For the last several years, I’ve been hammering this point that wide receivers could go the way of the running back. At least, at some level. No, receivers are not in danger of losing their first round draft statuses or their big money contract extensions like the dilemma that running back have been facing. But those benefits almost exclusively pertain to only two sets of receivers: Draft prospects and players coming off of their rookie contracts who will get their first—perhaps only—veteran “long-term” contracts.
Only a fraction of receivers who get drafted will get multi-year contracts after their rookie contracts expire, and an even tinier fraction than that will see a third contract. The Los Angeles Rams are one of the few teams to sign a star receiver to a third contract recently, extending Cooper Kupp on a three-year, $80.1 million deal in 2022 after he won Super Bowl MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.
That makes Kupp an exception among exceptional players.
However, the eight games missed in 2022, his age-29 season, puts Kupp into an unfortunate category of players who must face the difficult reality of playing a contact sport at a high level for many years. That’s where the business side of the NFL starts to get really ugly for players who sacrifice their bodies and lives for multiple decades: Teams may be just as hesitant to do business with over-29 receivers as they are with first round running backs.
It’s been a reality check for DeAndre Hopkins, a free agent who the Arizona Cardinals cut in May after they failed to find a single team that would make a trade for him, and no receiver has been safe from team skepticism over his age, durability, and value-relative-to-rookies over the better part of the last decade.
UPDATE: Free Agent All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins does NOT seem interested in joining the Buffalo #Bills after responding to an IG a post about Buffalo being open to sign him if he was willing to “Ring Chase.”— MLFootball (@_MLFootball) July 11, 2023
It was two years ago that, I wrote this article—”Turning 29 has not been kind: Wide receivers showing rapid decline”—and fittingly the player pictured in that article is DeAndre Hopkins.
I simply wanted to share a trend with readers that I don’t see any other NFL writers giving its due attention, which is the disappearance of receivers who are 30 and older making any sort of impact in the league in the last six years. This is not me sharing some “weird opinion I have, man”, it’s me sharing data that clearly shows that teams aren’t getting into bed with receivers over 29 very often. When they do, they either cut down on the receivers playing time and targets considerably and/or don’t commit much in the way of years or guaranteed money on the contract.
Remember, this was an article from the end of the 2021 season.
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.
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.
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. Following that dip, 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.
At that point, I mentioned PFF’s list of the top-32 receivers going into the 2021 season and I specifically updated fans at that point where all the 28+ year old receivers were doing that year. This is that list, which by the way, had Cooper Kupp ranked 30TH (and yet you still like PFF....):
Hopkins, Allen Robinson, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Adam Thielen, Keenan Allen, OBJ, Kenny Golladay, Jarvis Landry, Tyler Lockett, Cole Beasley, Antonio Brown, DeVante Parker, Robert Woods, and Kupp.
I then challenged people to come back to me in a couple of years and tell me if the rapid disappearance of receivers was just a “fluke” or not. Well? What do we think now of Robinson, Julio, Thomas, Thielen, Golladay, Landry, Beasley, Antonio, Parker, and Woods?
The ones who are currently signed to NFL teams AND posted at least 800 receiving yards last season? Lockett, who had 1,033. And Kupp, who had 812 over nine games.
Allen had 752 yards and missed seven games. Parker had 539 yards and surprisingly got a new contract from the Patriots recently. OBJ missed the entire season and signed a $15 million contract with the Ravens, but only for one year. Still, I have to admit that Odell Beckham Jr’s contract was an exception I didn’t expect and should be at least partially weighted against his immense marketability value.
Updating with the top receivers in 2022 who were at least 29 years old, that would include Davante Adams (1,516 yards, 30 years old), Stefon Diggs (1,429 yards, 29), Mike Evans (1,124 yards, 29), and Lockett. The next-highest total was Kupp’s 812 yards, followed by Allen’s 752, then Hopkins, who had 717 yards after returning from a six-game suspension.
Hopkins brags that he was “on pace” for 1,400 yards with the Cardinals and that he’s rarely injured, boasting that he could play until he’s 37 (strange that he doesn’t have any confidence about 38, but I digress), but he’s only making my point for me...DeAndre Hopkins IS good. He was also untradeable and there hasn’t been the type of feverish demand for his services in free agency that he expected or that we had come to expect of players like Hopkins in the past.
