Final fantasy: The best last seasons of a career since 2006

Mike Castiglione looks at the best finishes to careers in the PFF era.

| 3 months ago
(Brian Killian/NFLPhotoLibrary)

(Brian Killian/NFLPhotoLibrary)

Final fantasy: The best last seasons of a career since 2006

With about a month to go until the NFL Draft, longtime RB1 stalwarts Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles both remain without a team. Matt Forte and Frank Gore each waits to see if there will be incoming rookies will be vying for their jobs. Brandon Marshall hopes to revive his career for the other New York team, while Larry Fitzgerald looks to build off another 100-catch season for the only franchise he’s known. Record-setting tight end Antonio Gates has been wishy-washy about his NFL future. Ben Roethlisberger has hinted at retirement in the wake of another bruised and battered season, whereas Drew Brees and Tom Brady continue to defy conventional wisdom.

What do all of these players have in common? They are on the wrong side of 30. Some are even approaching 40.
With that in mind, I got to thinking, how commonly do we see a successful swan song in fantasy? We all know it is tough sledding for aging running backs. From Tyler Loechner’s Narrative Street series, RB production really falls off a cliff at age 31, although the decline actually starts at age 29 for backs averaging 150-plus attempts per season. But what about quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends?

To that end, I decided to look back at the past decade (i.e. the PFF era) and dig up the best fantasy seasons by a player in his last season. Before we get into it, here’s a quick glossary of some of the PFF terms and acronyms you’ll see below:

fantasy points per opportunity, defined as carries + pass routes
PPS: fantasy points per snap
PPDB: fantasy points per drop back
ACC %: completions + drops per aimed throw i.e. adjusted completion percentage
Deep Rating: QB rating on pass attempts targeted 20 yards or more downfield
Pressure Rating: QB rating when under pressure
Elusive Rating: breaks down a runner’s success beyond help from blockers
YAC: yards after contact per attempt
MT rate: touches / missed tackles forced (the lower the better)
YPRR: yards per route run, i.e. a more useful metric than the standard yards per reception
aDOT: depth per aimed throw, or average depth of target

10. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Arizona Cardinals (2013, age 26)

217 rush, 687 yards (3.2), 2 TD / 18 receptions, 134 yards

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPO Elusive Rating YAC MT Rate
RB31 15 15 146 9.73 0.39 26.1 1.8 6.9

A Super Bowl champion and former Big Ten Player of the Year, Mendenhall peaked as a top-10 fantasy running back in 2010. However, injuries and inconsistent play derailed his career over the next three years, until he ultimately lost the desire to play at age 26 and announced his retirement in order to travel the world and write. Mendenhall is the only player on this list to step away from the game before his 30s, and perhaps his decision has played a part in the recent uptick in “early” retirements over the past few seasons. In any case, he was a backend RB2 in standard formats (RB24) that final year and ranked 25th out of 32 qualifiers in elusive rating. As evidenced by his missed tackle rate, he still had plenty of shake to force missed tackles (once every 6.9 touches). But his 1.8 YAC shows a player who simply wasn’t driving through contact like he once did, which probably helps explain his change of heart.

9. Warrick Dunn, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2008, age 33)

186 rush, 786 yards (4.2 ypc), 2 TD / 47 rec (61 targets), 330 yards, 0 TD

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPO Elusive Rating YAC MT Rate
RB27 15 6 171 11.40 0.35 16.7 2.4 14.6

Dunn posted at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in all but one of his 12 pro seasons, including his final campaign upon returning to Tampa Bay at 33 years old. Cadillac Williams was still recovering from a knee injury he suffered the previous season, and so Dunn wound up sharing the Buccaneers’ backfield with Earnest Graham, who was fantasy’s breakout star one year prior. Dunn was obviously the passing-down specialist, although he also logged more carries and more rushing yards than Graham that year despite technically starting only six games. Still, even in PPR formats Dunn was merely a RB3 in fantasy as he found the end zone only twice. That was one of the few knocks on Dunn’s career, as he never scored double-digit TDs in any season. He also ranked near the very bottom of PFF’s elusive rating metric in 2008 (on par with the likes of Rashad Jennings and Frank Gore this past season).

8. Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona Cardinals (2009, age 38)

339-of-513 (66.1%), 3,753 yards, 26 TD, 14 INT / 21 rush, 10 yards

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPDB ACC % Deep Rating Pressure Rating
QB13 15 15 232 15.47 0.43 77.2 51.4 47.4

The only Hall of Famer on this list, Warner’s final season proved somewhat of a letdown. Coming off a season in which he was a top-four fantasy QB, Warner was the sixth QB selected in fantasy drafts entering 2009 at the age of 38. While he was PFF’s sixth-most accurate passer that year, his QB rating under pressure ranked 20th while his rating on deep passes (targeted 20-plus yards downfield) was 21st. Warner averaged 36 fewer passing yards per game than the previous year, and he threw four fewer touchdowns. Only twice during the 2009 campaign did he toss more than two TDs in a game, finishing as a fringe QB1/QB2 despite advancing the Cardinals to the divisional playoff round.

7. David Garrard, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars (2010, Age 32)

236-of-366 (64.5%), 2,734 yards, 23 TD, 15 INT / 66 rush, 279 yards, 5 TD

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPDB ACC % Deep Rating Pressure Rating
QB13 14 14 228 16.29 0.54 74.6 91.4 67.2

Coming off his only Pro Bowl nod the previous year, Garrard posted career-highs in touchdowns (23) and completion percentage (64.5) during his final season in 2010 despite missing a couple of games. He ranked fourth among quarterbacks in fantasy points per dropback and was ninth in points per game, proving a viable backend QB1 option in fantasy that year. Garrard threw for only 195 yards per game, but his QB rating was eighth-best on deep passes and ninth-best under pressure. Ultimately, his fantasy stock was buoyed by 279 rushing yards (4.2 ypc) and a career-high five rushing scores. Not a bad return on investment for a guy who was the 27th quarterback off the board in fantasy drafts that summer.

