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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]