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How Old is Too Old in Fantasy Football Years?

By Jared Smola | Updated on Tue, 23 May 2023 . 1:27 PM EDT

What goes up, must come down. One of the most basic physics lessons applies equally well to fantasy football rankings and production. There’s no feeling like having a player perform at his peak while he’s on your fantasy squad. Conversely, owning a player the year he’s suddenly no longer fantasy relevant can make you wanna puke every Sunday.

Studying statistics from the careers of players who have retired throughout the last decade will give us insight into making better educated guesses as current players enter the twilight of their careers. We’ll learn about the timing of when players hit their peak productivity. We’ll then study player decline from fantasy relevance.

The goal of this article is to help astute fantasy owners like you assess player risk on draft day and beyond.

The Fantasy Peak for QBs

In terms of fantasy production, each of the QBs studied began his 3-year peak production no later than his 5th year. 60% of the QBs had completed their peak performance by the end of that 5th year in the NFL. The remaining 40% had completed their peak years by the end of their 7th seasons. In each case, 70% of those QBs did NOT produce another season matching their 3-year peaks.

On a side note, betting on a rebound year seems to be a sucker bet. Only Brett Favre (at 35, 38, and 40 years old), Kurt Warner (37) and Drew Bledsoe (33), were able to briefly turn back the hands of time for an isolated season similar to the career peak years.

Decline from fantasy relevance

Of the QBs studied, 90% were no longer a starting fantasy option once turning 34 years old. Trent Green was an exception, primarily because he didn’t break out until he was 32 years old, and he was solid through the age of 35. As mentioned above, a few QBs had isolated seasons in which they turned back the clock after the decline, but that was never accomplished with sustained consistency. Half of the QBs studied were no longer fantasy relevant after turning 31 years old. The other half was able to hold out up to 3 more years before losing status as a starting fantasy option.

Using this fantasy football advice for 2014 and beyond

In terms of peak performance, the main lesson learned is that once a QB has 3 years of solid success, don’t pay the price on draft day for that same level of production to return. The QB may still be a useful fantasy option, but just understand your level of expectation in terms of performance.

When considering if a QB will no longer be fantasy relevant, remember, Hall of Fame type players commonly defy the odds set by their mortal counterparts. Currently, there are a few QBs still performing at a high level at an advanced age.

Peyton Manning already appears to be the trailblazer to defy the odds, as he seems poised to produce three peak years in his late 30s. Manning will turn 39 this season. The best comparison to Manning would be Brett Favre, who had a great season at age 40, before falling off a cliff at 41.

Drew Brees (35) hasn’t shown any significant signs of aging, as he’s still at the top of his game. It would be difficult to bet against him until he starts to show at least some minor signs of slowing down.

It’s entirely possible that Tom Brady (37) has started his decline. Last season, he was the 13th QB in terms of fantasy scoring. Brady apologists blame the health of his receiving corps, while his supporters point to his resurgence in the second half of the season as a sign that he’s still elite.Either way, you’re gambling on him in 2014.

The next group of QBs is the one fantasy owners should pay close attention to. Recent history shows that these players could fall off the proverbial cliff.Carson Palmer (35), Tony Romo (34), Matt Schaub (33), Philip Rivers (32), and Ben Roethlisberger (32) are the specific players that fantasy owners will want to be careful before drafting. A solid piece of advice would be to draft a younger QB if you have him ranked almost evenly with his older counterpart on your draft board.

The Fantasy Peak for RBs

Unless there are extenuating circumstances, most RBs perform at their peak very early in their career. When studying the most recent 16 fantasy relevant RBs who are no longer employed by the NFL, more than half had their most productive 3-year stretch by the end of their fourth season.(Read that last sentence again.The younger the better for fantasy RBs!) The players who weren’t at their best in their earliest seasons were usually players who had short-term success later, such as Michael Turner, Thomas Jones, and Cedric Benson.

Decline from fantasy relevance

In studying each of the positions, RBs were easily the most clearly defined. Generally, once they decline, they are not useful in fantasy lineups. Although many people suggest that age 30 is the magic number for decline, 63% of the players studied were no longer fantasy relevant at 28 years old. 25% of the players became non-factors when they were 30 years old. Only LaDainian Tomlinson and Thomas Jones were able to buy some extra time. Each saw their decline at the age of 32.

