There comes a time in every athlete's career when they must retire from the sport they participate in. This is inevitable, and happens at the conclusion of every season. The reasons why however, are murkier than one may suspect. There are plenty of variables; age, quality of play, disputes with the front office, etc. The same holds true in the NFL, and with a sport so inherently violent and injury-riddled, many of these annual retirements come as a bit of a surprise to fans and analysts. Often, this includes players who seemingly had several years left of productivity, but just decided to hang up the cleats.
And there will be plenty of names that fall into that category at the conclusion of the 2016 NFL season. It's a time when many players take a step back and analyze their career up to the current moment, and because of this recollection, they might decide to step away from the game. After all, the sport is constantly getting younger, and a veteran player may not feel they are up to the task anymore. Every season takes a toll on any given player, and for some, they've added up to the point where retirement seems like the most logical career move.
Ranked below are 15 players that will be gone from the NFL next season.
18 Chris Johnson
Johnson was once one of the best running backs in the game while with the Titans, but those days seem long gone, and his production has taken a massive reduction in the past three seasons. To add on to that, he suffered a season-ending injury this year, and at age 31, it would seem that his days are numbered. Running backs are typically one of the first positions to see players retire, and there seems to be little reason for Johnson to continue onward. Even when healthy, he's merely a change of pace option at this point, and it's probably not worth undertaking an entire season or two just for that kind of return. It wouldn't be surprising to see him walk away in relatively good standing with his career. It's the most sensible option at his disposal.
17 Dwight Freeney
As a 36-year old defensive end, Freeney's days in the league are likely coming to an end. Currently in his 15th season, he's seen it all as a member of four different teams, and racked up over 100 career sacks. After this year's stint with the Falcons, it's likely in his best interest to call it a day. He's already just a situational player in Atlanta, and another year on his resume would probably signal the end of all productivity. That's not a slight, as Freeney in his prime was one of the best pass rushers in NFL history, but it's worth mentioning at his age. Whether he decides to retire or not, he's definitely a first-ballot hall of fame-player, and one of the best at his position of all time. The results of the Falcons' playoff run may have something to do with his decision as well.
16 Ryan Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick has made a name for himself from his journeyman status as a quarterback, but most people hadn't pegged him as a reliable, go-to franchise starter. That is, except for the Jets who gave him a contract extension last offseason, and watched him sputter his way to mediocrity, leaving them with a mess in front of them with the quarterback position. It's clear that Fitzpatrick isn't the answer, and if any team does make him an offer in free agency, it's not going to be anywhere close to the sum he received from the Jets last offseason. Retirement is probably the best look for him right now. Playing another year probably won't land him on a contending team, or grant him a big payday, leaving Fitzpatrick effectively in n0-man's land.
15 James Harrison
Most players have retired by the age of 38 to begin with, and almost none of them have been as productive as Harrison has been (yet again) for the Steelers this season. Playing all but one of his 14 NFL seasons in Pittsburgh, he's one of the best and most revered players in franchise history. It just seems unlikely that he'd be able to play a position as physical and demanding as inside linebacker as he nears the 40-year mark. It's almost never been done at the pro level, and all the years in the league have taken a toll on his physical condition (as it would with any player). It's still a toss-up, but it's probably more than likely he hangs up the cleats for good after the Steelers are finished with their playoff run. While nothing is guaranteed with a player like Harrison, that's probably the best bet at this point.
14 Christine Michael
By and large, Michael has been an enigma throughout his NFL career so far, and as a second-round running back draft pick, it's fair to say that he's been a disappointment. Playing on three different teams in the past year, he can't seem to find his place with any one franchise for the long-term, and his on-field production has been middling at best, and atrocious at worst. All of these signs point towards an early retirement for Michael, whose travel schedule alone has probably taken a toll on him more than anything else recently. This isn't a forgone conclusion at all, but in this situation it wouldn't be surprising to see the player in question call it a day, even at a young age. Michael can't stick around for any one team, and has had ample opportunity to do so.
13 DeAngelo Hall
While Hall had a starting spot in the Redskins' secondary for the 2016 season, he suffered a season-ending injury midway through, which adds to the list of ailments he's suffered in the past several seasons. This was his 13th season in the league, and it's fair to wonder how long he'll try and hang on after such an unlucky stretch with the injuries. Playing a position that relies predominantly on speed and agility, it wouldn't be surprising to see Hall retire, in an attempt to quit while he's ahead. He's unlikely to regain his dominant level of play that he exhibited in the prime of his career, and Washington isn't likely to be a Super Bowl contender any time soon, so he wouldn't be missing out on a championship opportunity.
12 Jay Cutler
Perhaps this is going out on a limb a bit, but Cutler has one of the worst reputations in the NFL as far as intangibles for a starting quarterback are concerned. He's widely considered too apathetic and laid back to effectively play the position, and mopes on the sidelines more often than not. It's hard to see any team willing to pay him starting-caliber money in the near future, as he's more than likely done as the franchise guy in Chicago. Without a starting job on his plate, it's more likely that Cutler would just retire, as he knows that he isn't likely to improve a team's Super Bowl chances with his play. This is actually probably one of the more likely scenarios here, and no one should be surprised if he decides to call it a day.
