Age Cliffs

Fantasy football goodness is based on a myriad of factors, but the reality is that younger players have made up the bulk of the game’s highest-scoring performers over the years, regardless of position.

The following table denotes the percentage of top-12 fantasy performers by age over the past decade. Scoring refers to full point-per-reception (PPR) as well as per-game ranks with a minimum of eight games played. Special thanks to Pro Football Reference for the data:

Similar takeaways can be found when looking at a player’s experience. In general: Younger is typically better, particularly at RB and WR—where Leonardo DiCaprio’s “25 or younger” policy might actually have some legs.

Of course, survivorship bias does play a role in this: There are more young players than old players in the NFL, so it makes sense that top fantasy performers have usually been in their early- to mid-20s. 

Additionally, failure to crack the position’s top-12 scorers doesn’t render a fantasy asset obsolete, but for today, we’re just looking at the best of the best.

What follows are three age- and experience-related takeaways for QB, RB, WR, and TE in an effort to learn some actionable fantasy football shit ahead of the 2023 season. Anyone else ready to run through a brick wall?


1. Old dudes can still win at QB

Yes, Tom Brady is responsible for six top-12 fantasy seasons after reaching the age of 35. Also yes, the likes of Drew Brees (x6), Aaron Rodgers (x3), Peyton Manning (x2), and Ben Roethlisberger (x2) also proved plenty capable of supplying some fantasy goodness even after already having played 10-plus years in the league.

It’s a lot cooler when QBs are young enough to combine ridiculous arm strength with immense rushing ability; just realize savvy veterans have still managed to put up some big-time numbers in recent years—undoubtedly thanks in large part to the league’s recent practice of calling roughing the passer for…pretty much anything?

2023 notes:

  • Rodgers (40 in December) wasn’t great in 2022, but he also didn’t resemble 2015 Peyton or 2020 Brees when it comes to their arm turning into a duck.
  • It’s far from ideal that Matthew Stafford (turned 35 in February) missed the end of last season with a spinal cord contusion, but he insists retirement isn’t an option for 2023. The Super Bowl champion is just one season removed from throwing for a gaudy 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns.
  • Ryan Tannehill (35 in July) struggled to stay healthy in 2022; just realize he did post QB9, QB9, and QB14 finishes on a per-game basis from 2019 to 2021.
  • Similar to A-aron, Russell Wilson (35 in November) didn’t fall apart in 2022 due to physical limitations; he was actually one of the league’s more efficient passers when throwing 20-plus yards downfield.
  • Kirk Cousins (35 in August) has been a model of consistency in recent years, ripping off QB15, QB18, QB11, QB12, and most recently QB12 finishes on a per-game basis since joining the Vikings back in 2018.

2. Successful rookie-year signal-callers have almost always carried a solid rushing floor

Only three rookie-year QBs have posted top-12 production on a per-game basis over the past 10 years: 2016 Dak Prescott (QB9), 2019 Kyler Murray (QB11), and 2020 Justin Herbert (QB7). 

The former two talents racked up more than enough rushing production in college to indicate that this was a possibility, while the latter at least put up the sort of quality testing numbers to suggest there was perhaps more meat on the bone in that department at the next level.

Kyler Murray

Nov 27, 2022; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) scores a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers in the first half at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2023 notes:

  • Anthony Richardson just broke the combine and is easily the best rusher of the incoming class.
  • Bryce Young only ran for 162 yards in 34 games at Alabama, but his reported 4.52-second 40-yard dash paints the picture of someone capable of much more.
  • Will Levis scored 17 rushing touchdowns over the course of his collegiate career; the man is being comped to Josh Allen left and right for a reason.
  • CJ Stroud spent the majority of his time in Columbus doing everything in his power to NOT run the football, but his showcase against Georgia demonstrated that the ability to pick up chunks on the ground is indeed there.

3. There’s less year-to-year turnover at the position relative to RB, WR, and TE

Overall, 44 different QBs have made up the last 10 year’s worth of top-12 fantasy performers. This is lower than RB (56), WR (50), and TE (47) alike.

2023 notes:

  • The fantasy industry has done a rather great job at identifying the position’s top-tier performers in recent years, but the same can’t be said for the bottom half of the QB1 bucket.
  • Combining this principle with early 2023 Underdog Fantasy ADP, we should expect far less turnover from the top-6 signal-callers (Josh AllenPatrick MahomesJalen HurtsJoe BurrowJustin FieldsLamar Jackson) compared to the back half of the current QB1 landscape (Justin HerbertTrevor LawrenceDak PrescottDeshaun WatsonKirk CousinsTua Tagovailoa).

