The NFL is unquestionably a young man’s league. The average age of an NFL player is somewhere around 26, the average age of non-quarterbacks is lower than that, and the best-selling jersey in the league currently belongs to a 21-year-old who has yet to play a snap in the pros.
Fake football is not much different. Only 24 of the top-150 players being drafted this season are 30 or older, and only seven of the top 50 have reached the big three zero. When quarterbacks are removed, those numbers fall to 16 and four respectively.
This ageism is not without merit. Studies have shown running backs peak as early as age 24. More terrifyingly for Adrian Peterson owners, the same studies show backs begin a precipitous decline in effectiveness as early as age 26. Looking at those numbers, not going near a 30-plus running back seems like a sound decision.
The story is a bit different for wide receivers, though. They also peak somewhere in their mid-20s, but unlike running backs, wide receivers do not suffer a dramatic decline. They have a much gentler ride into retirement, with the biggest fall off in play not coming until players are well into their mid-30s.
Despite the more graduate fall off, most 30-plus wide outs are still treated like lepers in fantasy drafts. Brandon Marshall is the only one consistently being taken in the top 40, and he is arguably being undervalued by falling below A.J. Green and Julio Jones.
This hesitance to draft old often makes veteran wide receivers the biggest values in fantasy football drafts, and this season is no exception. Here are four members of the 30-plus club to target.
Note: ADP information taken from FantasyFootballCalculator.com and based on a 12-team, standard fantasy football league.
Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons – ADP 4.09
It was unthinkable how bad Roddy White was last season. Despite playing 13 games, White finished outside the top 50 at the wide receiver position and averaged only 6.7 standard fantasy points per contest. It was a stunning fall for a player who has been the model of consistency.
The good news for White supporters is his struggles last year can almost exclusively be attributed to the nagging ankle and hamstring injures he dealt with through most of the season. Once healthy, White reverted back into the productive wide receiver of old, catching 43 balls for 502 yards and two touchdowns over the last five games of 2013.
Completely healthy, there is little reason to think he cannot continue that success into 2014. In fact, the departure of Tony Gonzalez and the wretched state of the Falcons’ defense could create a situation in which White actually sees more targets than he did in his top-10 campaign of 2012.
White carries solid top-12 upside, and is available into the fifth round of some drafts. Go get him.
Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints – ADP 7.04
Colston’s ADP is one of the most confusing on the board. Unlike White, Colston did not fall completely on his face last season. Despite a foot injury that limited him early in the year, Colston was able to finish as the No. 27 fantasy wide receiver.
More importantly, Colston was back to his normal self once he was healthy, posting a 48-601-4 line over the final eight games of the season. That prorated line would have put Colston squarely in the top-15 again, but he is going in the seventh round? Why?
Colston’s plight may come down to a perceived lack of opportunity. The arrival of Brandin Cooks and the likely progression of Kenny Stills could be seen as taking away from Colston, but that is not necessarily true. The Saints lost 143 targets with the departures of Lance Moore and Darren Sproles this offseason, which should be enough to get Stills and Cooks the work they need without taking anything away from Colston.
More likely, Colston’s current ADP is a reflection of the upside addiction that plagues the fantasy community. All Colston does is record top-15 finishes, but that is not good enough for owners lusting after the “ohhs” and “ahhs” in their fantasy drafts. They would rather have the sexy pick that makes the draft room jealous than the solid pick that wins fantasy matchups.
Colston may not be a sexy pick, but as the second receiving option on one of the most prolific offenses in the league, he is a winning one. He is an absolute steal in the seventh round.
Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts – ADP 7.12
Wayne is the oldest of this bunch at 35 and coming off ACL surgery, so the hesitance to draft him is very understandable. Wayne does have a couple things working in his favor, though.
The first is how he has looked early in camp. By all accounts Wayne has looked as good as ever in practice, running every route and looking “incredibly similar” to the Reggie Wayne the Colts saw last season. That Wayne was well on his way to an 87-1161-5 campaign before his knee injury. Those prorated numbers would have put Wayne squarely in the top-20 at the position, and another season like that would make Wayne a great value at the seven-eight turn.
The second is his role in the offense. Luck seems to feel comfortable with Wayne, and as a result he peppers him with targets. Wayne saw 31.7% of the Luck’s targets in 2012, second highest percentage in the league, and saw 25.6% of the Luck’s targets in the seven games he played in 2013.
The rotted husk of Hakeem Nicks will not stop Wayne from seeing at least 20% of the Colts targets, which means 110 targets is Wayne’s non-injury floor this season. Only 30 wide outs saw that many targets last season.
Wayne is not flashy, but he will get good volume in what could be a decent offense. That is well worth a pick in the seventh round.
Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers – ADP 10.09
Boldin’s relatively low ADP is slightly surprising considering how well he performed last season. Boldin both had success from a season-long perspective, posting an 85-1179-7 stat line, and from a weekly perspective with seven top-25 performances.
The easy critique of that success is Boldin played the first eleven games of the season without Michael Crabtree, which allowed him to dominate Colin Kaepernick’s targets. The statistics tell a different story, though.
Boldin actually averaged more targets and receptions in the five games he played with Crabtree last season than the eleven he played without him, and actually saw a higher percentage of the targets than Crabtree when both were healthy. That is unlikely to continue, but it does show Boldin has a place in that offense even with a fully-functioning Crabtree.
There is also the very real possibility the ‘Niners open up their offense after two consecutive seasons with fewer than 440 pass attempts. The offseason addition of Stevie Johnson suggests the team plans to use more three-wide sets this season, and the litany of injuries to the 49ers’ defense should ensure the offense has to chase more games than in the past.
Boldin has a real shot to go over 100 targets again this season, which is tough to say about any of the other receivers going as late. That opportunity alone should make him a good value.
Extra Credit – Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills – ADP 9.01
Suggesting a 33-year-old running back as a sleeper may seem odd considering the opening of this piece, but every rule has exceptions. Fred Jackson is that exception.
The argument for Jackson is very simple. He will be given the opportunities, especially at the goal line. He had 252 touches last season with 45 of those coming in the red zone. After getting a one-year extension this offseason, there is little reason to think the Bills will take Jackson out of that role.
A healthy C.J. Spiller and the newly-acquired Bryce Brown may lighten Jackson’s workload between the twenties, but he is still the unquestioned red-zone back in Buffalo. That gives him good touchdown upside, and makes him a decent value in the ninth round.