saints fan would have said the same about Michael Thomas after he had 149 catches and 1,725 yards in 2019.

A normal, human Cardinals fan would have said the same about DeAndre Hopkins after he had 1,407 yards last year.

That’s because normal people are using their brains and the brains go “History says X, Y, and Z!” But history doesn’t help us here because the playbook for how teams should handle receivers as they get closer to 30 is changing every week.

Even Stafford saw it happen when he played with perhaps the most respected wide receiver of the century. At age 27, Calvin Johnson caught 122 passes for 1,964 yards, setting the single-season record that Cooper Kupp is looking to break in the next couple of weeks. Johnson then had 1,492 yards the following year, but missed two games. He had 1,077 yards when he was 29, but missed three games.

Finally, Megatron had 88 catches for 1,214 yards when he was 30 and everyone assumed, “Yeah, great, fine—you’ve only played nine seasons, SURELY you can play as long as Terrell Owens!” Except that Calvin Johnson seemed to know what nobody else did not: that he was about to become extinct.

Johnson avoided having a crater year that tainted the memories we have of him and like James Dean, will always be remembered that way. Since his surprising retirement in 2016, teams have followed suit: “If Megatron can’t play at 31, maybe nobody can.”

And since then, really nobody has.

Kupp has a salary cap hit of $18.3 million next season and he isn’t going anywhere. But then in 2023, when he’s 30, the Rams can get out from under half of his $18 million salary, the final year of the extension he signed in 2020. I have no reason to believe Kupp won’t finish out his deal, but seeing him get another contract beyond that is beginning to look like it will be more of an exception than an expectation.

It is also why a general manager drafts Van Jefferson, Tutu Atwell, Jacob Harris, and Ben Skowronek in a two-year span, likely followed by more receiver picks in 2022 and 2023.

Cooper Kupp is the best wide receiver in the NFL this year. One question to ponder is where Kupp will be ranked in two years; another is whether or not the top-ranked player in two years is even in the NFL yet.