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Beware the Over-30 Fantasy Football Option

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Intellectually, as a fantasy football player, you probably already downgrade flex options past their 30th birthday. It’s ingrained in us — players drop off as they age, 30 is the kiss of death, all that.

Let me tell you right now that however much you downgrade the older players, it probably isn’t enough.

 

Obviously, this doesn’t apply nearly the same way to quarterbacks as it does to the other positions — in 2002, over-30 quarterbacks accounted for 3,279.2 fantasy points; in 2021, it was 3,506.9 — but the second you start looking at skill-position players of a certain age, you should stop looking at them and do almost literally anything else.

To wit:

Other than a random spike in 2015 (buoyed by big seasons from newly 30-year-olds like Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Danny Woodhead, Gary Barnidge, Greg Olsen and Matt Forte), it’s been a pretty steady decline for the over-30 contingent for 20 years now.

(For the sake of this article, players’ ages are all as of Dec. 31 in a given season. So some of these players will amass their work at age 29. But since we’re consistent on the cutoff, the point still works.)

Where Are the Declines Coming From?

The immediate instinct with these numbers is to place all the blame on running backs. After all, that’s the position that by acclimation is the “doesn’t matter” spot, where players are increasingly cast aside rather than giving them big money. And it’s true, over-30 running backs have plummeted in production in recent years. But you know what? Wide receivers have fared just as poorly, and perhaps worse:

In 2002, over-30 wide receivers combined for 4,307.3 PPR points. In 2021, that number was 1,503.5. The trend is the same at running back, going from 2,339.8 in 2002 (and climbing until 2004!) down to 963.2 last year (up from 739.6 two years ago).

(Over-30 tight ends have fared mostly fine, climbing back to roughly their starting point after a fallow period in the mid-2000s. In 2002, over-30 tight ends put up 1,409.8 PPR points; in 2020, that was 1,409.3.)

 

Are the Over-30 Players Playing Worse?

Here’s the thing: the over-30 players who do get work around the league these days are performing more or less the same as they always have. Over-30 running backs averaged 0.93 PPR points per touch in 2002, 0.92 in 2021. Receivers (remember, their touches are going to be more valuable, given they are basically all receptions) went from 2.61 to 2.67. Tight ends, 2.55 to 2.62. Here, look:

PPR Points Per Touch For Over-30 Players By Position, 2002-2021
  RB WR TE
2002 0.929 2.609 2.549
2003 0.813 2.706 2.641
2004 0.919 2.905 2.634
2005 0.858 2.825 2.376
2006 0.884 2.705 2.367
2007 0.735 2.738 2.598
2008 0.828 2.659 2.436
2009 0.793 2.731 2.445
2010 0.831 2.645 2.651
2011 0.769 2.755 2.549
2012 0.830 2.659 2.474
2013 0.818 2.647 2.568
2014 0.919 2.575 2.737
2015 0.861 2.917 2.579
2016 0.767 2.602 2.508
2017 0.616 2.560 2.545
2018 0.696 2.678 2.720
2019 0.806 2.530 2.682
2020 0.809 2.548 2.807
2021 0.916 2.661 2.621

It bounced around a bit, but the core takeaway is still fair: If you’re getting touches past 30 years old, you’ll probably be good enough. The problem is … you probably aren’t going to get those touches. This chart shows the total number of touches for over-30 players by year. The trend is, uh, dramatic:

Total Touches For Over-30 Players By Position, 2002-2021
  RB WR TE
2002 2,518 1,651 553
2003 3,289 1,370 393
2004 3,239 1,471 321
2005 2,902 1,484 268
2006 1,859 1,533 293
2007 1,498 1,620 332
2008 1,996 1,455 346
2009 2,405 1,275 410
2010 1,556 1,028 509
2011 1,287 1,164 371
2012 942 1,051 572
2013 1,514 1,047 418
2014 1,070 1,262 440
2015 2,339 1,009 831
2016 1,954 1,050 653
2017 1,512 823 561
2018 1,326 918 384
2019 918 769 468
2020 970 881 502
2021 1,052 565 472

Once again, we see at tight end that there isn’t that much dropoff. But over-30 running backs had 2,022 touches the last two years combined compared to 2,518 in 2002. Over-30 wide receivers had 1,446 the last two years, 1.651 in 2002. Again: If you’re getting touches past 30 years old, you’re probably doing fine, but the simple truth is you probably aren’t getting touches.

