Ageless or aging?: Roddy White

We’re all going to be really old someday. That is a fact. It’s science. But in football, some players get old quicker than others (figuratively…sort of). So who’s fading, and who’s likely to still produce steadily despite the number of candles on their birthday cake? Let’s find out together.

When normal people turn 30, all they lose is the end of their social life. That’s it, no biggie. They can’t be called a cool, hip twentysomething anymore, and they’re barred from hanging out at any place deemed to be a gathering location for young professionals (see: douchebags). With great age comes great responsibility, so for most 30 year olds having tiny human beings that live at their house often is a reality that’s not too far off, if they haven’t already taken up permanent residence.

Those are all minor concerns in the grander scheme, because for you and I, aging is a fun adventure, or something. For football players, it’s a slow death, and for most positions the age of 30 is the beginning of the down slope. Roddy White may not quite be on the slippery downward ride yet, but he’s close.

White will turn 31 in November, meaning a bit of concern over his age is natural. The decline for receivers isn’t nearly as swift as it is for running backs, but often as they creep towards 35 the abrupt fade for WRs can begin. So once the big 3-0 is in the books, only a few prime years are left. Isn’t that right, Chad Ochocinco/Johnson/whatever?

Seven of the top ten receivers last year were 29 or younger for most or all of the season. That includes White, and Wes Welker (31) along with a rejuvenated Steve Smith (33) were the exceptions. But aside from those two, there’s still plenty of precedent for receivers who are great (a category White falls into) but perhaps not among the few elite who stay productive into their mid 30s. Guys like Randy Moss fall into that elite category, but consider that a 33-year-old Reggie Wayne managed to flirt with a 1,000-yard season (960) in 2011 despite having ilk like Dan Orlovsky, Curtis Painter, and Kerry Collins as his quarterback.

The precedent is there for continued production, and a fight against the closing grasp of father time. Closing a grasp on a football is something White struggled with at times during the 2011 season, and those who enjoy easy narrative construction will point to that as a sign of decay. Yes, White led the league in drops with 14, and drops are bad since, you know, wide receivers are paid to catch footballs.

Now, I’m not an expert on statistical trends and patterns, but it seems to me that while any drop is a bad drop, a receiver’s drops will be directly proportionate to the amount of footballs thrown in his direction. White received heavy criticism for his inability to properly grasp a ball last year, especially during a three-game stretch between weeks 5 and 7 when he averaged just 41 receiving yards per game. But by the end of the season there was a simpler explanation for his drops beyond a deep-rooted case of butter fingers.

He was the target for a lot of passes. A lot, and easily more than any receiver in the league.

White was targeted 181 times in 2011, and if we exclude Welker (who had 172), everyone else was at least one area code away. Calvin Johnson was third with 158, while Larry Fitzgerald had 153, and Brandon Lloyd finished with 150, all at least 20 targets back. Again, no one’s disputing that 14 drops is far too many from a four-time Pro Bowler who led the league in receptions in 2010 (115). But placed in the context of that inflated target number, it’s not nearly as damaging, especially since White still finished four yards short of 1,300 and had eight touchdowns despite his miscues.

White dropped 7.7 percent of the balls thrown to him. By comparison, Cleveland’s Greg Little was second with 11 drops on 121 targets, so while seeing the ball 60 fewer times his drop rate was higher (nine percent).

As Pro Football Focus noted today, only Welker has been thrown more catchable balls over the past three years (a catchable ball is simply a throw that should be a routine catch). White has been on the other end of 330 catchable balls since 2009, and he’s dropped 30 of them over that three-year stretch. That’s a drop on a tidy nine percent of those targets, which is far ahead of DeSean Jackson, another deep threat who dropped 12.95 percent of his would-be catches on far fewer catchable balls (125). There’s also a sizable gap between White and Dwayne Bowe (11.6 percent on 225 balls) and Brandon Marshall (11.55 percent on 303 balls).

With Julio Jones continuing to emerge quickly and Harry Douglas hopefully staying healthy, White will likely see fewer targets this year, and he knows it. That’s fine, because as age sets in he’ll still thrive and remain more productive under that format, as the focus should shift to quality over quantity, and to a less is more mentality to preserve a deep threat receiver.