What Does History Say About Investing in Receivers Entering Their 30s?

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What Does History Say About Investing in Receivers Entering Their 30s?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As most NFL teams have started to realize, building a team through free agency isn't exactly the best model. This is evidenced by the fact that the four teams in the conference championship games this past season were strongly built from within. 

Of course, this doesn't mean that avoiding the free-agent and trade markets altogether is a great plan. Anquan Boldin, Wes Welker, Justin Smith and Tony Gonzalez all played important roles for their teams in the regular season and playoffs. 

There is something to be said about finding a happy medium between building through the draft and complementing in free agency.

Certain positions have higher success rates than others when it comes to free agency. In addition, attempting to find the right veteran to fit a team's scheme can be a tricky proposition that gets muddled even further depending on the age of possible acquisitions. 

With free agency set to begin in about a week, it makes sense to take a look at the history of free-agent wide receivers and what they have done with their new teams. 

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

 

Jerry Rice

Jerry Rice comes to mind first simply because of the success that he had in his late-30s with the Oakland Raiders.  

He joined the Raiders at the ripe old age of 39 in 2001, putting up 83 receptions for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns. It represented Rice's best season since a Pro Bowl performance in 1998.

The Hall of Fame receiver went on to put up even better numbers the following season to help Oakland reach the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly 20 years. Rice ended up catching 14 passes for 203 yards and two scores in three postseason games that year.

While the greatest receiver of all time struggled in his final two seasons, first with the Raiders and then with the Seattle Seahawks, his performance at such an advanced age following a serious knee injury was just plain ridiculous. 

 

Randy Moss

Some thought that Randy Moss was done after two sub-par seasons with the Oakland Raiders in 2005 and 2006. The New England Patriots took a chance on him in 2006 by acquiring the talented receiver for a fourth-round pick, which was considered great value at the time. 

All Moss did the following season is break Rice's single-season touchdown record in one of the greatest performances for a wide receiver in NFL history. 

In total, Moss put up nearly 1,500 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns in helping the Patriots finish undefeated during the regular season. 

Again, father time eventually caught up with this wide receiver. After three really good seasons in New England, Moss hasn't recorded more than 434 yards in a single year and was out of football in 2011 before joining the San Francisco 49ers this past year. 

Moss is a perfect example of someone teams can look to produce at a relatively high level in his early-30s only to struggle when he inches closer to the dreaded age of 35. 

Courtesy of Spokeo

 

Keyshawn Johnson

Keyshawn Johnson signed a four-year, $20 million contract with the Dallas Cowboys prior to the start of the 2004 season at the age of 31. 

He proceeded to rack up more than 1,800 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons with the Cowboys before getting released in a salary-cap move. At 33, Johnson signed a four-year contract with the Carolina Panthers, but only played one season. 

Johnson is the type of free-agent receiver that teams will try to avoid when the new league year begins.

While he had a ton of talent, his personality and ego were just too big for teams to overcome in the locker room. As a divisive figure, Johnson really never panned out in either of his two stops after Tampa Bay. 

If teams are going to look at someone like Brandon Lloyd, who will be released according to reports (via CSN New England), they will have to think long and hard about what kind of attitude he will bring to the locker room.

The NFL has long accepted diva wide receivers, but those times surely have passed, especially with both Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson out of the league this past season. 

Courtesy of CSN Philadelphia

 

Terrell Owens

Speaking of divisive figures, Terrell Owens is one of the first wide receivers who come to mind. The former Pro Bowl performer for the San Francisco 49ers was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles prior to the start of the 2004 season after burning his bridges with his original team.

He immediately signed a seven-year, $49 million contract upon his arrival in Philadelphia (via Spotrac). 

It didn't take Owens long to revert back to his old form with the Eagles. He attacked Donovan McNabb, the coaching staff, the organization and fellow players on a continual basis during his short two-year tenure.

Despite off-field distractions, Owens put up 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns at the age of 30 before struggling through injuries the following season. 

Owens then traveled to Dallas, where he tallied the best three-year stretch since he was a young pup catching passes from Steve Young. Still, he seemed to be too much of a distraction for Jerry Jones and the Cowboys and was gone after just three seasons. 

After signing a relatively small one-year deal with the Buffalo Bills, Owens moved on to the Cincinnati Bengals, where he would team up with fellow Pro Bowlers Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson.

Despite being a 36-year-old wide receiver, Owens put up nearly 1,000 yards in 14 games. It seemed that his career was back on track. 

Then a funny thing happened. 

Owens didn't draw any interest in the open market prior to 2011 and was out of football. Despite signing a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks immediately before the start of the 2012 exhibition season, Owens was cut before Pete Carroll and company broke camp. 

At this point, Owens' career seems to be all but over.

This is extremely interesting considering that he was still a darn good starting receiver the last time he stepped onto the football field. I guess this is another example of the NFL telling "diva" wide receivers that they need the league more than the league needs them. 

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

 

Vincent Jackson

Vincent Jackson had just turned 29 when he signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March 2012.

The talented wide receiver proceeded to put up the best season of an already stellar career by tallying nearly 1,400 receiving yards and leading the NFL in yards per reception (19.2). 