So where does that leave us? Let’s take a look at some of the older options heading into 2022:

 

The Already Over-30 Group

In 2021, 45 players 30 or older got at least 1 touch, ranging from Cordarrelle Patterson’s 205 to Nick Bellore’s 1. Travis Kelce fared the best, putting up 161.8 PPR points, and 15 of the group managed at least 100 PPR points (that’s a very friendly cutoff, too, as barely relevant names like Latavius Murray and Rex Burkhead reached the 100-point mark.

For fantasy, there were only a few names over 30 we needed to know about last year, and potentially even fewer in 2022:

Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs

Remember, tight ends fare better than their RB/WR counterparts. There’s no real reason to expect a dramatic falloff from Kelce any time soon. That said … remember, Kelce is sneaky-older than it feels like. He’s only 5 months younger than Rob Gronkowski, who has already retired once and might do so again. Kelce is still a top-two tight end in drafts this year, but if he starts to regress, don’t be too shocked.

Cordarrelle Patterson, RB, free agent

Patterson had his real breakout last year, which is good because he’s a free agent now and looking to get paid. On the other hand, would you want your favorite team to put down serious money on a running back who turns 31 Thursday and has exactly one fantasy-productive season? Patterson is maybe the most “caveat emptor” option in this year’s free agent class.

Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Adam Thielen will almost certainly still be the No. 2 receiver in Minnesota this year, and his nose for the end zone appears as strong as ever. That said, after playing every game his first five years in the league, he’s missed time in each of the last three seasons. Expect Thielen to be fine-to-better when he’s around, but don’t expect a full 17 games. Not anymore.

Marvin Jones, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

Marvin Jones still sits atop the pecking order in the Jaguars’ receiver room even after their free agency spending spree. He’s played all 33 games the last two years and has 800-plus yards in six of the last seven seasons, 9-plus touchdowns in three of the last five. He almost certainly doesn’t have WR1 potential, but it’s also hard to see him falling below “reasonable flex” level. 

Other over-30 options from 2021

Notice a lot of free agents on that list? I did. Think they’ll all find deals for 2022? I don’t.

The New 30-Year-olds

We had 39 players get at least 1 touch at RB/WR/TE last year, from Devontae Booker at 185 down to Tommylee Lewis, Diontae Spencer, Eric Tomlinson and Kevin White at 1 apiece. Remember, only 45 players 30 or older total got a touch last year. So a lot of our 2021 29-year-olds are just going to disappear like they got Thanos-snapped up out of here. But here are the new 30-year-olds we need to keep an eye on.

Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers

It’s hard to imagine the peak 29-year-olds disappearing at 30. And Davante Adams is about as peak as it gets. He’s topped 1,300 yards three of the last four years (only coming up short in his “missed four games” 2019, with career-highs in yards (1,553), receptions (123) and targets (169, tied with 2018) last year. Assuming he and the Packers figure out this franchise tag situation (Adams has said he won’t play on the tag), he’s the 2022 WR1 or 2.

Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

Keenan Allen grew a reputation for being injury-prone early in his career, missing three games in his first two seasons and then 23 in his next two. Well, from 25 to 29, he played 78 of a possible 83 games (and his one missed game last year was on the Reserve/COVID-19 List), and he’s topped 1,100 yards in four of his last five. He’s fine.

DeAndre Hopkins WR, Arizona Cardinals

It would be understandable to have some DeAndre Hopkins worries. He was excellent in his first year in Arizona in 2020, but he fell off in almost every department in 2021, with his fantasy-point-per-game numbers buoyed by an unsustainable 8 touchdowns on 64 targets and with him missing seven games. Hopkins likely isn’t going to fall off a cliff in 2022, but the WR1 days might be in the past.

Darren Waller, TE, Las Vegas Raiders

Darren Waller is sneaky-old, a product of some early-career hiccups and barely seeing any playing time until his 27-year-old season in 2019. That means there’s less tread on the tires than there is for some other players, but it also means his shelf life is shorter, and coming off a 2021 where he missed 6 games and only scored twice on 93 targets, he’s solidly a second-tier tight end at this point.

The Running Backs

Running back wasn’t great among the 30-year-old contingent last year, but it was a downright disaster for the 29-year-olds. Only 10 29-year-old running backs saw any work last year, and of that list, three (Keith Smith, Michael Burton, Derek Watt) were fullbacks. Not a single one of the seven actual running backs on the list is actually under contract for 2022 as of this writing, with Raheem Mostert and maybe James White the only ones worth even slightly monitoring for fantasy. What I’m saying is, the over-30 RB numbers are about to fall even further.

Other 29-year-old options from 2021

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