The 2018 NFL regular season was an exciting one for players and fans alike and networks cashed in after two years of declining ratings. For starters, there was a record-setting 1,371 touchdowns scored this season and 73 games were decided by three points or less. Because of that combination of offense and parity, all of the major networks carrying the NFL experienced significant increases in viewership throughout the season. Overall viewership was up roughly five percent from the year prior and NFL games made up 46 of the top 50 most-watched shows on cable - even the disappointing wild card games experienced an increase in year-over-year viewership for the first time in five years.
A lot of the offense and excitement came from the league's impressive rookies and second-year players like New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, both of whom appear to be future Hall of Famers based on talent alone. Other rookies like Nick Chubb, Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore, and Kerryon Johnson all made positive impacts with their respective teams. Of course, an influx of fresh talent means some veteran players were pushed out of the league either by their own accord or as a result of not being able to earn a roster spot anymore. Players like Jason Witten and Eric Decker announced their retirement, while Le'Veon Bell was absent for a whole different reason. And those are just a couple of the talented players who didn't suit up during the 2018 regular season.
20 Vincent Jackson: Restaurant Owner
Vincent Jackson sat out the 2017 season but didn't officially retire until May 2018. While there was never really hope of him returning for another season, his agent put any thoughts of a comeback to rest when he told ESPN that the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver is "very happily retired."
The 35-year-old alumnus of Northern Colorado concluded his 12-year NFL career with 57 touchdowns and 9,080 receiving yards in 155 games. He completed a business degree at the University of South Florida in 2016 and has since invested in restaurants. He is part owner of a pair of Tilted Kilt franchises in Las Vegas and San Diego and, along with his business partners, has opened three other restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. Believe it or not, he was even awarded the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year in 2017.
19 Joe Thomas: Staying Healthy in Retirement
It's truly a shame Joe Thomas was forced to retire this past offseason because the Cleveland Browns finally look like a competitive team and Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowl tackle and future Hall of Famer, was part of some awful teams in Cleveland during his 11-year career.
Thomas has been working on his health in retirement. He has lost more than 50 pounds since playing his last game in the league and says he feels like he's 40-years-old now - he's actually only 34, but noted he felt like he was 65 after his last season. While he will have to wait a couple of years before the Pro Football Hall of Fame comes calling, he was recently inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
18 Danny Woodhead: Family Man
For almost a decade, Danny Woodhead was the scrappy, undersized running back that always seemed to outperform expectations. Undrafted out of Chadron State, the Nebraska native was signed by the New York Jets in 2009 and later spent time with the New England Patriots before becoming a dangerous passing option out of the backfield in San Diego.
Woodhead retired following the 2017 season with 32 touchdowns (15 rushing and 17 receiving) and 4,936 yards from scrimmage. He has been spending his first year of retirement at his home in Nebraska with his wife and four children. In the summer of 2018, he carried the official Cornhusker State Games torch into Seacrest Stadium to kick off the 34th annual event.
17 DeMarco Murray: Coaching at University of Arizona
Given that he was the AP Offensive Player of the Year in 2014 and is still only 30-years-old, it was somewhat of a surprise when DeMarco Murray announced his retirement last year. He was only one season removed from registering 1,664 yards from scrimmage with the Tennessee Titans and hadn't missed a game due to injury in the past two seasons.
Murray was enjoying retirement during the 2018 NFL regular season while serving as a college football analyst with Fox Sports, but on January 4 was hired to serve as an assistant at the University of Arizona. Naturally, Murray will work as the team's running backs coach.
16 James Harrison: Aspiring Actor
It was incredibly strange not seeing linebacker James Harrison on the field during the 2018 regular season. The 40-year-old former AP Defensive Player of the Year spent 14 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, one season with the Cincinnati Bengals, and one game with the Evil Empire of the New England Patriots. He played six games in 2017 and registered three sacks.
Harrison has spent much of his retirement building a reputation on social media. He regularly posts Instagram videos preaching about brotherhood and family and more recently has been critical of the Steelers and head coach Mike Tomlin. He also told TMZ he has been taking acting classes in hopes of becoming the next Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Good luck with that.
