Will Age Get in Anquan Boldin’s Way?

Anquan Boldin will be 34 years old in October. Does that matter?

I’ve written about Anquan Boldin before, but when I did back in January, it was about something positive. Boldin was underrated as a receiver in 2013, beating everyone within numberFire’s Target Net Expected Points metric. And he did it at the age of 33.

Today’s piece on Boldin is a little bit more depressing. After signing a two-year deal worth $12 million, I soon realized that this meant Boldin, if he plays out this contract, will be 35 years old when it’s over. And while the age of 35 is fairly young in the majority of industries, in the NFL, Anquan Boldin is a geriatric.

Even when Boldin turns 34 next October, the 49ers wideout will be part of a very select group of wide receivers. In 2013, there were just four wideouts 34 years or older who caught at least one pass. Four. And one of them, Reggie Wayne, missed more than half the season due to injury.

Is this the magical age of wide receiver decline? Perhaps as a whole, but that’s not exactly the intention here. Instead, I want to see if Anquan Boldin’s 2014 will be predictable at all based on his absurd (underrated) age 33 production. After all, every wide receiver is different.

Old Wide Receiver Production

Just because you’re 34 years old doesn’t automatically make you a walking pile of you know what on the football field. After all, since 2000, we’ve seen 12 different seasons where a wide receiver 34 years or older has caught 80 or more balls. That’s pretty impressive considering those guys could be fathers to some of the incoming rookies.

In total, we’ve seen 197 80-plus reception seasons for wide receivers since 2000. In other words, if you were to pull a random 80-plus reception receiver over the last 14 years out of a hat, there’d be a six percent chance he was 34-plus years old.

In terms of 1,000 yard seasons, the results are fairly similar. We’ve seen 21 old wideout campaigns get to 1,000 receiving yards, while there have been 276 total wide receiver seasons with 1,000 or more pass-catching yards. The percentage of old wideouts in this case is roughly 7.6%.

A lot of folks may assume, as a result, that drafting an old wide receiver in fantasy football is off limits. Or, even aside from fantasy football, that having an old wide receiver on the football field isn’t worth it. But there are plenty of things to keep in mind here.

First, every guy is different. Anquan Boldin’s body may age like Benjamin Button’s, who knows? Second, and probably more importantly, there aren’t a lot of receivers getting significant playing time at such an age in the first place. The guys who do see the field often at that age are more than likely NFL successes to begin with.

Anquan Boldin is one of those successes.

Are 34-Year-Old Seasons Predictable?

Instead of looking at wide receivers over Boldin’s eventual 34 years of age (October 2014), I decided to investigate wide receiver seasons when they were strictly 34 years old. More specifically, was a decline predictable from some of these receivers, or did it just come out of nowhere?

Keep in mind, Anquan Boldin’s numbers last year weren’t only fantastic, but severely undervalued. The table below shows his season-end totals in receptions, yards, touchdowns, Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) and Target Net Expected Points (NEP)

ReceptionsYardsTouchdownsReception NEPTarget NEP

If this is your first time reading a numberFire article, you may be unaware what our NEP metric is all about. I’d first take a look at our glossary for some info, but the difference between Reception and Target NEP is exactly what you’d think: Reception NEP looks at points added on catches only, while Target NEP looks at points added on all targets, including receptions.

In 2013, Boldin ranked first in the NFL in Target NEP thanks to sure hands, good quarterback play and advantageous receptions. He also ranked seventh in the league in Reception NEP, only behind absolute studs at the position.

It’ll be a tough task for Boldin to repeat these numbers into next season, not only because the team could change, but because the 49ers run the ball at a higher rate than any other NFL team. Even still, if Boldin gets close to what he did in 2013, he’ll not only be a worthwhile draft selection in fantasy due to age perception, but he’ll be able to contribute a lot for San Francisco once again.

Can he do it?

Well, because we’re looking at wide receivers who played in the NFL at 34 years of age, it’s probably not incredibly valuable to look at pass-catchers who are older than that. Though Anquan Boldin may play out his contract – and probably will – I’m more concerned about next year. And if he performs well, I’ll just do this study again.

Since 2000, we’ve seen 35 wide receiver seasons where a wideout exactly 34 years of age caught a pass. Again, much of this is a result of this age clearly being “old” for an NFL wide receiver. But when you look at their body of work entering that specific season, the vast majority of these wide receivers weren't producing at Boldin's level.

Let’s pretend we’re expecting Boldin to take a massive hit in production, both in raw statistics and within our NEP metrics. Let’s say we think he’ll have somewhere around 60 catches for 750 yards and five touchdowns next season, something Hines Ward did during his age 34 campaign.

Is it possible? Certainly – anything can happen in a football season, and Boldin was more or less that receiver while in Baltimore. But here’s the thing: entering his age 34 season, Hines Ward didn’t see the kind of production Anquan Boldin saw the season before. In fact, Hines Ward’s Reception NEP was a good 33 points below Boldin’s, while his Target NEP was 58 points lower than Boldin’s age 33 season.

When you investigate these 35 seasons from 34-year-old wide receivers since 2000, there’s a very common trend: Those who performed well the season prior typically were the ones who were able to keep up the production.

But what’s more significant for those who think Boldin’s numbers will dramatically dip is the fact that there are only two players who even come remotely close to Boldin’s advanced metrics from his age 33 season who finished with fewer than 1,000 yards in their age 34 season: Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith. The former played in just 7 games, while the latter played in 12. And moreover, both players got back to work in their age 35 season – McCardell caught 70 passes for 917 yards and nine touchdowns, while Jimmy Smith had 74 grabs for 1,172 yards and six scores.

It’s true that a wide receiver of Anquan Boldin’s age typically won't produce. But what’s missing with that kind of analysis is the fact that Anquan Boldin isn’t just another wide receiver – those who produce into their 30s are the ones who can produce into their 30s. They're the ones who have shown that they can ball at an old age.

In 2014, there's obviously a chance that Boldin's numbers dip. It could be due to personnel, or perhaps an injury like we saw with Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith. But in terms of how we value him in real and fake football, we shouldn't necessarily view him any differently than we would another wide receiver. Those same risks occur for someone who's 31, and even someone who's in their mid-20s. The fact is, Anquan Boldin showed us this season that he's a borderline freak of nature, and has an opportunity to become one of the better "old" receivers we've ever seen.