Age & the NFL:
When Is It No Longer Just a Number?

How old is too old in the NFL?
When is a player past their prime?
We analyzed the Top 20 Players by Grade at EVERY position for the past 5 Seasons to identify when players stop showing up among the top performers at each position. In doing so, we’re able to look at the players currently on our rosters and those of other teams to see how close we are to needing to worry about their performance dropping off.

Is a player on the trade block actually over the hill? Is a free agent trying to capitalize on what he was, and not what he’s actually likely to be if you sign him? Let’s look at what the numbers can reveal about each position and when we really need to start worrying about a player falling off.

The cleanest way to represent this idea is to identify the percentiles. 
Percentiles are useful because they tell you how much of the “population” is <this number> larger than.
For example, the 90th percentile would be the age that is older than 90% of ALL such top performers at their position in the last 5 seasons. 

Among the Top 10, the age that is the:
• 90th Percentile means that among the Top 10 players, only 1 would be your age or older (9 would be younger).
• 80th Percentile among the Top 10 players means only 2 would be your age or older (8 would be younger).

Among the Top 20, the age that is the:
• 90th Percentile means that among the Top 20 players, only 2 would be your age or older (18 would be younger).
• 85th Percentile among the Top 20 players means only 3 would be your age or older (17 would be younger).
• 80th Percentile among the Top 20 players means only 4 would be your age or older (16 would be younger).

With the “math” explained, here’s how the percentiles break down over the past 5 seasons at EVERY position.

Top 10:
90th Percentile
Top 10:
80th Percentile
Top 20:
90th Percentile
Top 20:
85th Percentile
Top 20:
80th Percentile
A Grade+ only:
90th Percentile

* We picked the 90th, 85th, and 80th Percentiles specifically since these are realistic numbers that can translate into actual people – the 99th Percentile in the Top 20 for example would mean there’s “0.2 people” older than you. But you can’t have 0.2 of a person, thus it doesn’t make sense to have such a percentile represented as you can’t translate it to actual, practical or applicable terms.

* The A Grade range was figured out in a previous breakdown & corresponds to the range that correlates to Pro Bowl / All-Pro level performance in a given year.

* To improve the quality of all the data, minimum participation requirements had to be met. For example, Linemen had to contribute at least 40 Snaps/Game so that the truly best players were being identified – managing to perform in the Top 10 or Top 20 despite playing hundreds more snaps than another player is a much stronger accomplishment. Sample size is an important thing to consider in any analysis. Every position was held to a Starter level minimum standard.

* All ages were determined by calculating what age that player would’ve been at the start of each season (in September). This prevents error from, for example, counting a player as being 25 years old but their birthday was in Week 1 (and so, realistically, was 26 years old when they were performing in football). This puts everyone on the same page, in-turn leveling the playing field & improving the quality of the data.


Reflecting on the Data: 

Wow. To say that Running Back is a young man’s game is an understatement. A whopping 90% of RBs in the Top 10 are going to be 26.1 years old or younger. That means that, historically, among the Top 10 RBs by Grade only ONE (1) will be older than 26.1 years old in a given season. And if we look at the 80th Percentile for RBs, we see that in the Top 10 only TWO (2) would be older than 25.2 years old, historically. 

Considering that most NFL players are drafted between the ages of 21-23, and the fact that Rookie NFL contracts are 3–5 years long, then at minimum a RB taken in the 1st Rd (5-year contract) won’t see their first, actual “big money” contract until.. they’re already at the end of their prime!

On the complete opposite end of the table, we have the Quarterbacks. We can see that among the Top 10 Graded QBs, historically 90% of them had all the way until turning 39.2 years old to be a real contender for the Top 10 at your position. Even if you extend it to just the Top 20 QBs, 90% of them historically have been 37 years old or younger! We also see that 90% of Quarterbacks that performed at a Pro Bowl or All-Pro level (aka: at the “A Grade” range) all had until the age of 36.7 years old to do so! The fact we are seeing so many older players represented in the Top 10 (and Top 20), in-turn dragging the percentiles up, is indicative of just how much longer QB primes are. The career earning potential for a Quarterback is enormous in comparison to what a Running Back is likely to make in today’s NFL.

Wide Receiver turns out to be another relatively young man’s game – though not nearly to the extent of Running Backs.
• Among Top 10 WRs by Grade, receivers have historically had until 29.2 years old to dominate the NFL and rank among the 10 best.
• Even loosening the percentiles slightly reveals that in a given year, historically only 2 receivers in the Top 10 will be 28 years or older (as 80% would be younger).
• A receiver’s age 30 year has historically been the last year he has a realistic shot at cracking even the Top 20, as the 90th percentile reveals only 2 out of the Top 20 in a given year will be 30 years old or older. Viewed another way, that means 18 out of the Top 20 will be younger than 30 years old.

Offensive Tackles turn out to enjoy a very long prime. After Quarterbacks, Tackles find themselves represented in the Top 10 & 20 the next longest in their careers.

Defensive Tackle was a bit of a surprise. Despite not requiring nearly the level of athleticism as RBs, WRs or CBs, it appears that just the sheer physicality of the trenches breaks these players down much earlier than may have otherwise been expected. Historically, we see from the 80th & 90th Percentiles for the Top 10 that among the ten best players at the position, only 2 are likely to be older than 28.2 years old, and only 1 is likely to be 30 years old or older.



Closing Words:

Entering this analysis, I’d had hunches based on experience for when different positions “age out” or start to fall off, but “hunches” are not precise. Being off by even just 1 or 2 years is a big difference in the NFL, where money is tight every year. You don’t want to be paying some player $15-30 Million/year when you can see ahead of time how likely it is that their sudden and vicious drop-off is going to occur on your watch (and against your salary cap).

If previously, your hunch had you off by even 1 year, the ~$20 Million you could’ve saved could have gone a long way upgrading other parts of your team. It could fund 4x separate upgrades from $10M players to $15M players – where the difference in talent level achievable via that upgrade cost is noticeable. Certainly more noticeable than the older, former star player was likely to be – and all that money came from just avoiding 1 player. With trends revealed, avoiding more gets easier!

The historical trends revealed here can help allow us to side-step becoming the suckers that a once star player takes advantage of in their last contract, when they’re not likely to actually perform well. The Raiders have earned a reputation of being a franchise that can be taken advantage of by players whose star once shined bright, but whose luster is now quickly fading. Let these numbers illuminate the impostors, lurking in the shadows, and cast them from consideration.