15 Dwight Freeney: Guest Analyst
A one-time Super Bowl champion and seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end, Dwight Freeney was selected 11th overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2002 NFL Draft and spent 11 years with the team before playing a handful of games with the San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, and Seattle Seahawks. He only played in nine games during the 2017 season but managed three sacks.
He signed a one-day contract to retire as a member of the Colts, following which he spent the summer of 2018 traveling in Europe. He resides in Florida, where he golfs regularly and worked with the NFL Network as a guest analyst on occasion this past season.
14 Carson Palmer: Quiet Retirement
Although he never quite lived up to the No. 1 overall hype, Carson Palmer built a decent career for himself, one that included playing in three Pro Bowls and registering 294 touchdowns and 46,247 passing yards through 182 career regular season games. He was by no means awful in 2017 but opted to retire given he was 38 years old and the Arizona Cardinals planned to go in a different direction.
He's been fairly quiet in retirement but was expected to participate in the LPGA's Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions this January in Orlando alongside actors, musicians, World Series champions, and NFL Pro Bowl players.
13 T.J. Ward: Hoping for a Comeback
A two-time Pro Bowl defensive back out of the University of Oregon, T.J. Ward played eight seasons in the league between the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and managed 590 tackles, 10 forced fumbles, eight interceptions, and 8.5 sacks. He was still relatively effective in 2017 but wasn't signed for the 2018 season.
That doesn't mean his playing days are done. Ward told The Athletic this October that he was hoping to get back on the field and prove his naysayers wrong. He said he was on several teams' radars this season, but none were willing to sign him to a contract. It will be tough to return to the league next season after a full year away from the game.
12 Orleans Darkwa: Trying to Find a Team
Orleans Darkwa is still only 26 years old so it's a little surprising that he didn't play a single snap in the NFL this past season, especially since he registered a career-best 867 yards from scrimmage in 2017. He was primarily a third-string back in the previous two seasons, so his 2018 performance might have suggested he would earn a job in 2018, even if the Giants had no room for him after drafting Saquon Barkley.
He had workouts with the Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts, and New England Patriots, among other teams, but surprisingly wasn't signed. His most recent Instagram post in November includes the caption, "The show will go on, just a brief intermission," so expect him to try and make a comeback in 2019.
11 Julius Thomas: Going Back to School
A former collegiate basketball player, Julius Thomas played only one season of college football at Portland State but was selected by the Denver Broncos in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft due to his impressive catching ability and 6-foot-5, 256-pound frame.
The tight end was a favorite target of Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos and, over the course of seven seasons in the league, managed 24 touchdowns and 2,406 receiving yards. He announced his retirement this past August as well as his intentions to pursue a doctorate in psychology and study CTE and how it relates to football.
10 Robert Ayers: Uncertain NFL Future
Robert Ayers was never a Pro Bowl defensive end, but the 33-year-old native of Jersey City, New Jersey had a respectable nine-year career in which he managed 270 tackles, 34.5 sacks, and nine forced fumbles. He last played in 2017 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Ayers hasn't officially retired or ruled out a return to the NFL in 2019, but it'll be tough after not having played in 2018. He was actually signed by the Detroit Lions on August 27 but released the next day. He laughed about it all by sharing a humorous Twitter post on August 29.
9 Richie Incognito: Unsigned
Remember Richie Incognito? The troubled offensive lineman was the main person involved in a locker room controversy during his time with the Miami Dolphins. Some of Incognito's supporters might have shared the notion that what happens in a locker room stays in the locker room, but he's unlikely to have many in his corner these days.
The 35-year-old native of New Jersey last played for the Buffalo Bills in 2017 but went unsigned in 2018 and for good reason. This past August, he was involved in an off-field incident at a funeral home where his father was being laid to rest.
8 NaVorro Bowman: Looking for a Home
One of the league's premier linebackers during the prime of his career, NaVorro Bowman spent seven seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and five games with the Oakland Raiders before going unsigned during the 2018 season. Bowman led the league in tackles during the 2015 season with 154 and has 798 through 99 career games. He also has 14 sacks, nine forced fumbles, and five interceptions.