In reality, Jackson was worth every bit of the $15.4 million he counted against Tampa Bay's cap this past season (via Spotrac). 

The Buccaneers were extremely smart in the way they structured Jackson's contract, which is the primary reason he is included in this article. Jackson's cap hit goes down to $3.2 million in 2013, and his base salary is less in the final three years of the deal than it was in the first year.

By doing this, Tampa Bay protected itself from having to pay Jackson should his numbers decrease with age. With $26 million guaranteed throughout the duration of the contract, the Buccaneers paid over half of that guaranteed money in the first year of the deal. 

That's genius in my book. Look for teams that have cap room this offseason to utilize this same model when targeting some of the best free agents on the market. 

 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Anquan Boldin

Anquan Boldin's contract with the Baltimore Ravens is the complete antithesis of what we saw with Vincent Jackson before. 

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome signed Boldin to a four-year, $28 million extension in March 2010 when the wide receiver was 29.

The contract called for Boldin to count $6.4 million against the cap in the first season and $7.5 million against the cap in the next three seasons, 2013 included (via Spotrac). 

His raise between the first and second seasons of the contract doesn't quite match up with his lack of consistent production over the last couple of years. After recording five 1,000-yard seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Boldin has yet to hit that plateau with Baltimore in three years. 

In addition, he may end up getting cut later this month because of the Ravens' issues with the salary cap. Newsome, who is one of the best general managers in the NFL, may have dropped the ball on this one.

If Boldin had earned more money up front in the first season, Baltimore wouldn't be in this situation with its No. 1 wide receiver right now. 

 

2013 Free-Agent Class 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Greg Jennings is set to turn 30 during the early part of the 2012 season. The current Green Bay Packers wide receiver is coming off an injury-plagued campaign that saw him put up just 366 yards in eight games. This came on the heels of regressing statistics the previous season. 

A recent report from Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk suggests that Jennings will ask for $12 million per season on the open market. 

The scuttlebutt in league circles is that Jennings is looking for a deal in free agency that pays as much as $12 million per year.

Jennings, a seven-year player who turns 30 in September, doesn’t fit the profile of a guy who will blow the top of the market — especially since he isn’t a guy who can take the top off the defense.

Why would any team invest that type of money in a wide receiver who is about to hit the wrong side of 30 and is coming off an injury-riddled season? In reality, I expect the market to play out at about $8 or $9 million per season for Jennings. 

Is he even worth that much? 

My answer to that question is an emphatic no. 

Jennings has been a product of the Packers' pass-happy offensive game plan and the best overall quarterback in the NFL in the form of Aaron Rodgers. I highly doubt he would put up numbers similar to what we saw from 2008 to 2010.

Instead, Jennings seems like the type of possession receiver who will yield between 800 and 900 yards and six or seven scores. 

If Jennings is signed to a long-term contract, which is likely going to be the case, his deal needs to be front loaded in order to prevent him from being paid more than he is worth as he starts inching closer to the mid-30s, when receivers usually start slowing down. 

This limits the amount of teams that might be interested in Jennings. As it is, I don't expect the market to be as friendly for Jennings as he may think right now. 

Al Bello/Getty Images

Wes Welker is an interesting guy to keep an eye on as free agency begins.

He has recorded the most receptions in a six-year span of any wide receiver in the history of the league, but he may also be the product of the system in New England and the quarterback tasked with throwing him the ball. 

The former Texas Tech standout will turn 32 in May and is seeking a long-term contract.

These are two things that seem to indicate that the market will not be too great for the smallish wideout. In addition, he is averaging just six touchdowns per season and just under 12 yards per catch since joining the Patriots in 2007. 

How effective will Welker be in another system with a lesser quarterback? Is he worth the amount of money that it will take to keep him?

While Tom Brady restructured his contract to give the Patriots more money under the cap in 2013, that doesn't necessarily mean that Welker will be back in New England this upcoming season.

As reported by multiple media outlets, New England doesn't plan on using the franchise tag on Welker before the March 4 deadline. This means that he will hit the open market once free agency starts in just over a week.

Either way you spin it, Welker is probably not worth much more than $8 million a season on a contract spanning three or four years. If he agrees to something like that, expect the team that signs him to front load the deal. 

The 2013 free-agent class has to be considered one of the best in recent memory. Jennings and Welker are joined by Mike Wallace and Dwayne Bowe as top-tier options, but there is going to be some value to be had after that foursome.

The likes of Danny Amendola, Devery Henderson and Brian Hartline, all under 30, should get some play on the open market. While none of them is a true No. 1 wide receiver, they will produce at a higher level for a longer period of time than Jennings and Welker. 

This is where I expect teams in need of a wide receiver to go when the new league year opens for business next week. 

The San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks are among the teams expected to hit the market for wide receivers. One of them will likely sign a top-tier wide receiver, but I expect them to look for value to fill their needs. 

Other teams that are not really in contention may pay big bucks for a marginal free-agent wide receiver.

Look for teams such as the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams to target the likes of Wallace, Bowe and Welker. If that is the case, expect huge numbers to be thrown out there once free agency begins. 

As it is, signing a wide receiver who is entering his 30s has been a questionable call for teams in the past, and I don't expect that to change this month. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL. Get your sports fix over at eDraft. Check out my radio program every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. ET.

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