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How will DeSean Jackson age?

DeSean Jackson crosses the goal line before discarding the ball

DeSean Jackson crosses the goal line before discarding the ball.

If you believe the rumors, the Eagles are desperately trying to trade wide receiver DeSean Jackson; absent an eligible suitor, and Philadelphia may even cut the three-time Pro Bowler. This is a pretty weird situation; what’s even weirder is how few tangible reasons have been given as to why the Eagles desire to remove him from the roster.

Jackson has a cap hit of $12.75M this year and $12M in each of the next two seasons; that’s obviously a significant amount, and I don’t doubt that Philadelphia feels a bit of buyer’s remorse on that contract. But reading the tea leaves indicates that a high salary cap figure is only part of the issue; unfortunately, without knowing the other reasons, it’s impossible to suggest whether a team would be wise to trade for him. This might be a Randy Moss-to-New England situation, or it could just as easily be a Santonio Holmes-to-the-Jets disaster.

I won’t pretend to have insight as to the answer to that question. As with any trade, a buyer must always be on the lookout for the seller’s true motivation. Putting aside any character or off-the-field issues, any team that acquires Jackson will need to give him a sizable deal, and before doing that, a general manager must come up with a set of projections for Jackson over the next few years. What separates Jackson from most wide receivers is his incredible speed, and that’s been manifested in his high yards per reception average. Over the last three seasons, Jackson’s averaged 16.2 yards per reception, one of the best figures in the league. But does this mean he’ll age better or worse than a similarly-talented possession receiver?

There are a couple of schools of thought here, although first let’s get a disclaimer out of the way. I would love to get my hands on historical Madden ratings, if only for access to their speed ratings for players — and hey, if you know where to get them or you have them, please let me know. Instead, we are forced to use yards per reception as a proxy for speed.1 So, the two schools of thought:

  • Fast receivers age poorly. This is the intuitive answer: after all, once a fast receiver slows down, he’s got nothing to hang his hat on, so to speak. A speedster without speed is not a very good player.
  • Fast receivers age well. This is something Doug Drinen wrote about twelve years ago.2

So which argument wins? Jackson was 27 last year, and averaged 56.5 True Receiving Yards per Game during his age 25, 26, and 27 seasons (using True Receiving Yards, which adjusts for era, makes more sense than using just regular receiving yards). So to test out this theory, I looked at all wide receivers from 1980 to 2009 who averaged between 45 and 70 TRY/G during their age 25-27 seasons. I also calculated their yards per reception (relative to league average, since Y/R has been declining over the past few decades) ratio during that three year period. Finally, I calculated their True Receiving Yards per Game average over their age 28-32 seasons.

The result? The high yards-per-catch receivers fared about the same as the low yards-per-catch receivers. The paragraph above was a lot of data talk, so let me give you some examples.

High Y/R, Age Poorly: Alvin Harper is the shining example here: in fact, he had the highest era-adjusted Y/R average of any player in the sample. His career was essentially over after age 27, although that is usually attributed to his decision to leave Dallas for Tampa Bay. Other examples include Michael Westbrook, Mark Duper, Duriel Harris, Willie Davis, and Derrick Alexander.

High Y/R, Age Well: Anthony Carter is probably the best example. After three solid but sub-1,000 yard seasons at ages 25 through 27 (and a league-high 24.3 yards per reception average at age 27), Carter turned in three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns over his next three seasons in Minnesota. Santana Moss and Plaxico Burress were high Y/R guys who also had strong seasons after turning 27 (Moss seems to be a good example of a speedster who transformed himself into a player who got by on veteran guile as he aged); Roddy White and Steve Largent were not extreme high Y/R receivers from ages 25 to 27 (although they were just a hair behind Jackson after adjusting for era), but they were above-average in that metric, and then were outstanding from ages 28 to 32.