He didn't officially retire last season and was actually working out with the Cleveland Browns early in the 2018 season. He recently sold his Northern California home for $3.7 million, so he either needed the money or has realized he won't be able to afford the place without a full-time job in the NFL.
7 Ryan Shazier: Staying with the Steelers
Football fans every, regardless of their favorite team, are praying for a return for Ryan Shazier, who sustained a serious career- and life-threatening spine injury during the end of the 2017 season. The Ohio State alumnus was in only his fourth season in the league and was a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker.
December 5 marked the one-year anniversary of the injury and he shared an Instagram post thanking his friends and family for being by his side through it all. It's highly unlikely, but he has made it clear he plans to return to the field someday. Even if that isn't possible, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is on record as saying that Shazier will be involved with the organization in some capacity.
6 Jeremy Maclin: Waiting to Return
A 30-year-old native of St. Louis, Missouri, Jeremy Maclin was never a Pro Bowl wide receiver but had a respectable eight-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, and Baltimore Orioles. He had a career-best year in 2014 when he registered 1,318 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
Following the 2017 season, Maclin had 49 touchdowns and 6,835 receiving yards. He was unsigned in 2018, although he did have a tryout with the Eagles and unfortunately sustained a season-ending hamstring injury. He underwent surgery to correct the problem in October, following which he expressed his desire to return to the league in 2019.
5 Eric Decker: Living the Family Life
The beginning of the 2018 NFL regular season had plenty of interesting storylines, one of which involved Eric Decker potentially playing with the New England Patriots. The 31-year-old was signed by the team on August 3, but soon after announced his retirement before the season even began. Decker managed 563 receiving yards the year prior and finished his career with 5,816 receiving yards and 53 touchdowns.
He has been enjoying retirement with his wife, Jessie James Decker, who recently gave birth to the couple's third child. She shared a photo of him on Instagram with the caption "#retirement" on December 31.
4 Jason Witten: Commentator
Following the path of former teammate Tony Romo, Jason Witten decided to turn to the broadcast booth immediately after announcing his retirement and was immediately pegged to do color commentary during Monday Night Football. Unfortunately, as opposed to Romo, he hasn't really been that good, drawing criticism from media types and fans alike.
It's a shame because, on the field, Witten was an absolute beast and certain future Pro Football Hall of Famer. The 11-time Pro Bowl tight end spent 15 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and managed 68 touchdowns and 12,448 receiving yards. He had five touchdowns in 2017, so perhaps he could have stuck it out for another season rather than try his luck in the announce booth.
3 Johnny Manziel: CFL
Johnny "Football" Manziel might not have played during the 2017 season - or the 2016 season for that matter - but it's hard not to include the former Heisman Trophy winner, who is still very much a part of the football conversation in North America. The former first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns actually only started eight games in the NFL and managed seven touchdowns and seven interceptions, but made a return to football in 2018 after taking care of his own personal problems.
Manziel signed with the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger Cats and was later dealt to the Montreal Alouettes. He finished his first year north of the border with five touchdowns, seven interceptions, and 215 yards rushing. There's still plenty of work to be done before he attempts an NFL comeback.
2 Dez Bryant: Preparing for Next Season
Technically, Dez Bryant wasn't really absent during the 2018 season as he did sign with the New Orleans Saints after weeks of being a free agent awaiting an offer, but his time with the team was short-lived. In fact, it was so short-lived that he didn't even dress for a single game with the team as he sustained a torn Achilles during his second practice with the team.
Bryant is still only 30-years-old, so it's not as if he can't come back. He was even spotted on crutches at the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers game on January 7 and told reporters that he planned on coming back strong in 2019.
1 Le'Veon Bell: Waiting on a Big Contract
The only way football fans might not know Le'Veon Bell didn't play during the 2018 regular season is if they lived under a rock or were in a coma. Bell dominated headlines all season long for not reporting to the Pittsburgh Steelers after being franchise tagged. There was a will-he-or-won't-he narrative ongoing for most of the season until the deadline passed for him to sign a contract.
The Steelers ended up missing the playoffs and Bell received a full year of rest in preparation for what should be an interesting offseason. He's an unrestricted free agent, meaning any team can sign him, and will likely command one of the biggest free agent contracts in NFL history.