The NFL is a young man’s game…an extremely young man’s game. According to the NFL Players Association, the average NFL career lasts just 3.3 years; hence the reason for the nickname Not For Long. Football is a collision sport and in no place are those collisions of greater magnitude than the best football league in the world. Whether it be a freak injury that ends a player’s career in a single moment or a recurrence of injuries; most players leave the game early due to declining health. The NFL has even protected itself from early retirements as they are well aware of the average career lasting 3.3 years and, thus, they mandate a player must play 4 years before cashing in on the Player Annuity Plan. This plan is funded by the 32 teams and it provides deferred compensation to retired players at no cost to the players....provided they can play 4 years.
But injuries and health aren’t the only things that lead to shorter-than-anticipated careers. Simple ineffectiveness has knocked out many players who either have lost the ability or the motivation to perform at their expected standards. Some players hit that second contract, which is the big-money paycheck, become complacent, and simply ride out the rest of their guaranteed years. Then poof, they’re gone before you even know it like infamous free agent bust Albert Haynesworth. Other players leave the game early due to off-the-field interests such as arguably the greatest player of all time, Jim Brown. When Brown was 29, and coming off an MVP season, he was given an ultimatum by Browns’ owner Art Modell to either come to training camp or risk being fined. Brown essentially told Modell, “You can’t fine me…because I’m retired!” and took his talents to Hollywood.
We’ll take a look at which current players will retire early and the reason that will make them leave the game. Here are 15 NFL players who won’t make it to 30.
15 Earl Thomas
After breaking his leg last December and caught up in the raw emotion of a season-ending injury; Thomas sent out the following tweet:
This game has been so good to me no regrets.. A lot is running through my mind including retirement thanks for all the prayers.— Earl Thomas (@Earl_Thomas) December 5, 2016
Thomas has decided to put retirement on hold but he later admitted that he thought his career is over. But the fact that he’s already thinking about retirement is not a good sign for Seahawks fans as he may not be as big as Kam Chancellor or as brash as Richard Sherman; but Thomas is the best member of the Legion of Boom. What happens if either he or a teammate has another one of those injuries? Thomas had to be talked into coming back to play which means he likely already has one foot out the door.
14 Brock Osweiler
2017 is the last season that Osweiler is owed guaranteed money from his original Texans contract. Thus, this could end up being a make-or-break season for Osweiler because if he can’t play quarterback for the Browns, then who can he be a QB for? Osweiler could likely be a solid backup but that’s the problem; he doesn’t see himself as a backup. Despite the team drafting DeShone Kizer, Osweiler said his expectation is to start in Cleveland. He also did perhaps the worst thing a player can do: he burned bridges with a team and coaching staff. Osweiler blamed the Texans’ coaching staff for messing with his fundamentals and said that was the reason for last season’s struggles.
His bravado is that of a Super Bowl-winning QB (which I guess he is since he was a backup when the Broncos won, but you know what I mean) even though his talent level is that of a backup. Osweiler needs to listen to Kendrick, Be Humble, Sit Down and accept a role as a backup or he’ll be calling the CFL pretty soon and asking for a job.
13 NaVorro Bowman
I fear that Bowman may go the route of the man he played alongside for so many years, Patrick Willis, and retire in his 20s due to injuries. Willis just had foot and toe problems but Bowman has had two season-ending injuries over the last 3 years. He’s torn his ACL, MCL, and Achilles’ tendon and according to reports out of 49ers’ OTAs, Bowman looked slow and couldn’t even cover lead-footed tight ends. He’s signed with the Niners through the 2022 season but there’s a better chance of Jim Harbaugh coming back to coach the team than there is of Bowman making it that far. At least Bowman seems to already have a second career lined up as he won an offseason arm wrestling contest that had dozens of NFL players participating in it.
12 Ryan Mathews
They say that surgery for a torn Achilles’ is the worst surgery for any NFL player. I would disagree and point to the neck surgery that Mathews underwent this offseason as the worst of its kind. Over six months later Mathews still has not been medically cleared by the Eagles and that is the only reason he is still on the roster. He needs to be able to pass a physical before the team can waive him and once that happens, no one will want to touch him with a 10 foot pole. Remember Priest Holmes’ neck injury? It knocked him out two whole seasons and when he did come back, he re-injured his neck and retired for good. Mathews is 29 years old, coming off neck surgery, and hasn’t reached 700 rushing yards in a season since 2013. Does that sound appealing to any NFL team?
