A player's age and experience can have a big say in his prospects for fantasy success.
As we gain experience playing fantasy football, we become increasingly familiar with player aging curves and their effects on statistical output. This knowledge can be helpful, as knowing performance patterns can guide you toward making better draft decisions, trade proposals and in-season pickups. At the same time, this knowledge can be a pitfall, as today's assumptions about player aging curves might not remain tomorrow's truths, and worse, even the best of us can fall prey to gimmicky claims about player aging trends.
Surely if you've played this game for any amount of time, you've heard the theory that running backs fall off a statistical cliff once they celebrate their 30th birthday? Or perhaps you've been told that wide receivers' breakthrough seasons happen during their third year?
This isn't meant to declare either theory utterly wrong. The point is that we should be constantly evaluating, revisiting and revising player aging curves to ensure that these trends haven't shifted, and we should bear in mind that no age-related label is "one size fits all." After all, the game has changed significantly in recent seasons -- it's notoriously more protective of its quarterbacks nowadays and therefore a far more pass-oriented league than it was 15 years ago. Plus, it has seen an uptick in quarterback mobility over the past half-decade or so -- so it stands to reason that player aging trends would transform with the times.
To get a sense of where we're at today, I collected data for the top 100 players who have debuted since the merger (1970 season) at each of the four skill positions, as well as the top 25 at each position to debut since 2000 and 2010, then analyzed them based upon both their ages in the given season as well as their years of experience in the league. The purpose of these sample sizes is to select the effective fantasy football elite, who these takeaways are the most valuable for. Here are the key takeaways in their order of significance in my opinion.
Tight ends enjoy a huge spike in NFL Year No. 2
There is no greater pattern of year-over-year growth -- across any of the four skill positions, three data subsets (since the merger, 2020 or 2010), regardless of trends by age or years in the league -- than second-year tight ends. Among those who debuted since 2000, sophomore tight ends experienced a 98.5% increase in PPR fantasy points per game compared to their rookie-season output. The group then maintained that average through their seventh NFL season and didn't experience significant statistical decline until around 30 years old.
It's a logical finding, considering both the learning curve involved at the position at the NFL level and the differing ways in which the position is often utilized by college teams. Many college tight ends enter the NFL enter as either experienced receivers with limited blocking skills, or elite blockers without much future as pass-catchers, and NFL teams need both from the position. That's why Kyle Pitts was one of the most unusual rookie tight ends, because of his strength in both. Of course, Pitts was one of the most disappointing second-year tight ends in history last season as his per-game production declined by 2.8 PPR fantasy points. But he has one of the most particularly unusual early-career stories we've seem.
Any of the five second-year tight ends above could benefit similarly from their rookie-year experience. Dulcich and Woods are two who fit the "have the receiving chops but didn't initially have the blocking" description, and it could mean either is ready to take a big step forward in 2023.
Running backs decline sharply at age 29, sometimes sooner
Notable 2023 age-29 running back: Derrick Henry
Though the statistical trend is less dramatic than the former entry, this might be the most important new lesson for fantasy managers. Running backs seem to be sharply declining sooner than their 30th birthdays.
Among those who debuted since 2000, running backs experienced a 25.2% decline in PPR points per game, and 37.0% in total PPR points scored, from their age-28 to age-29 seasons. Only 11 running backs have reached their age-28 and 29 seasons since 2010 and the group saw a 16.8% decline in PPR points per game going from ages 26 to 27, 8.4% decline going from 27 to 28 and a 15.3% decline going from 28 to 29.
In fact, running backs are getting fewer opportunities as they advance toward 30 years old. Last season, only 13.8% of all touches by running backs were accrued by those 28 or older, while 8.4% came from those 29 or older. That's a marked downturn from the 16.4% and 13.7% numbers that were accrued by those same groups 10 seasons earlier (in 2012).
