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On Roddy White and aging receivers

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Now signed to a big extension, Roddy White is a Falcon for life. What can we expect from him the rest of the way?

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Kevin C. Cox

It goes without saying that Roddy White has been one of the NFL's premier talents over the last decade. He is, by most accounts, the best wide receiver in Falcons history, and the extension he signed last week virtually guarantees he'll one day join the Ring of Honor.

But Roddy turns 33 in November, and naturally, fans have begun to wonder how much he has left in the tank. White's recent injuries -- namely the ankle and hamstring ailments suffered in 2013 -- have only amplified these concerns.

While there's no way to predict what the future holds, looking back at history can be a useful exercise. Doing so allows us to create reasonable expectations, which, if nothing else, gives us perspective.

(By no means should the following be viewed as a set of conclusions, but rather a process that helps us understand what receivers in their mid-30's can accomplish).

'The Age of Decline'

Not too long ago, Pro Football Focus published a series titled The Age of Decline -- a tremendous resource for any stats enthusiast. To determine how skill position players collectively fare as they get older, PFF's Austin Lee gathered fantasy numbers (adjusted for era) of QBs, RBs, WRs and TEs from 1970-2011, and the results are illuminating.

Below you'll find one of the graphs Lee built:

The black line, which includes WR data from more than four decades, is the one to pay attention to, and it paints a clear picture: wide receivers tend to be at their best around 26-27 and don't experience sharp declines until ~35. By these metrics, the average receiver puts up approximately two less normalized fantasy points per game from 32-34 than the "peak" years of 26-27.

According to PFF's rules, that's the equivalent of just 20 yards per game -- quite a difference between wideouts and running backs. This is encouraging, as it gives us reason to believe White can provide Atlanta with at least two more good years before truly fading.

Using the aforementioned info as well as some additional nitty gritty data, PFF has projected White to post 85 receptions, 1108 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 15 games this season. Compared to what he's done throughout his career, this seems pretty fair:

Age G Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G
2005 24 16 29 446 15.4 3 27.9
2006 25 16 30 506 16.9 0 31.6
2007 26 16 83 1202 14.5 6 75.1
2008 27 16 88 1382 15.7 7 86.4
2009 28 16 85 1153 13.6 11 72.1
2010 29 16 115 1389 12.1 10 86.8
2011 30 16 100 1296 13 8 81
2012 31 16 92 1351 14.7 7 84.4
2013 32 13 63 711 11.3 3 54.69
2014 (projected) 33 15 85 1108 13.04 5 73.87

Of course White is his own man, and none of this means he will perform in line with history or stats-based projections. He could defy logic and play at a high level through 2017; conversely, he might get dinged up in the next few weeks and never return to form.

At the very least, we can base future analysis on a solid framework.

Considering unique circumstances

When interpreting big data as a means to assess an individual, we have to keep in mind that every player deals with unique circumstances.

  • Some are surrounded by loads of talent; others regularly toil at the bottom of the standings.
  • Some possess skill sets meant to last; others lose most of their value when their bodies deteriorate.
  • Some avoid the injury bug; others spend their twilight years in a constant state of pain.

You get the idea.

When considering the unique circumstances White will face over the next few seasons, it becomes clear that he has luxuries many didn't -- together, these factors make it easy to feel optimistic.

Strong support

For starters, Roddy has a fantastic quarterback to work with. Some may even call this QB elite.

Yes, Matt Ryan is one of the better gunslingers in the league -- whether the NFL is willing to acknowledge it or not -- and he will help slow White's decline.

FiveThirtyEight published an interesting piece this month that uses ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating to determine how much QBs affect those around them. Much like the previously cited PFF work, this story is well worth your time.

What makes TQBR useful is how it isolates the contribution of the quarterbacks, as opposed standard QB rating, which factors the skill of linemen and receivers. (An in-depth explanation of TQBR can be found here).

Obviously these results are not 100 percent reliable, but they do show how much certain QBs influence their teammates.

To no surprise, White's numbers have been positively impacted by Ryan. Here are those stats viewed as a three-year average from 2011-2013:

Rec Yds TD Rec w/ Avg QB Yds w/ Avg QB TD w/ Avg QB Change in QB Adj. Fantasy Points
85 1119 6 77 965 4 -14%

Not a gigantic difference, but still a significant one. I imagine working with a great QB will become more important as White ages, if only because 1) Ryan's accuracy is top-notch; and 2) Ryan should only get better as he approaches his 30's.

It's also worth mentioning how valuable Julio Jones will be to White. As Roddy slows down and loses some of his God-given ability, he won't have to worry about being under a bright spotlight as long as Jones is there.

If Jones continues to shine, and if No. 1 cornerbacks stay focused on No. 11, White will surely benefit.

Skill set made to last

As Dave pointed out earlier on Twitter, Roddy isn't overly-dependent on speed. WRs who rely on blowing past the secondary often fall off younger than most, but White isn't that kind of athlete.

His strengths -- route running, working through traffic, size, physicality -- aren't impacted a whole lot by agility.

And though Roddy was sidelined for three games in 2013, he is far from "injury prone." In fact, he had never missed a regular season game before last year. Though he is becoming more susceptible to bumps and bruises as he grows older, he has also proven that he is far more durable than your average WR.

Resurgence

A quick look at Roddy's numbers from the end last year: After being bruised up for months on end, he caught 38 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns in the final four games of 2013 -- doing so without Jones in the lineup. That pace over the course of a full season would give him 152 receptions for 1,796 yards and eight TDs.

It's unfair to assume White (or just about anyone) can be that good for 16 games, but it's clear Roddy is still capable of being a great receiver.

A necessary contract

All things considered, there are a lot of reasons to feel good about Roddy's extension. As we've noted, he should remain productive for at least half of his contract, and money doesn't appear to be an issue: White is only guaranteed $10 million from this new deal and at most can make $7.5 million per year.

Indeed, a happy, healthy White will go a long ways towards getting the Falcons back on track. This team has a lot to accomplish before , but locking up its No. 2 receiver was a huge step in the right direction.