You can argue, “Well, teams already spent their money! They aren’t prepared to add Hopkins!” And maybe there’s some truth to that. Some. But DeAndre Hopkins has been on the market since the end of the season—Arizona was desperately trying to trade him, remember. All 31 other teams knew that Hopkins would either be traded or released. If the receiver who they knew would become available was not Hopkins, but say, Justin Jefferson, would he be a free agent for longer than the time it takes to say “Justin Jefferson”?
“Well, that’s stupid! DeAndre Hopkins is OLD! Jefferson is YOUNG!”
Again, that’s making my point for me...Hopkins is 31. That is now considered by almost all NFL fans to be “old” for a receiver. It didn’t used to be that way. The NFL made it that way by changing the script.
At 31, Jerry Rice won Offensive Player of the Year in 1993, leading the NFL with 1,503 yards and 15 touchdowns. He led the NFL in receiving at age 32 and 33 also, then led the NFL in catches at age 34. He posted over 1,100 yards at ages 36, 39, and 40.
“But Jerry Rice is the GOAT! You’re an IDIOT!”
I agree that Hopkins is not as good, historically speaking, as Rice. But SOMEBODY has to be the modern day version of Rice, right? We had Antonio Brown, we had Julio Jones, we had Hopkins. Surely, someone could have been the best receiver of his generation and capable of playing at a high level through at least half of his thirties, right?
Well, yes and no.
I do believe that some of these players are capable. I do not believe that teams are giving them the opportunities to be capable because they’re afraid of committing guaranteed money to a position that demands you to be among the fastest players in the league, whereas their rookie contract counterparts are doing the job for a small fraction of the cost.
Brown’s last season over 600 yards came when he was 30. Julio’s last season over 800 yards came when he was 30.
When we’re scouring recent NFL history for Hall of Fame caliber receivers, players who had the most yards in the last 15 years, we see Larry Fitzgerald (transformed to a possession receiver in his 30s, averaging 875 yards per season from age 29-37), Julio, Brown, Calvin Johnson (retired after his age-30 season, kind of pulling a “Quentin Tarantino” and trying to leave before he gets bad), Hopkins, A.J. Green (one 1,000-yard season from age 28-34, averaging 723 yards per season), and Andre Johnson (836 yards per season after turning 30).
And Johnson’s career really ended before this more recent trend to not let receivers get as many opportunities as he had when he had nearly 3,000 yards from age 31-32.
That’s just not the case with what we’ve seen in the last five or six years, and while names like Brown and Julio clearly “failed” the test of being an exception after 30, the next round of prove-it receivers includes Hopkins, Diggs, Adams, Lockett, Allen, Evans, Tyreek Hill, Mike Williams, and Kupp.
The oldest expected starting receivers going into the 2023 season include Thielen (33, cut by the Vikings and now signed by the Panthers, who have been somewhat connected to Hopkins rumors), Adams, Lockett, Allen, Hopkins, and Woods (all 31), then Diggs, Evans, Kupp, Brandin Cooks, Parker, and Michael Thomas (all turning or turned 30).
To put it another way, if one of the 31-year-old receivers gains 1,000 yards, he will be the first of his kind to do so since Julian Edelman had 1,117 in 2019, when he was 33. Before Edelman, it was Fitzgerald in 2017, then Fitzgerald and Jordy Nelson in 2016, then Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall in 2015, then Anquan Boldin, Vincent Jackson, and Steve Smith in 2014.
That’s right, the fifth-most recent receivers aged 31-or-old to gain 1,000 yards are Vincent Jackson, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith. That was nine years ago.
And that’s in spite of the fact that the NFL has never been more of a passing league than it has been in the last 10 years, plus the league added a 17th regular season game in 2021.
For now, Hopkins is a free agent and though he could sign a contract tomorrow that pays him an Odell-like $18 million with incentives, it is highly unlikely at this point that he will get a multi-year contract or the “respect” he thinks he deserves as a receiver who he believes could gain 1,400 yards in 2023. Maybe he could. That’s the part that is so striking: Maybe he could.
If that is true, then it just goes to show that teams are skeptical that 1,400 yards from Hopkins for $20 million isn’t as valuable as maybe 600 yards each from two players making $2-$4 million.
As for 2024, players like Adams, Kupp, Diggs, and Hill are all but assured that they won’t be cut because of how their contracts are structured. Adams, Kupp, and Hill have guaranteed salaries, while Diggs makes too much in prorated bonus money to part with for no reason. However, their ballooned salary cap hits (including $29.7 million for Kupp, which almost feels manageable compared to the $31 million for Hill) at age 30 and older could have teams hesitating about their next wave of veteran free agent receiver signings.
Will the perception of receivers soon follow the perception of running backs? Only time—and money—will tell.