This trend could lead you down the path of targeting higher-end quarterbacks in your best ball drafts, too. Start drafting your QBs on UnderDog Fantasy with a 100% deposit match up to $100 by following the offer below!

Running back

1. High-performing RBs older than 28 are awfully rare

There have only been nine instances of a player being older than 28 by the end of the year and posting top-12 fantasy numbers over the last decade. 

Only two of those instances have occurred during the last five seasons: 2014 Matt Forte (RB3), 2014 Justin Forsett (RB9), 2015 Forte (RB3), 2015 Adrian Peterson (RB4), 2015 Danny Woodhead (RB6), 2015 DeAngelo Williams (RB10), 2017 LeSean McCoy (RB9), 2019 Mark Ingram (RB10), and 2022 Derrick Henry (RB4).

2023 notes:

  • Henry (current ADP RB6) and Aaron Jones (RB18) are the only two top-24 RBs who will be 29 by the end of 2023.
  • Henry might very well be an alien, but he’s also on the wrong side of the 1,500 carry law for when RB performance begins to really decline.
  • Here’s to hoping Jones doesn’t hit too much of a wall; he was truly one of 2022’s very best backs in making dudes miss and picking up yards after contact.

2. The RBs who do thrive on their second contract have almost always been on their original team

There have been 54 instances of an RB posting top-12 fantasy numbers at age 26 or older. A whopping 38 (70%) were still on their original team. 

While there are exceptions to every rule, the grass is seldom greener on the other side in free agency. Credit to guys like Mark Ingram (Ravens), DeMarco Murray (Titans), and Marshawn Lynch (Seahawks) for finding some truly solid success with a different team; just realize the track record of high-priced free agency contracts when switching employers is absolutely abysmal.

2023 notes:

  • Each of Saquon BarkleyTony PollardMiles SandersDavid MontgomeryDevin Singletary, and Damien Harris are free agents and have already/will turn 26 this year. History tells us that their most fantasy-friendly landing spot is most likely with the same team that brought them into the league.
  • A similar sentiment is true for the 27-year-old class with Joe Mixon and Rashaad Penny; hell, Christian McCaffrey qualifies as well.

3. No position has produced more immediate dominance than RB

As a whole, QB (3), WR (4), and TE (3) have produced 10 rookies who finished as top-12 fantasy performers over the last 10 years. RB alone has 13 such qualifiers; teams have been more willing to throw their rookie RBs into the deep end in recent years compared to any other skill position. 

2023 notes:

  • The Bijan Robinson hype is understandably out of control, but history tells us not to be shocked if more than one first-year back finds a way to crack the top 12.
  • Note that draft capital has been a pretty solid indicator of which rookie backs truly have a chance at thriving: 11 of the 13 qualified year-one backs were drafted on day one or day two.
  • Jordan Howard (5th round) and James Robinson (UDFA) managed to post top-12 production as rookies despite not being selected inside the draft’s first three rounds.

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Wide receiver

1. 30 is just about the breaking point for high-performing fantasy WRs

Only 14 of the 120 WRs in the sample were 30 years or older by the end of their qualified season. Furthermore, Larry Fitzgerald (x3) and Julian Edelman (x2) account for five instances between the two of them alone; there have only been 11 individual WRs to post top-12 fantasy production after leaving their 20s behind

The idea that WRs have a markedly longer shelf life than RBs doesn’t seem to hold all that true, at least among the truly elite top-tier performers.

2023 notes:

  • Three WRs managed to accomplish this feat in 2022 alone: Davante Adams (PPR WR6), DeAndre Hopkins (WR9), and Keenan Allen (WR11), although the latter two WRs’ per-game numbers are a bit skewed from not playing a full season. 
  • This group will be joined by the likes of Cooper KuppStefon DiggsMichael ThomasMike Evans, and Brandin Cooks, among others, for this upcoming season.

2. The third-year WR breakout has been a very real phenomenon, but fifth-year ballers aren’t far behind

Third- and fifth-year receivers make up 31% of the sample at hand. This means that on average, 3.7 of the year’s top-12 fantasy receivers have been in their third or fifth year. 

In 2022, the third-year bucket was showcased by Justin Jefferson (PPR WR2) and CeeDee Lamb (WR7), while zero fifth-year receivers qualified for the first time since 2019.