6. Corey Dillon, RB, New England Patriots (2006, age 32)

199 rush, 812 yards (4.1), 13 TD / 15 rec (16 targets), 147 yards, 0 TD

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPO Elusive Rating YAC MT Rate
RB22 16 13 188 11.75 0.64 22.6 2.4 10.8

Dillon stood among the RB1 ranks throughout his career in Cincinnati, averaging 1,253 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground over his first six seasons. But along came Rudi Johnson in 2013, and Dillon was dealt to New England for a second-round pick. That first year in New England, at age 30, Dillon ran for a career-high 1,635 yards and 12 TDs to help the Patriots win the Super Bowl. Dillon’s numbers began to decline over the next two seasons, although he remained an effective short-yardage back. He scored at least 12 touchdowns during each of his three seasons in New England, including a career-best 13 TDs in his final campaign when he was the RB18 in standard formats at age 32.

5. Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta Falcons (2012, age 30)

222 rush, 800 yards (3.6), 10 TD / 19 rec (29 targets), 128 yards, 1 TD

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPO Elusive Rating YAC MT Rate
RB21 16 16 176 11.00 0.47 38.5 2.3 5.9

Atlanta’s signing of Turner from San Diego was the reason Warrick Dunn requested his release from the Falcons in the spring of 2008. After seeing sparse playing time as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup for his first four seasons, Turner went on to average 282 carries over the next five seasons in Atlanta, including twice leading the league. During his final season, at age 30, Turner returned solid RB2 production. As the 18th running back off the board in fantasy drafts that year, he actually finished as the RB18 in standard leagues. Turner also ranked ninth out of 24 qualifiers in elusive rating in 2012, and he forced a missed tackle more frequently than even the top running back on this list.

4. Terrell Owens, WR, Cincinnati Bengals (2010, age 37)

72 rec (132 targets), 983 yards, 9 TD

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPO PPS YPRR aDOT
WR16 14 11 224 16.00 0.43 0.29 1.88 14.5

One of only two wide receivers on this list, Owens remained quite productive in his age-37 season. Owens was effectively a WR2 in terms of bottom-line fantasy production for the season, but his per-game average (16.00) ranked inside the top-10. And although he was middle of the pack in yards per route (17th among 41 qualifiers), his average depth of target (14.5) reflects a player who could still make plays downfield. Playing alongside Chad Johnson (67-831-4) and Jordan Shipley (52-600-3), Owens was the Bengals’ most effective receiving option in 2010. His nine total TDs also led the team. As to how a player who averaged 1,000-plus yards and double-digit TDs over a 15-year career is not in the Hall of Fame, that’s a topic for another discussion.

3. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons (2013, age 37)

83 rec (115 targets), 859 yards, 8 TD

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPO PPS YPRR aDOT
TE2 16 16 217 13.56 0.36 0.23 1.41 8.8

You probably guessed that Gonzalez would be the only tight end on this list. After all, he is tied with Antonio Gates for the most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in NFL history (111). Gonzalez played 17 pro seasons, averaging a pretty ridiculous 79 catches, 896 yards, and seven TDs per 16 games. And yes, he still brought it for fantasy owners even at age 37, finishing as the No. 2 TE in fantasy during his final campaign. In other words, right in line with his yearly production, although he did rank just 12th out of 18 tight ends that season in yards per route run (1.41). And while Gonzalez played 93 percent of the Falcons’ offensive snaps, he posted his second-worst grade of any season in the PFF era.

2. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (2015, age 30)

88 rec (142 targets), 1,214 yards, 9 TD

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPO PPS YPRR aDOT
WR12 16 16 263 16.44 0.40 0.28 1.85 13.7

Back in 2011, a certain fantasy writer selected Johnson with pick 1.10 of a dynasty startup draft. The man known as “Megatron” would lead the league in receiving that year, earning the first of three straight All-Pro nods. While owning the top receiver in the game during the prime of his career was a thrill for all of us in fantasy, this dynasty owner never even considered the possibility that Johnson would abruptly announce his retirement around this same time last year. But the nagging injuries had taken their toll on the 30-year-old Johnson, even though he was still posting WR1 fantasy numbers. Interestingly, virtually all of his final-season metrics stack up eerily similar to Terrell Owens’, only Owens was seven years Johnson’s senior when he decided to put the popcorn away. While some kind of “head’s up” might’ve been cool for trade purposes, I can’t deny, it was so much fun while it lasted.

1. Tiki Barber, RB, New York Giants (2006, age 31)

327 rush, 1,662 yards (5.1), 5 TD / 58 rec (72 targets), 465 yards, 0 TD

Position Rank G GS Fantasy Points PPG PPO Elusive Rating YAC MT Rate
RB6 16 16 300 18.75 0.45 48.3 3.0 6.2

The NFL’s version of Marisa Tomei, Barber aged insanely well compared to your typical pro running back. In fact, Barber’s 6,613 scrimmage yards during his age 29-31 seasons led all other running backs in the league over that span. We’re talking in-their-prime guys like Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander, Brian Westbrook, Steven Jackson and so on. Will we ever see another Tiki Barber? Only time will tell. Remarkably, during that three-year span he put the ball on the ground only nine times total, which happened to match his average over the previous four seasons. In his final campaign, Barber ranked fourth in rushing yards, yards per carry, and yards after contact. That, folks, is how you ride off into the sunset.

Mike is a member of the FSWA and a staff writer for PFF Fantasy who focuses on both redraft and dynasty content, having spent several years covering FBS for a number of publications.

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