Anquan Boldin SF 49ers OTAsAs a 32-year old last season, Anquan Boldin bucked all expectations. Many were under the impression that a slow wide receiver who was made slower with age would struggle in today’s NFL. Prior to the start of the 2012 season, Austin Lee of ProFootball Focus (PFF) went so far as to write that Boldin was not a top-50 receiver. Here is Lee’s analysis in full:

Anquan Boldin is 32 with an ADP of WR33. He hasn’t been a championship-caliber fantasy starter since the middle of 2008, averaging a mere 7.9 PPG over the past three-and-a-half years. I’d much rather draft a WR3 or WR4 that actually has some upside, which puts Boldin outside of my top 50.

Lee wasn’t alone in his assessment. Said Damon Autry of FF Today of Boldin “has definitely lost a step — a big deal when you came into the league not known for your swiftness. … Boldin is heading for the cliff, no doubt.”

Much of this opinion still prevades in discussions of Boldin and his potential impact with the 49ers. CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco has not been shy when criticizing Boldin. “(He is) slowing,” Prisco wrote,” and, despite the postseason success in terms of numbers, he just isn’t as good as some think. Don’t look back when evaluating, look ahead.”

The problem with looking ahead, as Prisco is attempting and as others failed at, is best demonstrated by the way Boldin continually defies probabilities.

As the chart below shows (provided by PFF), wide receivers hit their peak at 26-27 years of age. After that, it’s a slow and steady decline.

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In terms of yards, Boldin’s 921 in 2012 pales in comparison to the performances he put together in 2003, 2005 or 2008. However this past season was one of the best of Boldin’s career. In fact, the last time he had a better season was 2008, when Boldin was a spry 28-year old — this according to Football Reference’s absolute value stat.

To measure a receiver’s success, it is not enough to look at yards or touchdowns. As if one wants to truly measure a receiver’s performance, he would need to do so in a way that is divorced from the performance of the quarterback. The best stats best stats for this, as far as I can determine, are Drop Rate (drops relative to catchable passes), Yards-After-Catch Per Reception (YAC/Rec) and Broken Tackles (BT). Even still, the quarterback’s role in these stats are somewhat ambiguous. The analysis carries on regardless.

Boldin

As you can see, 2012 was renaissance for Boldin, whose drop rate was the lowest over that five-year span. 11 broken tackles were his most in a season since 2008. It is also worth noting that his regular season yards-per-reception of 4.3 was the highest of his career with the Ravens — the stats used in the chart include his playoff performances.

Boldin isn’t going to outrun anybody. Probably not even Rich Eisen. But that’s to be expected. As Prisco points out, “Boldin is the best receiver in NFL history at catching passes when he is not open. His inability to separate because of a lack of speed has forced him to evolve into a receiver who uses his hands and his body to make catches.”

This skill of Boldin’s hasn’t changed. In fact, as suggested by the chart above, Boldin has gotten better at making catches despite not being open. Even when blanketed, Boldin is not dropping passes.

Like this one from the Wild Card round of 2012 Playoffs:

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Or this pass from Super Bowl XLVII:

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Or all of these:

Even with deteriorating speed, Boldin has proven to be effective using his strength and will. There  is no reason to believe that with age those abilities won’t continue to improve.