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Father time is unkind to NFL wide receivers

Hall of Fame wide receivers (recent-ish) seem to be the exception, but is the tide shifting? Is the current NFL a place where WRs can be elite into their early 30s?

NFC Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Unless you are a quarterback, the NFL is a young man’s game with most positions having an age-wall that is well before the age of 30. I studied this for offensive tackles and quarterbacks, but the Raiders’ trade for Davante Adams caused me to look at wide receivers. Adams is currently 29 and he was (arguably) the second best wide receiver in the NFL in 2021.

How long can he keep that up?

If you focus on last season, there were only a handful of WRs who were still a focal point of their teams’ offense and were over 30. There were 52 players with 90 or more targets in 2021. Only four of that 52 were over 30: Marvin Jones (31 - 120 targets), Cole Beasley (32 - 112), Adam Thielen (31 - 95) and A.J. Green (33 - 92). If you make that target threshold 35, then you find a few more “old” WRs still involved in their teams’ offense: Emmanuel Sanders (34), Julio Jones (32), Marquise Goodwin (31), Randall Cobb (31), Tavon Austin (31) and T.Y. Hilton (32).

For all the old WRs that I just listed, you could argue that they all have already hit the “age-wall”. Maybe Thielen and Green haven’t, but the rest likely have.

So I decided to look at the top 20 WRs in NFL history (by catches) to see a number of things.

  1. How good were they before the age of 30?
  2. When did they hit the age wall?
  3. How good were they from the age of 30 to the age of 35 (inclusive)?

To do this I looked at the career arc of all 20 to determine when their production had it’s inevitable dramatic drop-off (when they hit the wall). I then found out how many Pro-Bowls they made before 30 and from 30-35. I also looked at how many catches they averaged before 30 and from 30-35. The data is below. Two former Broncos are on the list, but neither will ever make the Hall of Fame. The “+” denotes guys currently in the HoF.

Rank Player Rec Age he hit the wall PB before 30 Catches per year <30 PB 30 on Catches per year 30-35
1 Jerry Rice+ 1,549 41 6 75 7 89
2 Larry Fitzgerald 1,432 37 7 85 4 90
3 Marvin Harrison+ 1,102 35 3 87 6 87
4 Cris Carter+ 1,101 37 2 63 6 95
5 Tim Brown+ 1,094 37 5 69 4 89
6 Terrell Owens+ 1,078 35 3 73 3 73
7 Anquan Boldin 1,076 36 3 84 0 70
8 Reggie Wayne 1,070 34 2 70 4 85
9 Andre Johnson 1,062 34 5 84 2 65
10 Steve Smith Sr. 1,031 36 4 64 1 68
11 Isaac Bruce+ 1,024 35 4 68 0 67
12 Hines Ward 1,000 34 4 72 0 71
13 Randy Moss+ 982 32 5 75 1 42
14 Brandon Marshall 970 32 5 89 1 52
15 Andre Reed+ 951 35 6 65 1 59
16 Derrick Mason 943 36 2 51 0 84
17 Art Monk+ 940 35 3 67 0 64
18 Antonio Brown 928 31 6 92 1 49
19 Torry Holt 920 32 5 88 2 75
20 Wes Welker 903 32 3 88 2 75

The average age for this group to hit the wall was 34.8 (so 35). I was surprised to see how well those top five guys played in their early and even late 30s. Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter and Tim Brown combined to make 27 Pro-Bowl appearances when they were between the ages of 30 and 35. Jerry Rice made the Pro-Bowl twice AFTER the age of 35 (at 36 and 40). Jerry Rice is to WRs what Tom Brady is to QBs.

If we look at this graphically in terms of catches by age, it becomes more clear just how rare it is for even the best WRs ever, to continue playing well into their early 30s.

The above graph shows catches by age for the top 10 WRs in terms of career catches. You can see that their is a fair amount of area under the curves after the age of 30. Now compare that to the guys who are 11-20 on the career catch list (note that Antonio Brown is still active - sort of).

For these guys, the catches are very heavily weighted to the left-hand side of the 30 age line. Only one of the guys on this chart had his career year in terms of catches after 30 - Derrick Mason. He had 103 catches with Baltimore in 2007 at the age of 33. This is a strong contrast to the first graph where Marvin Harrison had his career year at the age of 30 and Jerry Rice had his at the age of 33. Larry Fitzgerald had his three best years (by catches) when he was 32, 33 and 34 years old.

Three guys in the top 20 actually averaged significantly more catches per year when they were 30-35 than they did before they were 30: Derrick Mason (33 more catches per year), Cris Carter (32) and Tim Brown (20). On the flipside, there are three guys who dropped by 20 catches or more after the age of 30: Antonio Brown (-43), Brandon Marshall (-37) and Randy Moss (-33).

So my conclusion from this is that all-time great wide receivers can continue to play well into and even beyond their early 30s, but even all-time greats can hit the wall not long after the age of 30. Randy Moss and Brandon Marshall hit the wall at the age of 32 as did Torry Holt and Wes Welker. Antonio Brown may have hit it at the age of 31. Looking beyond the top 20 in catches, we find guys like Rod Smith who hit the wall at the age of 35, Keyshawn Johnson (34), James Lofton (36) and Charlie Joiner (38). However, we also find guys like Steve Largent (33), Chad Johnson (32), Michael Irvin (32), Andre Rison (31) and Calvin Johnson (30). [Megatron chose to walk away so he really didn’t hit the wall at the age of 30].

Beloved and recently departed former Bronco Demaryius Thomas hit the wall at the age of 31.

While I would love to laugh at the Raiders for giving up 2022 first and second round picks to acquire Adams, he could very well continue to be an elite wide receiver for another five or six years. If that happens, this will look like a great move by the Raiders, who maybe have a four or five year window during which Derek Carr will still be an above average QB. That is unless McD decides to trade him away like he did Jay Cutler.

It should also be noted that Adams has only played two full seasons (all regular season games) twice during his eight year NFL career. His injury history is not great, but he has shown an ability to play through minor injuries.

Poll

After seeing the data, how many years does Davante Adams have before he hits the age well?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    One
    (77 votes)
  • 27%
    Two
    (268 votes)
  • 36%
    Three
    (357 votes)
  • 17%
    Four
    (169 votes)
  • 10%
    Five or more
    (106 votes)
977 votes total Vote Now