An interesting finding was in the group of players who were relevant after 28 years of age. 67% of the players who were successful after turning 28 were not full-time players until later in their careers. Only Tomlinson and Edgerrin James had success early in their career before declining later (James at 30 and Tomlinson at 32).

Using this fantasy football advice for 2014 and beyond

The first group of players will all be 31 years old this season and began to show some signs of decline. Frank Gore, Darren Sproles, DeAngelo Williams, and Steven Jackson not only have their age working against them, but each of their teams has other players who they’ll share opportunities with. It might not be wise to expect any of these players to return to levels of production we’ve seen from them in the past. From a probability standpoint, at least half of these players will not be useful in fantasy lineups this year. It also wouldn’t be a shock if all of them were relatively unproductive.

The next group of 8 players, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, Chris Johnson, Reggie Bush, Maurice Jones-Drew, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be either 28 or 29 years old entering the season. (Yeah, there are some big names in that group).There is a significant probability that a number of players in this group will enter the clear decline phase of their career this season. It’s also unlikely that more than a couple players in this group will have more than 2 years of useful fantasy production. History has definitively shown us that RBs don’t age gracefully.

The final group consists of aging players who don’t have a long history of heavy usage. Fred Jackson (33), Danny Woodhead (29), Joique Bell (28), Pierre Thomas (30), and Rashad Jennings (29) will each be trying to defy the odds and extend their useful fantasy days into this season and beyond. Jackson has already set the standard by producing a RB1 season at the age of 31. Although each of these players appears to be a solid fantasy option this year, the probability is that a significant number of them won’t do very well in 2014.

The Peak for Fantasy WRs

As we know, WRs can break out as early as their rookie season (though it is uncommon). But in terms of their peak performance, 57% of those retiring in the last decade had their 3 peak years starting in the player’s 4th season. The other 43% of WRs had their 3 peak years near the beginning of their career. In other words, WRs almost never have their best production after their eighth season in the league. They may still be productive, just not as dominant as they had been previously.

On a side note, after each player completed his peak seasons, 43% went on to have either 1 or 2 seasons in which the player had a resurgence close to their previous career-high numbers.

Decline from fantasy relevance

WR is an interesting position.There are a couple different ways a player can decline. 43% of WRs who retired in the last decade had a significant drop in production but were able to reinvent themselves as possession receivers, allowing their career to be extended.

Derrick Mason, Hines Ward, Donald Driver, Laveranues Coles, Isaac Bruce, and Rod Smith each had a significant drop in career production between the ages of 27 and 32. Each player then remained useful for fantasy football lineups until they were between the ages of 32 and 36. With the exception of Bruce, none of the other players had been considered a long-term elite fantasy option.

The remaining 57% were commonly outside receivers, and when they began to decline, they quickly fell off the fantasy radar. For analysis, this group will be separated into 2 groups.

The first group consists of 3 players will likely be going to the Hall of Fame: Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, and Marvin Harrison. Hall of Fame type players typically have a longer shelf life than other players at the same position. Harrison (34) and Owens (37) were able to consistently post outstanding fantasy seasons until just about the end of their careers. Randy Moss lacked the longevity of his great peers, as he was only able to maintain his dominance until the age of 32.

The second group consists of 5 players, Torry Holt, Plaxico Burress, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Muhsin Muhammad, and Chad Johnson. Each of these players fell out of fantasy relevance between the ages of 28 and 32. For each, the fall was abrupt.

Using this fantasy football advice for 2014 and beyond

There are currently 13 WRs who will begin this season with a minimum age of 30. It’s best to look at them in separate, yet similar groups.

First group consists of 4 WRs who are at least 33 years old. Roddy White (33), Anquan Boldin (34), Steve Smith (35), and Reggie Wayne (36) all find themselves in a cage match with Father Time. Each of these receivers has extended his career by having the ability to be solid possession receivers. The comparable group of retired players who were studied indicate that it’s reasonable for each of these players to be fantasy relevant until roughly the age of 36. White is the only one of this group seemingly to have age on his side. If drafting any of these players, be sure to calculate the age risk when deciding which round to make your selection. The fall from relevance can come with no notice. Of these four, Smith seems closest to the end of the line.

