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How elite receivers age and what it might mean for Julio Jones

Julio’s one-of-a-kind, but we can still get a good idea of when he’s likely to decline.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The question on many peoples’ minds as we edge closer to a new contract for Julio Jones is this: How long can he keep doing this, and will he remain one of the NFL’s best receivers through another deal and perhaps beyond?

Answering that question for Julio, who is a wizard who works exceptionally hard to take care of himself and has physical tools that we rarely see, is a tough one. The best we can really do is look at the history of receivers aging, when their decline tends to hit, and what some future or current Hall of Famers comparable to Julio managed to do. Let’s do that now, ahead of what will hopefully be a shortly announced extension for #11.

When does a decline set in?

It goes without saying that there’s variability here, but the average decline phase for a wide receiver begins at 28 and is in rapid freefall if that player is still going at 34. Most receivers are cooked by the age of 34, and for every Jerry Rice playing at a reasonably high level at age 40, there’s dozens of receivers who enjoy their last great year between 32-34. That was true for Isaac Bruce (age 34), Tim Brown (34, though he had another nice year at 35), Marvin Harrison (34), Reggie Wayne (34), and so on. Larry Fitzgerald is still doing terrific work for the Cardinals and is limited by his quarterback situation, but his last “great” year (more than 10 yards per reception, more than 6 TDs, 75% catch rate) by his standards came when he was 32. Guys like Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Andre Reed saw real decline hit around age 32.

Wide receivers age much more gracefully than many other positions, however, and there’s considerable variability to discuss here. Receivers are playing longer and better thanks to advances in medicine, conditioning, and the evolution of the game in a direction that leads to them taking fewer hard hits, and in the last 20 years we’ve begun to see more receivers stretch it out a little more if they can avoid major injuries.

What does that mean for Julio?

No one knows how long Jones wants to play. He’s coming into his age 30 season on pace to etch his name in the record books, and no doubt he’s hungry to win a Super Bowl like so many of his teammates. But there’s no guarantee that if he signs a four or five year extension that he’ll choose to play through the end of it, given that he’s a guy with a lot of irons in the fire.

Let’s assume he does, though, both because he’s chasing records and he’ll hopefully be playing at a high level through the life of the contract. Will he still be Julio by the end of it?

First of all, we should start by saying there’s no sign that Julio is declining. At age 29 in 2018, he posted the third-best catch rate of his career, the second-highest yardage, and tied for the second highest number of touchdown receptions. He is an elite talent whose hands and route running figure to help him age well, even if the stellar physical tools start to disappear over time. There’s no reason to think that’s going to happen before, say, the age 32 season where many Hall of Famers of yore saw the decline hit.

At that point, Julio will be in his third year of his new deal, whatever form it might take. If the precipitous decline sets in at 34 as it has for still others, it’ll likely be in the final year of Julio’s deal, allowing he and the Falcons to take stock of what’s next

But there’s one specific players that I think Julio is probably looking to emulate, and he likely represents a best-case scenario

Terrell Owens

Why is Julio Jones spending so much time with Terrell Owens, who is regarded by some fans as a prima donna? It may have something to do with his legendary fitness and longevity as an NFL receiver, as he wrapped up at 37 still playing really well.

Owens wasn’t quite the same guy after 34, just like Moss, as his catch percentages began to drop and his overall numbers took an according hit. He still finished his final, age 37 season with 72 receptions for 983 yards and seven touchdowns, phenomenal numbers for guys under 30 and eye-popping for him. Owens achieved this by having a well-rounded skill set and keeping himself in phenomenal shape, though having a chip on his shoulder at all times probably didn’t hurt.

Owens is the best-case scenario for Julio as a truly elite receiver who overcame some injury issues in his early 30s to remain a terrific player up until the end. If Julio’s still going at 37, he’s a slam dunk Hall of Famer, but he’s also going to be able to help this football team win a lot more games. Let’s hope it happens.