11 Alfred Morris
The Redskins’ playoff run in 2012 had as much to do with Robert Griffin III as it did with Alfred Morris who had the third most rushing yards for a rookie in NFL history. Since then it has, literally, been all downhill as Morris’ rushing yards and yards per carry have decreased in each season. He couldn’t even beat out a broken-down Darren McFadden for the Cowboys backup RB last season. The Cowboys tried to trade him this offseason and unsurprisingly found no offers so now they will likely cut him. At 28, Morris may have to wait for an injury in training camp before getting one last shot with a team on a minimum deal. But he is trending in the wrong direction after looking like the second coming of Clinton Portis as a Redskins rookie.
10 Tyler Eifert
Let’s just run through the list of injuries for the Bengals’ Pro Bowl tight end. As a rookie in 2013 he suffered a stinger that knocked him out one week. In 2014 he dislocated his elbow in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season. In 2015 he suffered another stinger which kept him out two games and then injured his foot in the freaking Pro Bowl which prompted him to say he’ll never play in the game again. Then last year Eifert missed 6 games due to that foot injury and then another 2 due to a back injury. The rumor that Eifert got a “FRAGILE” tattoo this offseason has been neither confirmed nor denied. Outside of the stinger he hasn’t had recurring injuries to the same body part but injuries to multiple body parts. That leads me to believe that his body simply can’t handle the grind of the NFL and he appears to be the tight end version of former Colts safety Bob Sanders.
9 Jameis Winston
No, it’s not opening Famous Jameis Crab Shack that will cause Winston to leave the NFL. But it is another thing from his past that could lure him from the gridiron: baseball. Winston was a switch-hitter and relief pitcher while at Florida State and was even named to a preseason All-American team by Baseball America. Winston was better on the mound than at the plate and posted an outstanding 1.95 ERA across 60.1 innings pitched. He was drafted by the Texas Rangers out of high school and just this past year Winston admitted that he still thinks about returning to the diamond.
“Football, the lifespan of this sport is not really guaranteed,” Winston said in April. “So baseball might be there one day.” Winston’s current contract with the Bucs has a provision in it which prevents him from pulling a Deion or Bo and playing two sports. That contract ends after 2018 and even if Winston signs another 5-year deal afterwards, that would only take him to his 29th birthday. After nearly a decade in the NFL and mounting injuries, Winston may decide he’s had enough of non-guaranteed contracts and being sacked by 300 pounders and decides to make the transition to baseball.
8 Kevin White
If Chicago fans were wondering what the football version of Derrick Rose looked like…”Kevin White, come on down!!” White has been plagued with injury after injury since being taken 7th overall in 2015. First he suffered a shin injury during OTAs just weeks after being drafted. Then he suffered a stress fracture in that same leg and had a steel rod inserted into his tibia. A year later he again hurt the same leg and this time it was a fractured fibula. As a result, White has played in just 4 games in 2 years and wasn’t impressive even when on the field. He averaged a running back-like 9.8 yards per catch on his 19 receptions last year and didn’t show that he could separate from cornerbacks. A beat writer for the Bears says that the team doesn’t know if he will ever regain his explosiveness. If he looks this way at 24 then there is no way he’ll make it to 30.
7 Greg Robinson
The then-St. Louis Rams could have drafted Khalil Mack, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham or anyone not named Jadeveon Clowney with the second overall pick in the 2014 draft. But instead they went with OT Greg Robinson out of Auburn. Robinson was supposed to be the team’s starting left tackle for the next decade but he barely lasted three seasons and they were terrible seasons at that. He was a healthy scratch for two games last season which is virtually unheard of for someone drafted that highly. It seems as the second Robinson signed his $21 million rookie contract, he just decided to mail it in.
This offseason, and under new coach Sean McVay, the Rams moved Robinson to left guard and then to right tackle and then just gave up on him and traded him to Detroit for a 6th round pick. The 2014 second overall pick was only worth a 6th round pick just 3 years later! Robinson is entering the final season of his rookie contract this year and his uninspiring play over the last 3 seasons leads me to believe he’s also entering the final season of his career.