Low Y/R, Age Poorly: Kevin Johnson and Marty Booker stand out as clear examples going the other way. Both were really effective possession receivers early in their career, but could not continue that production once they lost that step they could not afford to lose. Frank Sanders, Carl Pickens, Vance Johnson, and Ike Hilliard were also members of this club.

Low Y/R, Age Well: Wes Welker is the anti-Alvin Harper. Welker at age 30 and 31 caught 240 passes for 2,923 yards and 15 touchdowns and has carved out a potential HOF career. Muhsin Muhammad, Brian Blades, and Haywood Jeffires were also part of this group.

You might be wondering what’s the point of this article. After all, I just spent a lot of words to say that high yards per reception players don’t seem to age any better or worse than low yards per reception receivers. If you thought that beforehand, then maybe you learned nothing from this article. But I’ve always thought that a “no difference” answer is often just as meaningful as any other type of answer. Not every study should provide a revelation; sometimes, finding out that there is no clear answer is a clear answer.

  1. Obviously this isn’t perfect. A player like Percy Harvin is not just fast but extremely agile; as a result, he’s used on screen passes quite frequently, which depresses his yards/reception average. Ditto Randall Cobb, and several other receivers, although not Jackson. []
  2. Twelve years ago?!?!) As Doug put it, when the faster guy loses a step, he can’t get by on pure speed anymore, but if he’s willing to make some adjustments he’s still fast enough to have a chance of being a good receiver. When the slower guy loses a step, he’s now too slow to be a legitimate NFL receiver. All the guile in the world won’t help him. ((Unless he’s Anquan Boldin. []
  • OCC
  • I know this isn’t exactly a strategy website, but I have often argued for teams to use aging speedsters in the slot, assuming they still have lateral quickness. I made that argument for Santana Moss and your beloved Steve Smith. Watching Jackson on punt returns, it is pretty clear he has the agility to play in the slot (that doesn’t mean he has the mental capability, of course).

    What do you think?

    • James

      I think he’s physically capable, but I seem to remember a season or two ago that DJax had a bad case of alligator arms and generally refused to run routes over the middle of the field.

      • I haven’t watched enough Eagles games to make a judgment, but I wonder if that hit from Dunta Robinson a few years ago changed the way he ran over the middle and gave him a case of the Pinkstons. The other guys I mentioned, Moss and Smith, are pretty well regarded for being tough, so their transition would make a lot more practical sense.

  • dan in philly

    How do small fast receivers age? Jackson is quite a bit smaller than Plax. I suspect their non-speedskills don’t quite compare.

  • Kibbles

    Surprised that we didn’t see Joey Galloway’s name crop up during this post. In addition to being a noted speedster, he also happened to be one of the best “old” receivers of all time (non-Jerry Rice division). He’s one of three players to top 1,000 yards at age 36 or older (the others are Rice and Jimmy Smith), and he’s one of three receivers to record any receiving stats at all at age 39 or older (the others are Rice and Charlie Joiner). If you count all players, fullback Tony Richardson and… Brett Favre join Galloway, Joiner, and Rice as the only players with positive receiving yardage after their 39th birthday.

    I wonder if he had too many TRY to qualify during his age 25-27 stretch. I suspect the same happened to Terry Glenn, another speedster who put up a couple of great post-30 seasons.

    • curt durt

      LOL @ the non Jerry Rice division

  • curt durt

    I liked your article even though it seemed like it came up with the obvious the numbers dont always have to reveal a secret to be right. I’m gonna shoot a spitball at the wall when it comes to Jackson. First lets laugh at the fact that the Eagles finally have a receiver after they needed one for so long. But I think it’s very possible that they have so much confidence in the system they are using now that they can plug in any receiver. Its the ol system theory maybe?

  • Tim Truemper

    Chase- Its good to see an anaylysis that doesn’t necessarily support a hypothesis, one way or another. “Non-significant” are important too (as you stated above in your own way). An analysis like this helps to dispel subjective notions of what happens in player careers that are based on selective bias (motivated reasoning). I’m using my jargonator today, BTW.