2023 notes:

  • It’s easy to see rising third-year receivers Ja’Marr ChaseJaylen WaddleAmon-Ra St. Brown, and DeVonta Smith keeping on keeping on as high-end fantasy assets, but don’t count out potential leaps from fellow qualifiers like Rashod Bateman and Kadarius Toney.
  • A similar sentiment is true for the rising fifth-year wide-outs: A.J. BrownDeebo SamuelTerry McLaurin, and D.K. Metcalf carry most of the name value. Just realize Jakobi MeyersMarquise Brown, and Diontae Johnson have also played a lot of good football in their respective short careers.

3. Year one and two domination has typically come from day one or two draft picks

This is honestly the case in all positions. There are some examples of quality sleepers over the years; that said, the overwhelming majority of all top-tier fantasy performers have been drafted inside the first three rounds

This is true even when expanding our RB and WR buckets to the top-24 performers: 70% or more of every position’s top-tier fantasy performers were originally drafted inside the first three rounds.

Top 12 QB/TE and top 24 RB/WR graph

2023 notes:

  • We’ll find out come late April! But keep in mind that phrases like “This year’s James Robinson” should probably be using “This decade” as the denoter.
  • The findings are even more extreme when looking specifically at rookies: None of the four top-12 rookies in Michael Thomas (Round 2), Odell Beckham Jr. (Round 1), Justin Jefferson (Round 1), and Ja’Marr Chase (Round 1) were exactly “sleepers.”

Tight end

1. The position’s learning curve has been larger than any other group

Only three rookie TEs (2013 Jordan Reed, 2017 Evan Engram, 2021 Kyle Pitts) managed to put up top-12 production as rookies over the last decade, while only 10 second-year players have earned this distinction. 

It’s probably not a coincidence that these top-performing rookies are/were far more proven receivers than blockers; expecting a first-year player to be complete enough at all facets of the position is an awfully difficult task.

2023 notes:

  • This year’s TE class does seem particularly NFL-ready, at least in the receiving department.
  • Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer (67-809-9 in 2022) and Utah TE Dalton Kincaid (70-890-8) were essentially No. 1 pass-game options during their time in college.
  • Georgia TE Darnell Washington doesn’t have the same gaudy receiving numbers, but he deserves some slack due to sharing the field with future first-round TE Brock Bower. 
  • Note that Washington also might be an alien (let’s get him, Mo Alie-Cox, and Jelani Woods in the same offense and see what happens).

2. Elderly TEs have managed to provide some solid production over the years

Only the QB position has produced more top-performing fantasy assets with 10-plus years of experience. This hasn’t been skewed by one specific player: 11 different TEs combine to account for the group’s 19 top-12 finishes over the past decade. 

While it might be uncommon for an unproven fantasy option to peak in their mid-30s, clearly the position has a bit more shelf life than RB or WR.

2023 notes:

  • Travis Kelce sure didn’t look like he lost a step on his way to setting career-high marks in receptions (110) and receiving touchdowns (12). He’ll be 34 in October, but continued excellence wouldn’t exactly be uncharted territory.
  • The only other overly relevant elderly TE in fantasy land is Zach Ertz, who has a bit trickier path back to greatness considering he tore both his ACL and MCL last season. 2022 second-round pick Trey McBride could also provide some stiff competition.

3. The third-year TE breakout has produced a lot of fantasy goodness in recent history

The third-year TE has been particularly great over the last decade, as have players in the 25 to 28 age range. In fact, there has been a higher percentage of third-year TE dominance (17%) than third-year WR greatness (16%) over the past 10 years.

2023 notes:

  • Both Pat Freiermuth and Kyle Pitts already have one top-12 season to their name; here’s to hoping they’re ready to truly boom ahead of year three.
  • Panthers TE Tommy Tremble and Texans TE Brevin Jordan are additional year-three boom candidates who have at least presented some level of upside to start their careers, but coaching staff and front office turnover might not help their quests to achieve full-time roles.
  • Finally, Lions TEs Brock Wright and Shane Zylstra are both entering year three, although it’d be awfully surprising if the front office doesn’t take some measures to add resources to the room in order to better replace T.J. Hockenson.
Ian Hartitz
Ian Hartitz
Ian is a senior fantasy analyst at Fantasy Life and he truly believes every day is a great day to be great. He's spent time with Action Network, NBC Sports and Pro Football Focus over the years, writing and podcasting about all things fantasy football along the way. Ian's process relies on a mix of film analysis and data study; whatever is needed to get the job done (job done). There's no reason fun can't be had along the way — we do live on a rock floating around a ball of fire after all. Outside of football, Ian enjoys MMA, his dachshund Lilly and candles.