6 Tyrann Mathieu
The Honey Badger has played four NFL seasons and three of those have ended with him on injured reserve. He’s had two torn ACLs and a shoulder injury last year ended his season prematurely. Coach Bruce Arians recently said that Mathieu’s knee isn’t 100% yet and that injury/surgery occurred in 2015. Mathieu is just 25 but he’s been through an awfully lot dating back to his time at LSU. He’s also someone who has lots of outside interests away from football and the pull of those could be greater than his desire to get his body beat up playing football. If Mathieu’s next 4 years are as rough as his last 4 years, then he should smartly walk away at the age of 28 with over $53 million in the bank.
5 Aldon Smith
It’s fair to wonder if Smith’s NFL career is already over with his last game coming at the age of 26. He applied for reinstatement from his one-year suspension over 8 months ago and Roger Goodell still hasn’t given him the nod of approval. Smith has been arrested no fewer than 5 times over the last 5 years including for 3 DUIs, illegal possession of an assault weapon, and for making a false bomb threat at LAX. Even during his suspension he can’t seem to stay out of trouble as he was investigated by police for a domestic incident in February and then was in a car that struck a police cruiser in March. Smith is a Hall of Fame talent but has battled demons as much as offensive tackles ever since he’s entered the NFL. It’s not his ability that could force him out the game early but rather a lack of availability.
4 Luke Kuechly
No one will ever forget the terrifying scene that is depicted above. After his second concussion in two years, Kuechly was openly sobbing as he was being carted off the field. We’ve seen players cry after both wins and losses but when was the last time you saw an NFL player cry after an injury? Kuechly has missed 9 games over the last two years to concussions even though he says the Panthers cleared him and just held him out as a precaution after his latest concussion. During OTAs in May Kuechly said he is tired of answering questions about concussions from the media but that visual from last season won’t be escaping anyone anytime soon. If he suffers another concussion this upcoming season then we may see tears again as Kuechly would be well-aware that he just played in his last NFL game.
3 Eddie Lacy
Some guys will leave the game early due to injuries and some guys will leave the game early due to off-field issues. Eddie Lacy may just end up eating himself out of the league. Lacy infamously signed a one-year deal with the Seahawks this offseason that was weight bonuses. He gets $55,000 every time he meets the target weight set forth by the team. I have heard of these types of clauses in the contracts of linemen, but I have never heard of them being in the contract of a skill position player. To his credit, Lacy has made weight and collected cash on the first two weigh-ins. But what happens if Lacy’s next contract doesn’t have this provision in it? Does he have the drive and discipline to stay in shape on his own? Judging from what we’ve seen dating back to his days at Alabama, my answer to that question is “NO.” Lacy seems like he’s rather be fat and happy without the NFL rather than in-shape and miserable while on a team.
2 Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick turns 30 on November 3 and it’s appearing to be more probable than not that he’s already played in his last NFL game. NFL teams have given second (and third) chances to players convicted of sexual assault, domestic violence, and manslaughter; but Kaepernick can’t get a job because of a non-violent protest? He’s only had one visit with another team during this offseason while the likes of Dan Orlovsky and Blaine Gabbert are on NFL rosters. That means that Kaepernick has had as many visits with teams as the likes of Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel who met with the Chargers and Saints, respectively.
Teams routinely carry 3-4 quarterbacks on their roster during preseason so there’s over 100 QBs signed to NFL contracts. Yet somehow, someway, Colin Kaepernick isn’t one of the top 100 QBs in the country?
1 J.J. Watt
They say that whenever an athlete starts thinking about retirement, they already have one foot out the door and should just go ahead and make it official. Well, J.J. Watt hasn’t just thought about retirement, he’s openly talked about it. Watt admitted that his recent string of back injuries and surgeries has forced him to consider life without football. Still just 28, and arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, this upcoming season could be very telling for Watt’s future. What is he has another reoccurrence of his back flare-ups? What if instead of a back injury he suffers a leg injury or a concussion? It’s very rare for an active player to talk about life after football while they are still in the game but Watt also seems to have a plan for when he retires. He said he is interested in acting and lord knows we’ve seen him in a commercial or 20. Can’t you just see Watt going the route of The Rock and starring in action movies? Fast and the Furious 10 starring J.J. Watt…