Does Reggie Wayne Have Anything Left to Offer the New England Patriots?

Not many 37-year-old receivers have made a big impact in the NFL, so what could Reggie Wayne bring to New England in 2015?

The New England Patriots are running low on receivers.

Entering Monday, expected contributors Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Brandon Gibson have all been dealing with injuries throughout training camp, the preseason, or both. Even the receiving depth has been hobbled, with Aaron Dobson and Brian Tyms dealing with leg injuries. By the end of Monday, Gibson had been placed on injured reserve and Tyms was waived.

All of this led to reports over the weekend of New England bringing in Reggie Wayne for a visit and a physical. Wayne was scheduled to take his physical on Sunday, and just signed a one-year deal with the club on Monday afternoon.

A call to Wayne might have seemed like a bit of a surprise when paired with New England, but it shouldn’t be one for a team suddenly thinning at wide receiver. Any time a team is looking for a receiver, Wayne’s name is one of the first to pop up in the media.

After Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season in training camp, one would have assumed Wayne would be a Panther by nightfall with how much his name was thrown around as a possible target. After Jordy Nelson was possibly lost for the season on Sunday, Wayne's name again popped up as a person of interest.

Since July, Wayne’s name has been linked to the Patriots, Panthers, Bengals, Ravens, Texans and Packers. Some of that has been media speculation, and some may have been genuine interest, but the New England physical is the first real news we’ve had on the Reggie Wayne front all offseason, and it turned out to be all we needed.

Wayne has long been one of the better receivers in the league, but he will be turning 37 years old this season. For a sport that considers players over the age of 30 to be old, Wayne won’t be expected to be play like his prime or close to it.

But at that age it’s natural to wonder what he might have left in the tank.

The Age Curve

It probably won’t be shocking that the number of receivers who even played a bit role at age 37 is not very long. Since 1920 there have been 25 receivers, including Wayne, to catch 25 passes at the age of 36, and only seven of them caught at least 25 receptions the following year. That list contains some of the best wide receivers in league history, and Ricky Proehl. Among the other receivers on that list are Charlie Joiner, Drew Hill, Art Monk, Irving Fryar, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Terrell Owens. Of those eight receivers, only three (Monk, Fryar and Owens) had more receiving yards at age 37 than at 36.

Only two of those receivers were around recently enough to have both seasons be in the  Net Expected Points (NEP) era, which goes back to 2000. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team or player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. It’s not the largest sample -- it’s technically the second smallest we could use -- but it’s still interesting enough to take a look at how both of these players performed by our metrics at that age.

Name Age Year Rec Rec NEP Targets Target NEP Rec NEP/Target Catch Rate
Tim Brown 36 2002 81 76.37 127 39.04 0.60 63.78%
Tim Brown 37 2003 52 46.09 94 0.15 0.49 55.32%
Terrell Owens 36 2009 55 65.17 109 4.46 0.60 50.46%
Terrell Owens 37 2010 72 81.65 139 -10.72 0.59 51.80%

Both saw a decrease in efficiency during the age-37 season. Brown dropped across the board, everything from receptions and targets to catch rate, which led to his downturns in Reception NEP, Target NEP and Reception NEP per target.

Owens, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Out of these eight receivers, Owens was the only one to see more targets at age 37 than 36. His targets increased by 30 in 2010, and those 139 targets were the seventh most in the league that season. Owens was also the only receiver of the bunch to change teams during these two seasons; he spent 2009 with Buffalo and 2010 with Cincinnati.

Still, even as Owens was more involved at age 37, the Bengals offense was at a net loss when he was targeted. He made up for it on the balls her did catch, dropping just 0.01 in Reception NEP per target from the previous year, while dropping 15.18 in Target NEP.

We don’t have a ton of data on these types of receivers, but even with what we do have, Owens’ career path appears to be an outlier. It’s also interesting to note Owens didn’t catch another pass in the NFL after that season. He mysteriously tore his ACL during the offseason in 2011 and failed to catch on with an NFL team after he spent 2012 with the IFL’s Allen Wranglers and failed to make the roster in Seahawks training camp during 2012.

Party On, Wayne

During his career, and probably still now, Terrell Owens was a physical freak. That is not, and never really has been Reggie Wayne.

Wayne has been one of the NFL's iron men --  starting 189 games in a row during a stretch of time -- but not getting injured and being an Owens-like athlete are two different things. The injury bug was something Wayne was able to hold off for a while, but it hit hard the past two years, as he will be entering 2015 coming off two significant injuries during the past two seasons.

An ACL tear ended his year after seven games in 2013 and though he played in 15 games last season, it was revealed he was doing so with a torn triceps after Week 6. Between that and the ACL recovery, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wayne dropped off in a few statistical categories from 2013 to 2014, so don't be surprised by the following chart:

Year Rec Rec NEP Targets Target NEP Rec NEP/Target Catch Rate
2013 39 45.42 59 22.70 0.77 66.10%
2014 64 61.01 116 -0.99 0.53 55.17%

Like Owens, Wayne's counting stats increased because of more volume, but the efficiency numbers took a hit. There’s two ways to look at what this could mean for Wayne in 2015.

The argument could be made that two seasons removed from the ACL tear and with an offseason to recover from the triceps injury, Wayne could be much closer to 100 percent than he was throughout the 2014 season. A just as valid argument can be made that a 37-year-old wide receiver coming off two major injuries is a pretty major red flag for future performance.

The good news is, with the signing, it means Wayne passed the physical taken with the Patriots. That should mean there aren't any major concerns on New England's end about either injury, which is a good sign for Wayne's on-the-field prospects. That’s all probably what this was coming down to the whole time: whether Wayne could get on the field.

Among that group of eight players to catch at least 25 balls at age 37, only one had fewer than 300 receiving yards.

Looking at 2015, everyone involved will have to keep in mind what Wayne is, not what he was. Wayne most likely isn’t going to impact your fantasy team if he makes a roster, but if he can get himself on the field, he’ll provide some value for New England.

It may be a strange end to a great career -- serving as the third or fourth target behind Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman on the Patriots -- but it probably wouldn't be much different from the role he'd play should Indianapolis have re-signed him. After all, 37-year-old wide receivers aren't typically the focal point of an offense, but those talented enough to get to this point have returned at least some value on the field.

Reggie Wayne appears to be okay with that, and so are the Patriots.