The next group is a tandem of Andre Johnson (33) and Larry Fitzgerald (31). Both of these players could be considered Hall of Fame type players, and neither is simply a deep threat as was Randy Moss. Therefore, both of these players have the potential to maintain greatness into their mid-30s. There is certainly risk any time an aging is player drafted, but history shows that these types of players have a good chance to beat the odds.

The third group consists of Brandon Marshall (30), Vincent Jackson (31), Marques Colston (31), Greg Jennings (31), and Wes Welker (33). Each player has had shortcomings in at least one vital area, but was able to compensate by being great at something else. The margin for error with these players is smaller than those who are more versatile. With the exception of Marshall, every other player in this group has already seen some level of decline. Understand the risk factor these players present before drafting them.

The Peak for Fantasy TEs

There are two different groups of TEs, at least in terms of when they have the peak years of their career. Of the relevant fantasy TEs who have retired in the last decade, half of them started their 3-year peak in their 2nd or 3rd season. The other group began their peak between their 5th and 7th seasons.The late-bloomers generally started out their careers as blocking TEs and developed into pass catchers. In other words, players who come into the league as receiving TEs will generally establish that within their first few years in the league.

Decline from fantasy relevance

The elite Hall of Famers, Tony Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe, never had any real type of decline from fantasy relevance. Both were high-level options until they retired, Gonzalez at 37 and Sharpe at 35.

Otherwise, no other TE was fantasy relevant after the age of 32. Of the group of 7 TEs who fell into this category, 3 were starting-caliber fantasy TEs when reaching the age of 30. These 3 players had one thing in common: each didn’t begin their peak years until at least their 5th year in the league. In other words, they were late-bloomers. The other 4 players who had their peak years earlier in their career were no longer starting options between the ages of 27 and 29.

Not only does the end come very abruptly for most TEs, but once they decline, the likelihood for a bounce back season is low. Not one of the 7 TEs had a resurgent season after their decline.

Using this fantasy football advice for 2014 and beyond

The first players to consider are the 3 aging stars at the position. Antonio Gates (34) was still the 9th best fantasy TE last year, and he will try to have another solid year to match Shannon Sharpe’s example of success until 35. Jason Witten (32) and Vernon Davis (30) have been very good for a long time, though history seems to indicate they might be approaching the end of their fantasy starting days. If you’re eyeing these players, consider drafting a younger player if you have him similarly ranked on your draft board. Don’t write off either of these players because of their age, just have realistic expectations.

The next group are fantasy starting performers from last year, Greg Olsen (29) and Delanie Walker (30). Olsen fits the model of a player who may quickly fall off, so he does carry a moderate level of risk, if not this year, in the near future. Walker was a late-bloomer, so it’s very possible that he has a couple more years of solid production before falling off.

The final group are the aging veterans who have already lost their place as fantasy starters last year. Heath Miller (32) and Owen Daniels (32) will be greatly defying the odds if they’re able to turn things around and be fantasy starters this year. Of course, both guys had an injury that impacted their performances last year. Drafting either of these players seems to be a big risk unless you draft them extremely late and have no concerns about cutting them loose.

In closing

The latest data can be very useful in identifying trends and helping fantasy owners to better manage risk. Owners can offset the risk of a player by drafting him in a later round and making better use of earlier draft choices. Also, once signs of decline are apparent during the season, it could be a wise move to trade the player before the bottom falls out on his production.

In terms of player’s peak years, once it has been established that a player has had a 3-year run of dominance, expect the player to begin some type of downward scoring arc. However, that arc may not be drastic and doesn’t mean a player should be avoided after the peak years -- just be sure to not pay the price the player’s past was worth. Always try to pay for production in the present.

Jared Smola Author Image
Jared Smola, Lead Analyst
Jared has been with Draft Sharks since 2007. He’s now Lead Analyst, heading up the preseason and weekly projections that fuel your Draft War Room and My Team tools. He currently ranks 1st among 133 analysts in draft rankings accuracy.
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