Now more than ever, football is a young man's game. Longevity has always been a prized attribute in the NFL, but even more so during this youth movement. Players able to play well into their thirties and in some instances their forties are remarkable. The body's maintenance calendar becomes a much more complex equation to solve as they get older and with the margin for error so slim in professional football today, losing even a half a step because of a diminished skillset can mean the difference between dominating and dwindling. Guys like Tom Brady and Larry Fitzgerald continue to prove doubters wrong year after year, but they are exceptions to a sad rule.
In the case of Fitzgerald, being a wide receiver requires a level of athleticism that is not a basic requirement at QB. If you run like Tom Brady, table any and all dreams of lining up out wide. Fitzgerald continues to put up stellar numbers at the age of 34 and apart from an unsettled quarterback position in Arizona (something out of his personal control) there's little reason to doubt Fitzgerald won't do everything in his power to ensure he continues performing at a high level.
Unfortunately, not all great players stay great. Some fade slowly while others go full-blown nose dive, quickly becoming irrelevant in a league they not long ago owned.
Here are 15 once great wide-receivers (some tight-ends, please forgive me) who are showing signs of rapid regression, or who have already fallen as far as one could.
15 BRANDON MARSHALL
Marshall was once a dominant wide receiver including seven straight 1,000 yard seasons. He was a target machine in both Denver, Chicago and even his two-season tenure with Miami. In both Denver & Chicago, Marshall developed a chemistry with the much-maligned quarterback named Jay Cutler. But the two seemed to suffer a falling out at the conclusion of Cutler's Bears tenure.
Marshall would continue his dominance for one more season, after being traded to the Jets for a fifth-round pick. But the past two seasons have seen Marshall's play decline substantially. Injuries and age have robbed him of his once dynamic playmaking ability. Lucky for Marshall, he's shown his broadcasting prowess these last few seasons, participating in various panel discussions on NFL broadcasts.
14 DEZ BRYANT
Despite three straight 1,000+ yard seasons, Bryant has always been more about touchdowns than yardage which is certainly not a bad thing to be known for as WR. With 73 career touchdowns in 113 career games, Bryant has 'THROWN UP THE X' – his preferred TD celebration – more than most who will ever play the game.
But recently, he's battled injuries and just the standard decline in production that comes with approaching the dreaded 30th birthday. You could argue Bryant's recent dip in production has as much to do with a lack of support opposite him, but with weapons like Ezekiel Elliot and a still reliable Jason Witten, Bryant is still seeing his share of one-on-one coverage and just hasn't been able to dominate like he once used to. The Cowboys regressed this past year and Bryant himself was not good. He's now had three straight seasons with fewer than 1,000 yards and has scored only 17 touchdowns combined the past three seasons.
13 AMARI COOPER
Cooper is only 23 years old so perhaps he finds himself on this list a little premature. However, his dip in performance last year too drastic to ignore. Outside of a week 7 game that saw him haul in 11 catches on 19 targets, for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns – his lone multi-touchdown game – he was an utter disappointment in the collective bummer year for Raiders Nation.
His first two seasons saw him targetted a total of 262 times, post 1,000+ yards in both and score 11 touchdowns combined. For Cooper to return to his earlier form and fulfill the potential that caused him to be drafted 4th overall in 2015, he must address the drops that plagued him this past season – posted a career-low 50% catch rate and the Raiders as a team need to get tougher, both mentally and physically. Seems like a job for Jon Gruden!
12 PIERRE GARCON
Staying in California, we'll find another receiver who did not reap the suspected dividends of a free-agency relocation. Pierre Garcon, 31, has been a reliable target for most of his career. Through 140 games, he's amassed over 7,500 yards, 37 touchdowns, and his only five targets short of 1,000 for his career.
