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Yes, The NFL Is Getting Younger

An interesting article from Kevin Clark at The Ringer this week, arguing that the NFL has an age problem. Let’s start by acknowledging that there are two claims in that statement: one, that the NFL is getting younger, and two, that this is a problem. I am only going to address the first one, but feel free to discuss either one in the comments.

The reason I’m not going to address the second point is that it is much tougher to analyze objectively. While Clark’s argument could be true, it’s no more convincing than Jason Lisk’s argument to the contrary: i.e., if a league is getting younger, that may be a sign that a league is getting stronger. A youth movement could be a signal that the prior generation of stars was unable to sustain their dominance as they aged because talented new blood was replacing them. Had a bunch of less-talented players entered the last few drafts, those aging stars would have held on, so a young league means a stronger league. Of course, that is just a theory, too. In reality, I feel very comfortable stating that the rookie wage scale is playing the dominant role in the youth movement in the NFL.

And yes, getting back to the first claim, there most certainly is a youth movement in the NFL. Here is a graph showing the weighted (by AV, naturally) age of the entire NFL for each year since 1970, with age being calculated as of 9/1 of each year.

age-nfl

As you can see, there has been a noticeable decline over the last five years, coinciding with the new CBA in 2011. In 2010, the average age was 27.5 years; last year it was down to 27.1, with nearly all of that decline happening in 2011, 2012, and 2013.1

And, to further support some of the claims in Clark’s article, yes, offensive linemen are getting younger, too. Here’s the same graph again, but with two changes: one, the Y-Axis goes from 26 to 28 instead of 25 to 29, and two, I have included just the average AV-weighted age of offensive linemen in orange.

age-nfl-ol

So it does seem that offensive linemen are getting younger at a pretty dramatic rate. But again, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing, or even whether a decrease in quality is something we can measure. Consider that Clark’s article argues that the quality of play at the position is going down, and that Packers coach Mike McCarthy “is particularly concerned about the end of veteran lines, which were staples of the league when he entered as an assistant in 1993.” In another part, John Harbaugh is quoted as bemoaning that offensive linemen don’t know where “blitzers are coming from.”

Okay, but then in a different section, Clark quotes longtime NFL executive Phil Savage bemoaning the decline of defenders in the front seven:

“Look at edge pass rushers, outside linebackers,” Savage said. “A lot of them are one-trick ponies in college. They rely on speed, then they go to the NFL and get locked up and they don’t have a counter move. They can’t get reps at full speed, you can’t replicate this stuff in practice, and then when it’s a real game it’s very difficult.”

If line play is worse on both sides of the ball, is that something really detectable? It seems odd to me to argue that both offensive line play and the quality of play in the front seven are both in decline. That would seem to wash itself out, and certainly be hard to see with the naked eye.

What do you think?

  1. I’m not sure exactly what caused the spike in the early ’90s. My initial thought was free agency, but it’s really ’91 and ’92 that had the big jumps, which is just before the start of free agency. []
  • Nuclear Badger

    Odd that McCarthy bemoans the end of veteran lines and the Packers cut Josh Sitton

    • Good point!

    • Richie

      I was thinking the same thing.

      Though it’s possible he knew it has to happen for cap reasons, but doesn’t like doing it.

  • Jeff

    Could the gradual decline during the 80s be due to the NFL losing veterans to the USFL? The big drop in 87 is obviously the strike and use of scab players. Could the rise in the early 90s just be a slightly delayed impact of the end of the USFL plus, possibly, the start of NFL Europe delaying the debut of some players?

  • Adam

    I’m not buying the decline of offensive lineman, and I don’t think age has any correlation to quality. If o-lines are so terrible, why is offensive efficiency at an all-time high? Unless d-line play has regressed even more heavily than o-line play (which I seriously doubt), these coaches’ comments strike me as “Back in my day” nonsense. I also find it funny that nearly every NFL fanbase thinks their team has the worst offensive line in the league, when 99% of fans (including me) don’t have a clue about evaluating the performance of linemen.

  • Yazan Gable

    It feels like the amount of time available to train and develop players is the bigger issue than players being too young. There have always been players who entered the league in their very early 20s and played well in the NFL, but the amount of time to develop and train them has been reduced greatly because of the recent CBA. This feels almost like an inadequate point to me, but according to DVOA we’ve had the 2013 Seahawks and the 2015 Broncos emerge as historically great defenses despite the supposedly declining play on both sides of the ball because of their youth. Quality of play decreases, offenses are at their highest power and efficiency historically, but in the new CBA era you’ve had two historically dominant defenses with supposedly inferior, one-trick-pony, unable-to-cut-without-tearing-an-ACL defenders against offenses where the linemen don’t even know how to take their stance and receivers are highly limited in their routes and quarterbacks are incapable of making good decisions.

    To me it feels like people are somewhat nostalgically remembering the previous decades. It’s like when a radio station play classic songs and people start claiming music was better back then because they forget all the terrible garbage that was also around and popular. Remember the great quarterbacks of the 90s and forget Akili Smith, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, James Jett, JIM DRUCKENMILLER, the list goes on. Pretend that the quality of play was superior in the past because they were older and not because you had more time to develop them.

  • Richie

    I assume the increase in the late 80s was due to rising salaries and better training techniques. If the money is good, players are willing to stick around longer.

    Then free agency put an end to the lengthening careers.

    • Richie

      What issues did the players strike over in 1987? Could those gains have led to players sticking around longer?

      • strongbasil

        1987 strike was about free agency “plan b”, where teams had control over their top 37 players.

        no gains were made during the strike because the nflpa ended the strike without a new agreement.

        the nflpa fought the legality of “plan b” for the next 5 years in court before they won (sept 1992), and the following year the cba including the new free agency was implemented.

  • strongbasil

    an interesting note:
    in 1990 the nfl reduced the draft eligibility age from 4 years out of high school, to 3 years out of high school. it would seem that this would reduce the average age of players, but the opposite happened.

    i wrote a very long-winded (too long for here) and likely wrong theory about the change in average player age over time.

    https://unsportswoman.wordpress.com/2016/09/11/decreasing-average-nfl-age-theory/

    • Dr__P

      Cost of early picks made teams try to trade away picks

      The new rookie salary schedule tried to minimize that effect