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The Aging Curve: How to Approach Over-30 Options in Fantasy Football

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In 2015, Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte all played at their typical fantasy levels in their age-30 seasons, and Danny Woodhead and Gary Barnidge had career years in their age-30 year as well. As a result, flex players 30 and older had their only season with over 7,000 cumulative PPR points since 2005.

 

And it only went downhill from there.

The over-30 contingent put up 7,014.0 points in 2015. In 2021 and 2022 combined, the older guys put up 7,452.2 points, barely beating the single number in 2015 and less than the 7,563.1 they combined for in 2004.

(One note: All ages in here are as of the start of a given season.)

We know that teams are relying on youth more than ever, that guys enter the league performing better than the previous generations. If you can get a B+ performer for $10 million or a B- one for $1 million, well, B+ is better than B-, but you might as well take the savings for an up-and-comer. The end result, though, is that guys are being put out to pasture earlier than ever. And if a guy has 30 candles on his cake, he better have put some money away, because there generally won’t be much more coming.

That’s all true. We know it.

But it might have changed in 2023.

Over-30 Fantasy Performance

After years of pretty steady decline (at least since 2015, but really the decline over the last 20 years has been pretty dramatic with just the one-year blip), RBs/WRs/TEs over 30 put up nearly 1,000 more PPR points in 2023 than they did in 2022. It was the most fantasy points from the group since 2016:

That’s a big change, percentage-wise almost the same as the big jump from 2014 to 2015 (that was 26.3%; last year’s was 25.0%). So the question is: Did something change for the older players around the league last year, or was it a one-year blip/the product of a lot of new 30-year-olds?

So to dive in, let’s look at it by position.

We’ll start with another chart.

(A note: Quarterbacks are different. Quarterbacks do things way longer. There are only three RB/WR/TEs who have gotten even one touch at age 35 or older the last two years — DeSean Jackson in 2022, Jimmy Graham in 2023, Marcedes Lewis both years — but nine different quarterbacks at 35 or older saw a touch in 2023 alone. Quarterback is not part of this.)

A graph of a graph showing the number of points

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

OK, so this is not about all players 30-plus. It’s about a very specific subgroup. Let’s go position-by-position.

Running Backs 30 and Older

You know how some college sports fans will root for their team’s conference if their own favorite team is eliminated? Vanderbilt fans shouting “S-E-C!” when Alabama makes an NCAA Tournament and what have you?

That’s what I imagine over-30 running backs were doing when watching Raheem Mostert running wild last year:

Mostert’s 267.7 PPR points last year were the most for an over-30 running back in the last 15 years. Nobody else 30 or older put up even 85 PPR points last year, and only Jerick McKinnon, Latavius Murray, Ameer Abdullah, Kyle Juszczyk and Cordarrelle Patterson joined Mostert in even topping a measly 20 points.

Translation: We know running backs are disappearing when they top 30. But they are really disappearing.

That said, there is an interesting tidbit: Running backs generally don’t get touches once they’re 30 or older. But when they do, they stay basically steady:

If your running back is reaching age 30, beware that he might disappear. But if you’re sure he’s not going to disappear, he … might just keep being as efficient as ever.

What It Means for 2024

I’m on record as saying Mostert is an interesting sleeper for 2024, because despite his RB5 finish last year, he’s being cast aside in favor of 2023 rookie De’Von Achane, Achane is undersized and an injury risk, and Mostert is still super fast. Other than Mostert, though, there’s no running back who played last year at 30 or older who promises to be even kind of relevant in fantasy in 2024.

What about the newly 30-year-olds? Well that’s very different! Because while last year’s new 30-year-olds were guys like Abdullah, Melvin Gordon and Ty Montgomery, in 2024, we get two big-timers in Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones.

Their age is among the reasons both backs made my list of potential RB busts in 2024, but even if things go poorly, it’s hard to imagine a situation (absent catastrophic injury) where either guy fails to at least blow past McKinnon’s 84.4 PPR points in 2024.