Opportunity has had something to do with the shrinking length of running backs' careers, as has the extent of these players' workloads in their younger days. The NFL's shift to a thrift store approach to running backs has been well documented. There have been only 14 RBs selected in the first round of the NFL draft over the past 10 seasons (from 2014 to 2023), after 27 RBs were selected in the 10 drafts prior to 2013 and 31 in the 10 prior to 2003. There is less incentive for teams to invest in aging running backs, considering their potentially heightened cost. Dalvin Cook's release in early June was a good example of this, as he would have been paid more than $14 million in each of the next three seasons but has 1,503 career touches, 83% of which have come in just the past four years.
This is why some of the names above warrant extreme caution in keeper and dynasty leagues. In addition to the wear-and-tear factor for this season, they're in extreme need of producing in 2023 in order to assure a similar role entering 2024. Ekeler specifically might be in the toughest position. He possesses the raw ability to perform beyond this his age-28, season, but is headed for free agency at year's end. He's a surefire first rounder for redraft leagues, but this might be the last great opportunity to trade him in a dynasty or keeper setup.
Henry, meanwhile, enters 2023 as a high risk/reward pick. He has the third-most career touches among running backs (1,877), led the league in carries three of the past four years and missed nine games to conclude 2021 because of a foot fracture.
QBs see their scrambling ability decline between ages 27 and 29
This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, as it can be impacted by the quarterback's specific workload at earlier ages, but it's notable that, among those who debuted since 2000, 27-year-old quarterbacks saw a 25.7% decline in their rushing fantasy production compared to their age-26 season. Additionally, the position's per-game rushing production in the age-27, 28 and 29 seasons was within 0.23 points of each other, signaling a clear plateauing of the group's scrambling skills. The group that debuted since 2010 exhibited similar, albeit not quite as extreme, decline as 27-year-olds (14.2%) while ranging within 0.13 points per game from ages 27-29.
This isn't to suggest that Allen, Mahomes or Watson is destined for a steep decline in rushing ability, especially not as Allen and Mahomes both scored the most fantasy points on rushing plays in a single season in their careers in 2022. It's more cautionary angle as there will come a point when each slows a bit and ultimately attempts fewer rushes. Understand that when you're drafting a mobile quarterback, you want to be targeting those who are younger, typically between the ages of 23 and 25. That group averaged 2.5 rushing fantasy points per game, easily the most fruitful three-year span in the study.
Among the mobile (or potentially mobile) quarterbacks who fit the age 23-25 group entering 2023 are Justin Fields (24), Justin Herbert (24), Jalen Hurts (25), Trevor Lawrence (24) and Tua Tagovailoa (25).
Wide receivers experience their biggest jumps in Years 2 and 5
Just as with tight ends, wide receivers parlay their rookie experience into a significant sophomore-year boost. Among the group that debuted since 2000, second-year wide receivers experienced a whopping 43.0% increase in average PPR points per game, and those who debuted since 2010 improved by 45.0%.
Taking it a step further, the game's most prominent wide receivers typically peaked during their fifth NFL seasons, with that group seeing a 24.5% increase relative to Year No. 4, the second-largest year-over-year boost. That group averaged 17.5 PPR points per game, by far the most at any experience level.
We've seen many rookie receivers breakthrough in recent seasons, but history shows that it can take time for a wide receiver to fully adapt to the NFL playbook and their team's route tree. Five of the six second-year breakthrough wide receivers above were selected in either the first or second round of the NFL draft, and the sixth (Marshall) was a fourth-round pick, underscoring the raw talent seen in them at the time of their NFL arrival. Therefore, it's foolish to write off a wide receiver who disappointed in his rookie season.
This is why Chris Olave, who broke out to a decent extent with 198.2 PPR points last season, is such a compelling candidate to take a big step forward in 2023, especially with a stronger-armed quarterback in Derek Carr throwing to him. Olave, Dotson and Pickens will probably be popular breakthrough picks this season, and for good reason.
Meanwhile, while none of the above fifth-year wide receivers stands out as a clear favorite to have a career year in 2023. History strengthens the case to pay the extra buck to acquire any and Metcalf is a personal favorite to take such a step forward. Geno Smith has proved he is a capable starting quarterback and Metcalf absorbed a healthy 24% target share over final five weeks of last season, separating himself from Tyler Lockett.