Whether it was Peyton Manning, RGIII, or Kirk Cousins slinging him the ball, Garcon was typically there to haul it in and run with it. This past season, with the 49ers who he signed with in the off-season, Garcon was limited to just 40 receptions. It remains to be seen if he will be around for the continuation of the Garoppolo era but my guess San Francisco wants to get younger and more explosive on the outside. Garcon helps with neither of those mandates so he could find himself out of work once teams begin the annual juggling of personnel leading up, into and through training camp.
11 ERIC DECKER
Has certainly lost a step due to injury and age, Decker failed to be Marcus Mariota's security blanket this past season. Starting only half the games, Decker was limited to 563 yards and one touchdown. This marked the second consecutive incomplete season Decker has put up with last season's injury-riddled campaign that saw him play only three games.
It's anybody's guess where Decker ends up. Perhaps New England would make sense if they didn't have three better versions of Decker on their roster already. The book is rapidly closing on a career that once featured a plethora of clutch grabs and unexpected playmaking after the catch. Maybe it's just a slump, but few WRs can break out of them these days.
10 SAMMY WATKINS
Everybody keeps waiting for Sammy Watkins to show why the Bills traded away multiple picks to draft him fourth overall in 2014. He struggled in Buffalo and many thought it was due to a lack of explosiveness in the offensive scheme. Traded to Los Angeles, Watkins, while he had is moments, generally underwhelmed in a season that saw him play for the league's most explosive offense. Sean McVay and Jared Goff led the Rams' offensive resurgence but in the case of Watkins, he was of little significance, finishing with a measly 39 receptions.
Perhaps another off-season will allow McVay to study Watkins' tendencies and find ways to get him more involved but at this point, it's time observers start putting more blame on the player rather than blaming the scheme for a lack of production.
9 JEREMY MACLIN
Across the board, Maclin is coming off the two worst seasons of his career. And he's knocking on the door of 30. A move from Kansas City to Baltimore did little to rejuvenate Maclin who seems to have lost his way since flying out of the Eagles' next. Injuries have hampered Maclin the past two seasons, limiting him to 12 games in each. But the crux of the matter remains Maclin's diminishing returns. He's not the same game changer he was in Philadelphia and it's taken teams a few seasons to realize.
If he has any hope of getting his career back on track, he needs to find himself yet another new environment, this time perhaps with a fairly paid quarterback and not one who's handcuffing his team with their grossly inflated price tag. Take that Flacco.
8 TORREY SMITH
Since departing Baltimore via free agency, Smith has failed to record more than 700 yards or 5 touchdowns in a season. And he's been healthy for the better part of it. A boom-or-bust type of receiver, Smith benefitted greatly from Flacco's willingness to just throw it as far as he could and let Smith run underneath it. Whether he caught it has always been a coin flip with his career CTH% being around 50.
His new teams, San Francisco and now Philadelphia have asked him to run an expanded route three, something he has struggled with. It's always been Smith's biggest downfall and his ability to improve in this area will dictate how long he lasts as he creeps up on old age.
7 JULIUS THOMAS
Anybody else remember when Julius Thomas went from Denver Broncos' depth tight end to the most unstoppable force in the NFL? In two seasons catching passes from Peyton Manning, Thomas scored 24 touchdowns. And it happened sort of by fluke, with him only getting an opportunity because of injury. Once made a regular offensive weapon, the NFL quickly learned there was little that could be done to stop the 6-4 251 lbs Orange Julius as he was known during his time as a Bronco.
However, rather than stick around and benefit from being able to play with Peyton Manning, Thomas left and signed with Jacksonville Jaguars, a move that would turn out precisely how you'd expect. When one chooses Blake Bortles over Peyton Manning, they should be sentenced to years of ridicule and mediocrity. And that's precisely what Thomas has received. After scoring 12 touchdowns in each of the two seasons with Manning, he has 12 combined over the past three seasons.
6 VICTOR CRUZ
Having not officially announced his retirement, Cruz has gone on record as saying he's still hopeful regarding an NFL return. Injuries more than anything have robbed Cruz of a longer NFL shelf life. He had a string of three seasons where he was as dominant a wideout as the league had to offer. Ultimately, injuries and the arrival of Hakeem Nicks and later, Odell Beckham Jr. phased out Cruz from the Giants' plans.
