At the start of the 2011 NFL season, assuming they play it, Andre Johnson will be 30 years old. It will be his ninth season in the NFL, and hopefully he will overcome last season's ankle injuries and get to 16 games started again, because over time he's proven that him starting 16 games is a very, very, good thing for the Houston Texans.
But just how much longer will the Texans get this same kind of production from him? Superstar receivers do tend to head south production-wise after they hit 30. I know, I know...this is Andre Johnson we're talking about here. A beast. A freak of nature. Medical technology is advancing further and athletes are playing longer and better than they've ever been able to before.
Still, the question remains: how much longer can the Texans expect superstar production out of Johnson?
In an attempt to answer the query, I made a beeline right for Football Outsiders' new player pages, which now show a player's 10 top comparables (only the top one if you're not a subscriber though) in one, two, and three year increments. I, of course, went for three to try and get as much accuracy as possible.
Johnson's comps are, as you'd expect, extremely sexy. Torry Holt's 2003-2005 seasons are the top comparison, and another three-season stretch of Holt makes the Top 10 as well. Jerry Rice makes the list twice, as does Terrell Owens. Those six three-year stretches are flanked by one each from Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Jimmy Smith, and Joe Horn.
Holt's 2003-2005 seasons occurred when he was at roughly the same age that Johnson was, and his 2004-2006 seasons, which would be one ahead of Johnson's age, are the other comps on the list. Holt was productive through 2007, or 32 years old, before losing his speed and becoming a possession receiver. However, Holt and Johnson aren't really on the same blueprint physically. Holt was a 6'0", 190 pound burner while Johnson is listed at 6'3" and 219.
No. 2 comp Wayne would be at roughly the same age as Johnson from 2006-2008, but like Holt, he's more about speed and less about physicality. He's had two top flight seasons since then and will enter the 2011 season at 33. Harrison, like the other two, was much more slightly built than Johnson. The system identifies his 2001-2003 seasons as comparable to Johnson's last three, which would actually put him a year older than Johnson. From Age 30 on, Harrison wound up with five more stellar seasons before he eventually lost his boosters. I'm going to toss Horn and Smith off since they're the lowest two players on the list and didn't really start producing until they turned 28 or so.
Rice, ageless wonder, had comparable seasons from 1989-1991 and 1990-1992, during his prime. Rice turned 30 in 1992, would go on to have four more great seasons before getting hurt, then after that put up six more 800+ yard seasons (3 of which were 1000+). I don't think any of us is expecting Andre Johnson to last THAT long, though it would be nice.
Could it be, in a stroke of irony, that Johnson's most comparable modern player is Owens? The two might have different personalities, but they do have near-exact physical attributes. The years Owens was compared for were the 2000-02 and 2001-03 seasons, and Owens hit 30 during that 2003 season. TO continued to post superstar numbers when healthy through his Age 34 season, and though he will likely find job offers hard to come by as long as he keeps opening his mouth, he's still a productive player today at 37.
Looking at these comparisons made me feel a lot better about the Texans' future with Johnson and the contract they handed out to him. The two closest comps on his list, all things considered, were Rice and Owens. Even if Johnson only has Owens' end-of-career wind down, there's no reason (barring injury) to expect a drastic slowdown any time in the next few years.