Fantasy Football: production by age
Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. He also writes for DallasCowboys.com, NBC, and Dallas Morning News.
As a fantasy owner, you’re searching for any and every advantage that you can exploit on draft day. The key word in that sentence is ‘exploit,’ because if you can’t capitalize on an advantage, well, then it’s not really an advantage is it? Namely, if everyone else knows something to be true and plans to act upon it, you can’t necessarily gain any sort of value by utilizing it in your draft.
Last year, for example, owners shrewdly emphasized top-tier quarterbacks because of the scarcity and consistency at the position. The problem was that everyone started to use the same strategy, and quarterbacks jumped up the rankings way too much. The scarcity of players like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees was priced into their ADP (and them some) such that they no long offered value to fantasy owners.
So when you’re searching for those advantages that can propel you to a fantasy championship in 2013, remember that they must be unique—something no one else, or at least few others, are using. Since fantasy football is a game of competing minds—very much a marketplace in the same manner as the stock market—you always need to be a step ahead of the competition.
One of the major factors of player production that I see overlooked the most—and thus one of the most exploitable—is age.
The Role of Age in Fantasy Football Projections
In my newest book Fantasy Football for Smart People: What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know, I researched historic fantasy production for each position. First, let’s take a look at the data, and then draw some conclusions.
The above graph tracks fantasy points per opportunity (points per attempt for quarterbacks and points per touch for running backs, receivers, and tight ends) since 2000. That means we’re looking at efficiency, not overall production. The x-axis is age and the y-axis is the typical percentage of peak efficiency for each player. So the average age of peak efficiency for quarterbacks, for example, has been age 27.
It’s important to note that the peak years of bulk production have typically come later for each position. That’s because most players see more opportunities as they get older and gain the trust of their coaches. The peak age for overall fantasy production at the quarterback position is age 29, for example, even though players at the position peak in efficiency two years earlier. That would suggest that NFL coaches would be wise to utilize their quarterbacks more at a younger age. But for our purposes, it means that if we have a group of 27-year old quarterbacks and a group of 29-year olds with the same projected workload, the younger passers would typically outperform their elders.
As mentioned, the peak age for quarterback efficiency has been 27. You can see that quarterback play remains steady well past the ages for the other positions, however. If this graph were extended, you’d actually see the quarterback line continue uninterrupted up until age 37! That’s the real age that quarterbacks have typically declined. That’s useful information to know for a guy like Drew Brees, who at age 34, is likely to still have about four seasons of near-peak efficiency left in the tank.
• Running Backs
The running back position is the most interesting on this graph. We all know running backs can produce right away, but we typically think of them improving as they age, and then dropping off of a cliff at age 30. Not so. Historically, running backs have produced peak numbers at age 22! That’s the rookie year for many players. From there, it’s a slow decline. The usual drop in production we see from aging runners is due to a decline in workload, not efficiency. In reality, their efficiency has probably been falling for years. Whether you’re in a redraft or dynasty league, youth is the name of the game for running backs.
• Wide Receivers
Wide receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks all come into the league producing just around 80 percent of their eventual peak efficiency. That should actually make you think twice about taking those rookie receivers. While rookie running backs often provide tons of value, few rookie receivers live up to expectations. Actually, there have been only six rookie wide receivers since 2000 to finish in the top 24 at their position! That’s pretty remarkable, especially when you consider that three of them—A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Torrey Smith—came in a single year.
• Tight Ends
The career projection for tight ends is almost exactly the same as that for receivers, at least in fantasy football. You’ll have a difficult time finding a rookie tight end who can produce relevant numbers; Rob Gronkowski is the exception, not the rule.
Putting It Together
To conclude, I’ll leave you with a section from the book:
To better show you the windows of opportunity for the typical player at each position, check out this graph.
This gives you a really good idea of the number of quality (80+ percent of peak) and elite (90+ percent of peak) seasons for the average player at each position. Unsurprisingly, quarterbacks have the longest windows with an average of 13 quality seasons. Meanwhile, tight ends have the fewest quality seasons (six) and elite seasons (four)—worse even than running backs.
Age-based projections are the way of the future, but they’re rarely utilized. I’d go as far as to say that there aren’t more than a couple player traits you should consider before looking at age. The reason is that rates of decline aren’t utilized by the majority of fantasy owners, so they’re not factored into ADP.
Owners in dynasty leagues in particular need to have a keen grasp on age-based projections. It’s extremely useful to know that the difference between 26 and 28-year old running backs is far different than that for tight ends of the same age.