Be Like Belichick- Exploiting Market Bias, Part One

By Alex McCarthy
Alex McCarthy

Respect Your Elders

While we can use expert rankings and ADP data to try and establish “market value” for players, at the end of the day every league (and therefore every trade market) is different. By identifying the bias within yours you can target undervalued players and gain a distinct competitive advantage. The patron saint of such shenanigans is uber-coach Bill Belichick, who makes a habit out of scouring the waiver wire and turning players nobody else wants into stars. In this new series I will be advising you on how to embrace the ethos of the Hoodie and capitalize on trade market biases in your league, and this edition will focus on the premature devaluing of elite wide receivers.

The Inefficiency

A premium on younger players is fairly common in dynasty, and makes logical sense- a young core can carry your team for years and is generally what you want to build around. In many leagues, however, an extreme emphasis on youth can lead to quality veterans being perceived as “on the way out” long before they show any signs of decline. In my experience, owners tend to start devaluing non-QBs around the age of twenty-eight. This isn’t terrible practice when dealing with running backs or with replacement-level players in general, but it completely fails to account for an elite tier of receivers who remain productive well into their thirties. To demonstrate this with hard data I have enlisted the help of my associate and accomplished dynasty analyst Tan Ho.

The Data

We defined an “elite” receiver as one who had achieved multiple top-6 seasons before their thirtieth birthday and then eliminated all those from the dataset who had not yet turned thirty-three, yielding eleven names. Below you can see positional finishes of those receivers during the seasons in which they were thirty, thirty-one, and thirty-two years old. A blue backdrop means that the player finished as WR24 or better while a red backdrop indicates a sub-WR24 finish, with the darkness of the shade corresponding to how close to WR1 (blue) or far from WR24 (red) the player finished. A green backdrop denotes a season in which the player missed at least three full games, meaning their performance can likely be disregarded as a measure of ability.

The Breakdown

At age thirty, a full half of qualifying players finished as WR1s (three of them in the top-6) and the worst overall finish was WR25 by Anquan Boldin. Performance at age thirty-one was even more impressive, with seven of the the ten qualifying players finishing as WR1s and five of them in the top-6. Age thirty-two is where decline seems to become more likely, but about half of the nine qualifying receivers still saw significant success (four finished as WR1s and two within the top-6). It is worth noting that among those whose production did drop off at thirty-two, several (Brandon Marshall, Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens) spent the twilight of their careers being shuffled between teams and learning new offensive systems. Conversely, those who put up elite numbers well into their golden years (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne) had a high level of consistency within their organization and specifically at quarterback.

The Opportunity

There are seven currently active receivers who have achieved multiple top-6 seasons in their career and are under thirty-three years old: Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, AJ Green, Antonio Brown, and Jordy Nelson. With the exception of wunderkind Odell, these players are all at least twenty-eight and can come with varying degrees of age discount depending on your league.

Jordy Nelson is likely the cheapest option at thirty-two years old, but his established relationship and chemistry with Aaron Rodgers makes him most comparable to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne within the study. Both showed incredible consistency and finished in the top-six when they were his age, and even one year of that level of production has more value than Nelson commands in many leagues.

Demaryius Thomas is the next oldest at twenty-nine and is the only receiver in the group who I firmly believe has his best years behind him. DT can still fill a WR2 spot admirably, but his elite seasons were buoyed by Peyton Manning and he now plays for a run-first team that has major questions at quarterback. Considering how difficult it is to develop QBs, I don’t feel confident that the Broncos can provide a good one quickly enough to ever bring DT back to his old levels of production.

Antonio Brown is the most talented player in this illustrious group and also happens to be in the most interesting situation. At the moment Brown is the most dominant receiver in football, and at age twenty-nine it would seem that he is poised for several more years of dominance. He has, however, looked significantly more human in games in which Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play, and Big Ben has talked openly of retirement for quite a while now. With Ben, AB is looking at another four years or so of being the best receiver in football; without him, the future is significantly more murky. I don’t think that AB ever regresses to WR2 levels, but with a new QB we would likely be looking at just another WR1 instead of THE WR1.

AJ Green is one of my favorite value players to target right now. At twenty-nine he is starting to get old enough that owners are getting a little antsy, and a hamstring injury that ended his season last year already has people forgetting how durable he normally is (before that he had only missed four games in five years). Because of these non-issues many owners are looking to cash out on Green, and you should pray that you have the cash if that opportunity presents itself. He never fails to put up elite numbers when on the field (he was WR4 in PPG last year until he got hurt) and has great chemistry with a solid quarterback that will be around until he retires, much like the more successful players in our study. Look for Green to be a WR1 in 2020 and every season until then.

Dez Bryant is a bit younger than Green at twenty-eight and has spent the past two years of his prime battling injuries, but prior to that he put up three consecutive elite seasons as WR3, WR6, and WR4 overall. He is also signed by Dallas through 2019 and appears to have finally developed chemistry with a talented young QB. Aside from the worrying injuries, all signs point to Dez continuing to dominate through his early thirties. If you believe in his ability to stay healthy, an investment in Bryant has the potential for massive dividends.

Julio Jones, the youngest of our group at a spry 28, is what you would come up with if you were asked to design the perfect human wide receiver (Calvin Johnson is an alien). He is still viewed as part of the “elite” tier and so generally can not be had for as big a bargain as an AJ Green or a Jordy Nelson, but concerns about his age and injury history have him on the block in more than one league. He should not be. Julio will remain a focal point of the Atlanta offense for as long as he plays and has excellent chemistry with his young MVP quarterback, so if you believe he can stay on the field he is worth almost any price. His combination of unparalleled athletic ability and consistently elite offensive situation means he has the potential to give you five years of dominance, if not more.

The Takeaway

In dynasty, players often try and “cash out” on players in their late twenties rather than wait for them to decline and risk a loss of value. I’m here to recommend reconsidering that approach when it applies to stud WRs. In my opinion you should never plan more than three years in advance anyway, and the data shows that truly elite WRs under thirty have at least three quality years left. Unless you’re in a complete and total rebuild with no end in sight, the best way to get every drop of value out of those guys is not to cash out, but to ride them into the sunset.