With the 71st pick in the NFL draft, Ryan Poles took a wide receiver (who is really a returner) out of Tennessee. While Velus Jones posted a fantastic time in the 40-yard dash, there has yet to be much evidence that being fast in gym shorts has a meaningful impact on a player’s professional success. Being fair, there is some limited data that faster receivers get more opportunities and therefore produce more, but there is less evidence suggesting that even receivers benefit from being that extra tick faster than one another except in terms of opportunity. A peer-reviewed article in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research went so far as to conclude: “Using correlation analysis, we find no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance, with the notable exception of sprint tests for running backs.”
However, there’s another number that does have an established track record in predicting whether or not one player will have a better NFL career than another–age at the time of the draft. The speedy Velus Jones turns 25 a week from the time of his writing.
The Obvious Track Record
One of the better-established facts of the draft is that draft age matters when it comes to overall production and career success in the NFL. Unlike many sticky and precarious subjects of study in football, this one is readily reduced to numbers (how old is the player) and then matched against a performance metric of the analyst’s choosing. One particular study looks at first-round picks and total career value, but there are other ways of studying the same phenomenon. Players who are drafted when they are younger tend to do better than those who are drafted when they are older.
The conventional wisdom for this is that exceptional athletes tend to stand out early, and so the longer the player takes to have a breakout year or to be ready to draft, the less their margin of superiority is over other athletes. If a player doesn’t dominate his peers on the field, let alone those he has an additional year of muscular development and playbook learning on, then what will happen when he hits the league and is up against players with even longer to build strength and skill? Usually, by the time the player “catches up” in that regard, the negative effects of age begin to wear on him and he is competing against younger players who did stand out.
Recent Draft History
There are exceptions like Cooper Kupp, who was drafted at 24 in the third round, but betting on a player turning into Cooper Kupp is probably not a safe investment. However, it is fair to wonder if the career–based data is skewed by second contracts. What if all we care about is whether or not a player will perform well early on? Conveniently, I just finished assembling a database of how newly drafted players perform, and while I sanitized y public tables of age for clarity, I never delete data without having a backup copy.
Of the 220 wide receivers drafted between 2011 and 2017, 87 of them were over the age of 22 at the time of the draft. There are notable differences in these populations over the life of their first five years in the NFL, and those differences range across all aspects of a player’s contributions.
First, the group as a whole shows how volatile wide receivers are as a class. Only 5% of wide receivers go on to be star players, earning two or more Pro Bowls. Twice as many impact rosters by playing in at least forty games (including spending time as returners) and earning at least one Pro Bowl, but that’s still only 10% of the group. They play in an average of 38 games with an average of 18 starts. Only 46 (21%) go on to start in at least forty games–which might or might not matter for a specialist like Jones.
However, those numbers fall precipitously when looking at only receivers drafted after age 22. Only 2% of this group became stars in their first five years, and only 5% became impact players. That’s half the rate of success as with the total population. They played in only an average of 30 games and managed to average only 11 starts. They were half as likely as the total group (11%) to start in at least forty games. Only fourteen players were drafted at age 24 or age 25, and none but Cooper Kupp went on to earn a Pro Bowl in his first five years. The average number of games that they played in fell to 22, while the average number of starts leveled out at 10.
The four players who defied the odds after being drafted post-22 have similar traits. A.J. Green, Michael Thomas, Cooper Kupp, and Kenny Golladay all had two solid years of production in college. The least productive college player of this group was Thomas, who in his best two years of college still had 110 receptions, 1580 yards, and 18 touchdowns. Interestingly, they were also relatively slow at the combine, with Green being the fastest in the 40-yard-dash (4.48) and the others trailing by different degrees: Thomas (4.57), Kupp (4.62), and Golloday (4.5) were craftsmen who relied on complete skillsets and not burners who relied on physical mismatches.
Finally, because second contracts do matter to some people, while 103 of the receivers drafted earned a fifth year in the NFL (47%) and 131 at least saw four years in the league (60%), only 29 of the older group saw a fifth year (33%), and just 44 saw at least four years in the league (51%).
It is possible that Velus Jones will offer the Chicago Bears a meaningful asset on the field. There are unique circumstances surrounding his draft status, including the impact of Covid-19 on an entire group of players. It is notable, though, that Jones was already approaching 23 and had already played for four years when the 2020 Combine went virtual due to the pandemic.
In a vacuum, however, the age a player is at the time he first takes the field for an NFL team has a stronger track record when it comes to predicting his success than how long it takes him to cover 120 feet.