11 Trent Cole
Cole's been a great underdog story throughout his entire NFL career, and he's certainly put together an impressive resume. After many successful seasons as a defensive end and outside linebacker with the Eagles, he's spent the last couple of years with the Colts. While he's definitely shown flashes of brilliance, his productivity has taken a massive dip, and he has to be considering the possibility of walking away from the league. In his prime, Cole was amassing a whopping 10-plus sacks per season. Since the move to Indy, that number has dropped to just a couple per season. At the age of 34, retirement seems like the most likely option for Cole, especially with the Colts not showing any ability to be a playoff threat in the near future.
7 Julius Peppers
This is one that depends heavily on how the Packers do in the playoffs, even though Peppers is nearing his late-30s in age. A standout pass rusher for three different teams in his career, he could actually probably keep playing at a reasonably effective level for another year or so. For some reason however, the time just feels right for Peppers to call it a career after this season. He's without a doubt a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and has displayed dominance at defensive end for the past 15 years in the league. With nothing left to prove, and years of wear and tear on his body, it's reasonably likely that he'll hang it up after the 2016 season. Either way, his career is nearing it's end, and without question, he'll be getting a bid to Canton in the near future.
6 Carson Palmer
One of the most surprising stories of the 2016 campaign was the regression of the Cardinals, and it's hard to imagine that Palmer would return for another season as the starting quarterback. At age 37, couple with a drop in the quality of his play, he's a likely candidate for retirement in the offseason, as the team tries to find a younger, more long-term option at the position. If Palmer were to switch teams in the offseason, it would be the fourth in his career, and it probably wouldn't be for a starting role, which in turn would mean less money. It's hard to see him taking that kind of deal on any terms, and it remains to be seen if another would present him with that offer to begin with. Keep a watch on Palmer's career moves this offseason.
5 Darrelle Revis
Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch, but on top of the Jets' failures as a team this season, it's been well-documented how much Revis has regressed in 2016. One the undisputed best cornerback in the game, he's now merely average, and in the middle of the pack. He's getting beat by receivers that he would have laughed at several years ago, and it's fair to wonder how long he exactly wants to hang on. Certainly, he probably won't want to stay in New York, but is any team going to shell out big money for a corner in his early-30s based on name recognition alone? It's not a definite at all, and without the right situation for the 2017 season, it's appearing as an increasing possibility that Revis will hang it up after the season is over. Time will tell, but it's starting to appear like the best option for him.
4 Earl Thomas
Ever since he suffered a broken leg during the season, which landed him on IR, Thomas has been mulling over retirement. As a league veteran, such an injury is difficult to return from, especially when you're considered one of the best safeties in the league. On top of that, the Legion of Boom, while still highly effective, is not the all-time great defense that it was several years ago, and there's likely more changes coming to that unit in the near future. This is probably a 50/50 shot; Thomas has just about equal reason to try and return, as he does to retire. Still, when Marshawn Lynch retired relatively early last year, it left a precedent for other players who may want to do the same. This is one offseason scenario to keep a close watch on because of that.
3 Larry Fitzgerald
A surefire Hall of Famer, Fitzgerald has been one of the best receivers in the league over the past decade or so. With the Cardinals sputtering out of control, it wouldn't be surprising to see him walk away. He has nothing left to prove on the field personally, and a Super Bowl victory would be the one caveat that could make him stick around. But at age 33, he isn't going to be the go-t0 receiver on any team in the league. Additionally, he's only ever played in Arizona during his pro career, and a move to another city may not be of much interest to him. He could of course stay with the Cardinals, but with all the roster shakeup that is inevitably going to happen there after a disappointing season, Fitzgerald's future with the team remains unclear.
2 Steve Smith
This is one is a lock, as Smith recently announced he'd be retiring after the end of the 2016 season. It's one of the best careers for a wide receiver of all-time, and he played with a kind of intensity that is almost unparalleled in this era. A model of consistency and maximum effort, Smith is a Hall of Fame player if there ever was one. In his prime he was a top-five player at his position, and was extremely effective even in his later years, due to superior conditioning and a cerebral nature on the field. Without a doubt, Smith is one of the hallmark players of his era, and the league will be losing one of its most entertaining players, in every aspect of the game. Still, it's well-deserved for Smith after 16 years of league service, a number that most players don't even come close to reaching.
1 Tony Romo
When Romo sustained yet another major injury in the preseason, it was his third since 2015. A younger player may have had a shot of rebounding from such a serious situation, but at the age of 36, Romo's career is honestly on its last legs. As has been determined by now, Dak Prescott is now the starting quarterback of the Cowboys, and if Romo wants any chance of playing next year, it will have to come from another team. However, it's hard to imagine him getting any kind of starter-money because of the aforementioned injury history. It's just too big of a risk for another team to undertake, and frankly, also for Romo and his health in general. In all likelihood, we've seen the last days of Romo as an NFL player. While his playoff success was limited, he's still one of the most effective and underrated quarterbacks of his era. The struggles that Dallas endured during long portions of his career, were a result of Jerry Jones and front office decisions, not Romo and his play on the field.