So … it might be almost nothing beyond Mostert, Henry and Jones, but the chances age-30-and-up running backs fail to climb over last year’s miserable numbers are great. This will rise next year, even if the general takeaway doesn’t change much.

Wide Receivers 30 and Older

You probably remember the chart above that showed wide receivers jumping a crazy amount last year. In addition to bounce-back years from guys who had already passed the 30-year threshold like Adam Thielen and DeAndre Hopkins, 2023 saw the richest class of newly 30-year-olds in a long time, with Mike Evans, Stefon Diggs, Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp (among others) turning 30. The end result: After 3,479.3 PPR points in 2021 and 2022 combined, over-30 receivers put up 2,973.6 points just last year. 

The kicker, though: It was just a quantity thing. From a quality/efficiency perspective, wide receivers have more or less leveled off:

Last year’s mark of 2.61 PPR points per touch for over-30 receivers is more or less what it’s been across recent NFL history. The difference is that after the number of over-30 receivers had held in the low 20s in recent year (and fell as low as 17 in 2021), a full 29 receivers of age got at least one touch in 2023, and many of the ones who did were very relevant names.

In other words, last year’s jump was fascinating, but don’t expect this to become the new normal. Maybe there’s a new high from which the over-30 receivers can fall, but the fall feels inevitable nonetheless.

What It Means for 2024

Guys like Evans, Diggs, Keenan Allen and Davante Adams promise to still be productive receivers. Maybe Thielen and Tyler Lockett continue their declines, and maybe guys like Michael Thomas and Robert Woods are all but done, but the top of the heap of the guys who were already 30 should still be more or less fine (with the caveat that Allen will have a rookie quarterback, Adams has a terrible quarterback situation, and Diggs all but disappeared down the stretch last year, but still, stars are stars).

There’s a heck of a crop of newly 30-year-olds, though. Tyreek Hill, Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper and Mike Williams will all play 2024 in their age-30 seasons, and at least the first three should shape up as fantasy starters (we’ll see how Williams and Rodgers return from injury). That crop promises that, while the over-30 receiver crew might not flirt with 3,000 points like it did in 2023 (that’s just a crazy number), it’s likely going to remain pretty high for the next couple of years at least. Quality is great, but quantity counts for a lot as well.

On the other hand, in addition to guys like the aforementioned Thielen, Lockett and Woods having warning signs, the new 30-year-olds of 2024 (particularly Tyler Boyd and Demarcus Robinson, one of whom remains a free agent and the other who is his offense’s No. 4 weapon at best) probably aren’t very wise choices as sleepers.

Tight Ends 30 and Older

OK, listen. I’m only including tight ends in this research for a sense of completeness. It’s easy to carve out quarterbacks as their own thing, but removing tight ends felt weirder. The trust is that, generally speaking, tight ends age better than their flex peers. Because while running back and wide receivers over 30 have fallen off dramatically over the last 20 years, older tight ends have actually increased their production. The group only topped 1,000 cumulative PPR points in a year once between 2004 and 2011, but climbed over that number in 2012 and hasn’t fallen below since.

That said, there are some points of concern. Yes, George Kittle turned 30 last year and still looks great. But the other over-30 tight ends all showed warning signs. Travis Kelce appeared to start his decline, at least a bit. Logan Thomas is without a job. Darren Waller is increasingly brittle. Zach Ertz had to find a new team. Tyler Higbee has a torn ACL. And among last year’s 29-year-olds (aka the newly 30-year-old crop), only Evan Engram appears to be likely to be a big fantasy factor in 2024. Hunter Henry has barely been a top-20 tight end the last two years, Gerald Everett might be the No. 7 option in his offense.

Kittle, Kelce and Engram should be enough for older tight ends to stay near or above 1,000 PPR points again in 2024. And the group should generally not fall off like their counterparts at other positions do. But a small drop wouldn’t be a shock, and drafters should take that into account when eying older tight ends.

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