Do speed receivers like Mike Wallace present increased risks as they age?
Fantasy football is in some ways a risk management activity. When you select your team in August and rely on player performance from the prior year while drafting, you are exposed to the risk that the players you select don’t perform like they did the previous year. Managing that risk is where fantasy football championships are won and lost.
Primarily I’m worried about what happens to Wallace and Jackson as they enter the second half of their 20s. To understand why I might be worried about what happens to speed receivers as they get older, the following graph illustrates the trend for all wide receivers when you compare their yards/reception at each age to their career peak. Wide receivers are going to average the highest yards/reception when they are young. That number is going to stay relatively high until they are 25, at which time it starts to decline slowly.
In looking at Wallace and Jackson, we’ll be trying to figure out whether their fantasy fortunes might decline by understanding how they score their fantasy points.
First, let’s look at the average value of a target from each yard line on the field so that we can determine an expectation for the value of targets. Not all targets are created equal and as the graph below shows, targets in the red zone are worth a lot more than a target from your own side of the field.
If you look at passing targets through the lens of what can be expected, you start to see why Wallace and DeSean Jackson are such outliers. They don’t score most of their fantasy points in the red zone. In fact, both receivers are average to below average when it comes to the red zone. To illustrate this point, I use the Expected Points data that I show in the graph above and determine a net value for each receiver for every target that they’ve had as pros. I’m going to steal a term from the basketball website The Wages of Wins, and call this measure “Fantasy Points Over Par”. It’s a measure of how each receiver does at each yard on the football field, relative to average.
Here’s what DeSean Jackson’s career targets look like in terms of FPoP.
The blue dots in the graph above are individual targets. The dark blue line is a smoothed trend for Jackson. The dotted green line is zero points above or below average, which essentially makes it the “Par” line. The Par line is based on the trend line for all wide receiver targets from each yard line on the field. So when DeSean Jackson scores a touchdown from his 20 yard line, that has a value of 14 standard fantasy points compared to an expectation of .87 fantasy points. So that touchdown is good for 13.13 Fantasy Points Over Par. The same touchdown scored from the opponent’s 10 yard line would be worth less FPOP both because the yardage would be less and the expectation would be more. A target from the opponent’s 10 yard line is worth 1.8 Expected Points.
What we see is that over Jackson’s career, he has been below average in the red zone, but has been above average on his side of the field.
We can also break out Jackson’s career based on season. When we do that, we get the following graphs.
You can see that Jackson has been below average in the red zone in each year of his career, with the exception of being slightly above average in 2009.
Wallace has been similar to, although better than, DeSean Jackson. Wallace has basically hit his homeruns between his 40 yard line and the red zone. Those homeruns have resulted in significant positive value, or Fantasy Points Over Par. But inside the red zone Wallace has been below average. If we look at Wallace’s career by season we get the following graph.
While Wallace is below average for his career in the red zone, he was actually a little better in the red zone in 2011. But the problem is that Wallace flattened outside the red zone in 2011. He wasn’t as ridiculous as he had been in 2010.
The reason that you would worry about two receivers who have been below average in the red zone is because that’s where the majority of fantasy points are scored, and both receivers showed signs of flattening out in 2011. They didn’t create as much excess value, or FPOP.
So you have two receivers who rely on their production outside the red zone, and at the age of 25, both guys showed signs of tailing off (or flattening out) in that production.
To understand how Jackson and Wallace might differ in their red zone production from other top receivers, let’s look at some of the other WRs who are considered to be #1 WRs. Here is the FPOP graph for the last two years for Calvin Johnson:
Here is Andre Johnson’s graph for the last two seasons:
The shapes of these graphs are what we are looking for in a #1 WR. Ideally a good fantasy receiver should become more efficient in the red zone and around the goal line. The Johnsons and Greg Jennings all have the graph shape that we should expect out of a number one receiver. The reason that efficiency matters is that we want our receivers to be an efficient option for their actual team. We don’t want our receivers to survive on pure targets alone because targets can always change.
There are two wide receivers in the past 10 years that provide good historical comps for what we might hope could happen to Wallace and DJax as they move into the second half of their 20s. One is Greg Jennings and the other is Steve Smith of the Panthers.
While Greg Jennings has always been a speed receiver who works the deep part of the field, he has also always been a great route runner and has had great body control. Those who might hope that Wallace and Jackson could become the kind of route runner that Jennings is, should note that prior to turning 26, Jennings was already efficient in the red zone.
By the time that Jennings was the age that DJax and Wallace are going to be this year, he had already shown efficiency in the red zone.
Steve Smith is probably a better comparable for Wallace and DJax because Smith is closer to their size (Jennings is a big-small receiver). But before Smith turned 26, he had also shown efficiency in the red zone. The graph below shows Smith’s FPoP for his seasons before he turned 26.
Like Jennings, Smith was also already an above average receiver in the red zone by the time he turned 26. In Smith’s case, it was on a small sample of targets, but on the targets he did get, he was extremely efficient.
Mike Wallace and DeSean Jackson present interesting puzzles because at times they have been able to win games on their own for their fantasy owners. But owners also have to remember that they are getting next year’s Mike Wallace and DeSean Jackson, not last year’s or 2010’s Wallace/Jackson. Both Wallace and Jackson will be 26 next year and that is an age that becomes challenging for receivers that rely on speed.
1. Keep up the ridiculous pace of their production outside the red zone.
2. Improve their efficiency in the red zone.
3. Increase the number of targets they receive in order to account for efficiency that could decline as they get older.
It might sound ridiculous to say that 26 is old, but as evidenced by the first graph in this post, receivers don’t get any faster than they are when they’re 22. Sometimes they improve their route running skills, but they don’t get any faster.
None of this is to say that I expect Wallace or Jackson to fall off a cliff this year. But sizing up downside risks is what fantasy football is all about.