Cruz did attempt a comeback this past season, signing with the Chicago Bears. He never made it out of training camp but has since gone on record as saying he's not giving up quite yet. Perhaps it's time he signs on to host another instalment of MTV's The Challenge.
5 MARQUES COLSTON
Another one of those 'gone but not entirely forgotten' candidates, Colston has yet to officially call it quits as he continues rehabbing from shoulder surgery. At 34 years of age, it's hard to imagine a comeback including anything more than a training camp invite and nothing beyond. But if he were to return, it wouldn't be the most shocking thing when you consider how much of a force Colston was when he was healthy.
In 146 career games, Colston is approaching 10,000 receiving yards (less than 250 yards away). He finished top-10 in receiving touchdowns four times in his career and is 38th all-time in touchdowns by a wide receiver. He belongs on this list because as great as a return would be, apart from affording him 16 games to accumulate 241 yards – the amount needed for 10,000 – it would only prove that time has beaten him up.
4 MIKE WALLACE
Another Raven with clipped wings. Mike Wallace used to strike fear into opposing defenses with his unmatched straight line speed. Highlights of him as a Steeler just blazing by defensive backs as they chased him down helplessly...was rarely a fair fight. Today, he's as irrelevant as Colin Kaepernick when it comes to NFL dealings and truthfully, Kaepernick is probably having a bigger aggregate effect on NFL happenings.
Much like former Raven Torrey Smith, Wallace has never been able to grasp the full receiver route tree. Obviously best suited as a fly route hoarder, Wallace has certainly lost a step with age and finds himself unable to get the separation he once created with unmatched ease. This past season saw him fail to eclipse 800 yards and catch only 52 passes thrown his way.
3 EMMANUEL SANDERS
Coming off his worst season since 2012, it's hard to picture Sanders finding his groove as he enters his thirties. One of the many beneficiaries of Peyton Manning's Denver tenure, Sanders enjoyed early success with Manning's successors but faltered drastically this past season, as did the team collectively.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the Bronco's QB situation, it's hard to predict whether Sanders is due for a season founded on retribution, or alternatively if in fact he's peaked and his best days are behind him. A lot will depend on where the Broncos go with their quarterback decision.
2 DESEAN JACKSON
The Buccaneers big off-season acquisition finished with the second-fewest receiving yards of his career – his worst output coming in an injury-shortened season a few years back –and failed to score five touchdowns for the third consecutive year.
DeSean Jackson has been a polarizing receiver for most of his career. Possesser of rubber-burning top speeds, he's always found a way to disappear for long stretches of time. Always a threat to make the big play, evident by his career 17.3 yards per catch, Jackson has struggled with consistency for the better part of his career. Since leaving Philadelphia, the form he displayed there has eluded him for the most part. At the age of 31, Jackson's greatest asset, his speed, is surely going to be knocked down a few clicks as the miles rack up on his legs. He needs to find a solution for what ails him fast. Let's hope the speed at which he operates on the field translates to his mind.
1 ANTONIO GATES
Un-drafted out of Kent State, largely due to him not deciding to play football until halfway through his college career, Antonio Gates will go done as one of and quite possibly the greatest tight end to ever play the game. Over 11,500 yards receiving on 927 receptions to go along with 114 receiving touchdowns (6th all-time and 1st amongst TEs). To us, it's fair to batch him in with WRs since he puts most of them to shame.
Today, he is on nothing more than a victory lap having already given up starting duties to Hunter Henry. Gates, 37, is not long for NFL duty and has probably played his last down. Trailing Marvin Harrison by 14 for 5th all-time on the receiving touchdown list, there's little hope of him catching him so rather than take the risk of injury, Gates should quit while he's ahead. He can leave the football field in the rearview and comfortably say he has nothing left to prove to anybody who had the pleasure of watching him play.
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