Age is nothing but a number, a number that slowly pulls at your physical capabilities as it gets higher. In a sport that demands as much as football, it’s no surprise that earlier retirements are becoming a bit of a trend in the NFL. Notably, Marshawn Lynch and Calvin Johnson both respectively retired with what could easily have been several years left in the tank. The number of players retiring under 31 is growing steadily. The main factor related to the early retirements seem to be health concerns. There are only a handful of older gladiators still willing to put their bodies on the line every Sunday, but even the mightiest must come to terms with their health and performance.
There are players waiting and hoping for that elusive championship, others are chasing all-time stats and records to carve their name in the game forever. For some, it’s all they’ve ever known, and walking away from a sport you love more than anything is a decision that won’t ever come easily- even if it means risking serious injury.
Some of our favorite players are coming to a crossroad in their careers, and we’ve already seen a lot of them walk away. Peyton Manning, Patrick Willis, Reggie Wayne, Jared Allen, Ray Lewis, and Chad Johnson were the face of their teams when they wore their colors. New faces, like Odell Beckham, Cam Newton, and J.J. Watt, and company will usher in the next generation of players and fans for several years. In time they too will join a list like this as their fans dread the day of watching their final games.
Now, we brace ourselves for the new wave of departures heading our way. Here’s a list of 13 NFL players you should expect to retire within the next 12 months.
13 Terence Newman
Newman contemplated retirement before signing with the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent. After a solid season, it’s hard to imagine Newman won’t play for at least one more season. It’s equally hard to believe he’s approaching his 38th birthday. If Newman suits up in 2016 he’ll be the oldest active defensive player in the league now that Charles Woodson has retired, a title we don’t expect him to keep in 2017. With only a one-year contract, we expect this to be Newman’s final season in the NFL.
12 Dwight Freeney
After being just one week away from deciding to retire last season, Freeney got a phone call from the Arizona Cardinals. At the time Dwight decided one more year wouldn’t hurt, and helped the Cardinals with a playoff run. Now Freeney is a free agent contemplating the choice once again. It seems unlikely that the now 14-year veteran will opt to play one more season, but it’s not impossible. If he doesn’t retire before the start of the 2016 season, you should definitely expect him to at the end of it.
11 Vince Wilfork
Wilfork is heading into the last year of his two-year contract with the Houston Texans. After his option was declined by New England, Wilfork moved to Houston in what looks like the last stop of his career. After posting just 22 combined tackles (6 solo) in a full season with the Texans, it’s unlikely the team will extend Vince another year. When it comes time to decide if he wants to test the free agency again or call it an NFL career, we think Wilfork will hang up the cleats.
10 Jason Witten
Witten 34, is heading into another season with the Dallas Cowboys and we expect it may be his last. As he mentioned in interviews, Jason says he doesn’t want to be one of those guys who’s “hanging on,” and he’s taking everything “one season at a time.” While we don’t believe he’s holding the team back, Witten’s no longer a top producing tight end as much as he is a veteran presence in the locker room. If the Cowboys do decide to head in a different direction, we wouldn’t expect Witten to dress for another team.
9 Wes Welker
Welker made headlines last summer when his former teammate Champ Bailey publicly asked Welker to retire. “I don’t want Wes to play for my own personal reasons,” saying, “I think he can still play, but I don’t want him to play because of these concussions.” Welker is a free agent and will be turning 35 in May, and it’s believed that he’s leaning towards retirement but hasn’t made any official decision just yet.
We expect Welker, for his own good, will step away from the game and focus on his health.
8 Roddy White
White was pushed out of his role as Atlanta’s primary threat. He wasn’t happy about it and made his frustrations public. This was the writing on the wall, and now White is looking for a new team to suit up for this upcoming season. At 34, White has already seen his best years and his production on the field has taken a heavy reduction. With any luck he’ll sign with a team like the Bengals or Redskins and end his career on a higher note. We expect this season, barring a sensational, career-saving performance that White will seriously consider retirement.
7 Julius Peppers
It was speculated Peppers was going to retire after the 2015 season. At 36, and contrary to the rumors, Peppers says he’s playing for the Packers in 2016. He joked with reporters about the rumors, “I’m 36 now, so somewhere in the next 4 years it’s going to happen.”
Expect Peppers to suit up one more year with Green Bay and walk away from the game. We’re hoping he notches the 6 sacks he needs first to become 5th all-time in quarterback sacks.
6 Anquan Boldin
Boldin was hoping to return to San Francisco, but it’s more likely the 35-year-old will sign with a new team looking for a veteran presence. If that’s the case, we hope Anquan is picked up by a contender (both the New England Patriots and New York Giants are possible destinations) and gets another run at a championship. He’s made it clear that he still wants to play football, but expect Boldin to sign a one or two-year deal in his last tenure with the NFL.
5 Devin Hester
Hester is still the greatest return man to ever field a punt, kickoff, or missed field goal. But at 33 and slowing down considerably, Hester is going to walk away from the game as one of the best to ever do it. Currently heading into the final year of his contract with the Atlanta Falcons, Hester is coming off an injury plagued 2015 campaign, as well as foot surgery he had this January. Expect Hester to score his last punt return touchdown(s) this season and call it a career.
4 Reggie Bush
After being released by the Detroit Lions, Bush suited up for only five games with the 49ers before an awkward slip at the Edward Jones Dome sidelined him for the rest of the 2015 season. Bush vowed not to end his career over the incident and poor performance (28 rushing yards), stating, “I'm still playing. No, I'm not done. And I would never -- knock on wood -- I never want to end my career like that, going out with that.”
Expect Reggie to find a home of some kind, make the best of 2016, and call it career.
3 Andre Johnson
Currently a free agent, Johnson hopes to be picked up by a Super Bowl caliber team in what looks like his last shot for glory. Johnson signed a three-year deal with the Colts in March 2015 after spending his entire career with Houston. After being dropped by Indianapolis in March 2016 after a sub par season, Johnson’s old team made it public that they wanted Andre to return to Houston to retire.
It’s likely Johnson may take one more run at the Lombardi, but a retirement before or after this season should be expected.
2 Frank Gore
After spending his entire career with San Francisco, Gore came to a fork in the road. Ride out a one-year contract with the 49ers, or move to a contender. Gore decided that based on where he was in his career, he wanted to be a part of a Lombardi contender and the 49ers weren’t going to be one in 2015. Gore is now headed into the 2nd year of a 3-year deal with Indianapolis Colts, and Superbowl or not, expect Gore to hang up the cleats at the end of this season.
1 Drew Brees
Heading into the final year of his $100-million contract with New Orleans, the franchise quarterback has expressed his desire to retire as a Saint. There were rumors swirling around that the team might trade him to Tampa Bay or the New York Jets. The rumors proved to be baseless, but the fact is Brees will be turning 37 this year and his production is steadily withering with age. We don’t expect New Orleans to offer Brees an extension longer than a year at the end of the season. Whether Brees thinks he can still deliver at 38 remains to be seen but we wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of his contract he walks away as one of the best to ever wear black and gold.