ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Any football fan has heard that a running back is expected to be washed up at 30 years old (it’s actually happening quite a bit sooner, but we’ll get to that in a minute).

The narrative on wide receivers doesn’t have the same tragic ending upon reaching the big 3-0. However, the story with wideouts seems to be changing. Quickly.

(For the sake of this discussion, a player will be considered in their age 30 season if they turn 30 anytime during a calendar year. So, a receiver with their 30th birthday in January will go in the same bucket as a receiver who turns 30 in December. There is no indication players born later in a year are better or more productive than late winter babies, i.e., the reverse of hockey.)

Only six receivers 30 or older have caught 80 passes in a season since 2017. Only four 30-something wideouts in the same five-year span had 1,000 yards receiving.

That’s a mind-boggling decrease from the five year chunk between 2002 and 2006 when receivers 30 and over accounted for 26 80-catch seasons and 35 1,000 yard seasons.

At the same time, the youngest of receivers are producing better at significant rates. Receivers 21-22 years old had only 11 60-reception seasons and three 80-reception seasons for the decade from 2002-2011. In the last ten years, those numbers have tripled.

Total 60 and 80-catch seasons separated by age group and in five year chunks. The shift younger is fairly obvious.

The comparisons are startling. From 2002-06, receivers 30 or older finished with 1,000 yards almost as many times as an age group that encompasses players from 21 to 26(!) years old.

Over the last five years, the results are almost reversed. The 30-plus set posted only four 1K seasons since 2017 while receivers 21 and 22 years old had eight. In other words, NFL wideouts 30 and over during the last five years were essentially outplayed by only rookies.

Receiving yard seasons by 5-year increments vs. age. For big plays, older receivers have been non-factors since 2017.

Instead of just dividing wide receivers by age, let’s group them by contract. Sorta. Players 21-25 years old are usually on their rookie deals. The second contract is most often for players 26-28 years old. At 29 is loosely when a player might be seeking a third deal.

From 2002-06, the older guys on their “third” deal produced almost three times as many 80-catch seasons as the young guys on their “first” contract (34 to 12). The 29+ age group nearly doubled players 21-25 for 60-catch seasons (68 to 37) and 1,000-yard seasons (44 to 22).

Over the last five years, those numbers have flipped violently. Since 2017, players on a rookie deal produced nearly three times as many 80-catch and 1000-yard seasons as receivers 29 or older who are likely making or holding out for giant contracts.

“Cheap” WRs are outperforming “expensive” WRs by a surprising margin since 2017

This trend may explain why some teams moved on from name veteran receivers this offseason. Why pay big money to Tyreek Hill or AJ Brown or Hollywood Brown when players on rookie contracts will produce a greater number of high-level seasons (Yes, I know. For teams to move on from big-name WRs, just as many teams have to be willing to add those same players. It doesn’t mean both teams are going to be right)?

Receivers aren’t catching up to running backs when it comes to aging out of the NFL. The productivity of backs is just continuing to trend even younger. Only five running backs topped a thousand yards past age 26 since 2017. This is a big reason why “never pay running backs” is becoming an NFL Twitter catchphrase.

The reliance on passing has certainly dropped rushing production league wide, but it doesn’t seem to bother younger backs much. Measuring in five-year samples, RBs 21-24 years old have more 800 and 1,000 seasons than they did 15 years ago. For backs 21 and 22 years old, those numbers have tripled.

RBs who topped 1000 yards rushing at age 27+ in last five seasons: McCoy, Henry, Hyde, Peterson, Ingram twice.

Why is this happening? The anecdotal evidence points to injuries.

The list of top receivers from 2016 and 2017 is full of names who have recently missed lots of time. T.Y. Hilton has been out 14 games the last three years. It’s 12 for Golden Tate. Doug Baldwin had the 7th most receptions in 2016. Injuries forced him out of football two years later. All three were top ten receivers, but for all, the problems started at their age 30 season.

A.J. Green was a superstar in his age 29 season and missed 23 of 32 games the next two years. Julio Jones was one of the few to remain elite into his age 30 season, but has missed seven games each of the last two campaigns since. The problems appear to be just beginning for DeAndre Hopkins. He sat out only two games his first eight years in the NFL (both were meaningless season finales), but was hurt for seven games in 2021. It was his age 29 season.

The Bills elected to pay Stefon Diggs a four-year, $96 million dollar contract extension in August as he heads into his age 29 season. The worry level for 2022 is still relatively small. Receivers in their age 29 season have generally still maintained a high level of production. Beyond that, the expectations get dicey, but there is reason for optimism with Diggs’ future.

If there is a receiver of recent vintage that most matches Diggs’ profile, it’s Antonio Brown. Neither is overly reliant on superior size or speed. Both are superb route technicians and sudden players with elite quicks.

Brown had absolutely incredible age 29 and age 30 seasons. He’s been in and out of football since, but his breakdown was less physical and more under the heading of “other”. There’s no telling whether he would have continued to defy the 30 and over receiver trend.

The only three over-30 receivers to surpass 80 receptions over the last five years are Larry Fitzgerald, Julian Edelman and Cole Beasley. Fitzgerald is a freak of nature and work ethic and gets to live in his own world when discussing over-30 receivers.

However, Edelman and Beasley are both slot receivers who played with excellent quarterbacks. Maybe there’s a fountain of youth the closer a receiver gets to the formation. Diggs has the skills to possibly transition into more of a slot role as he gets older and the quarterback to keep him productive. It’s a shaky projection based on an even shakier sample size, but it’s definitely not impossible.

Keenan Allen will test that slot receiver theory this season. He turned 30 in April.

Fantasy players may also want to back off investing all too heavily in DaVante Adams or Tyler Lockett. Both are thousand yard receivers in 2021 who will turn 30 during the season (Adams’ birthday is Christmas Eve). On top of the age thing, both players will partner with lesser QBs in 2022 (Lockett’s quarterback, especially, is a Lock to be worse). Adams even has competent receivers around him (Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow) for the first time since Randall Cobb (was good).

Yellow alert for Cooper Kupp, Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks who, like Diggs, will be playing their age 29 season in 2022.

Only Fitzgerald, Edelman and Beasley have posted top 20 receiver numbers past age 30 the last five years. Include receivers in their age 30 season and all you can add are Julio, AB and DeMaryius Thomas (83 catches for 949 yards back in 2017) over the same five year block.

The 30-plus WR1 is becoming an endangered species. Going the way of the dinosaur, the rotary phone and the 30-plus NFL running back.