Guys like Tom Brady don’t make the cut on this list. Yes, Tom Brady is old for the NFL at age 39. But as much as fans hate to admit it, Brady is still a star and he’s still playing better than ever. This list looks at the guys who fail to meet that star-level of play. Sure, everyone on this list is well known and they used to be among the best in the NFL. But none of them are playing at that star status level like they used to in their younger years.
These players aren’t all the oldest guys in the league. But they are the guys who have aged the worst compared to everyone else still playing in the NFL. Some stars manage to make it through their careers without showing their age. Aaron Rodgers is just one guy who fits that description.
But there are a lot of stars who have seemingly outstayed their welcome. They do have a chance at pulling a Tiki Barber and having their best years in the next couple of seasons, but that seems doubtful.
These used-to-be stars have seen declining production and have shown signs of an aging and almost finished athlete. Some of these guys probably won’t make it to, or through, the 2017 season. But they all played in 2016 and were looking like aged league veterans. This list looks at 15 former stars in the league, and how their production has declined in the recent years.
15 Dwight Freeney, 36
Dwight Freeney has played for 15 seasons. He’s faded into an almost unknown defensive end (he did record eight sacks in 2008 though). But he hasn’t really been playing to his star status since his last season with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. He was 32 that year and coming off an amazing stretch where he was selected to seven Pro Bowls.
Freeney has led the league in sacks, then was the Defensive Player of the Year, then he was named to the 2000s All-Decade team. But he’s been nothing like that player in recent seasons. Sure, Freeney used to be the best defensive end in the league, and he will go down as one of the league’s best. But he has been the complete opposite lately.
14 Mark Sanchez, 30
Mark Sanchez seems much older for a guy who just turned 30 last year. Although he never made the Pro Bowl, Sanchez was a star out of college and elevated his status with two winning seasons on his first two years with the New York Jets. Sanchez really started to seem like the new franchise quarterback, and his nickname – Sanchize – seemed to fit his play. He went 8-7 then followed up with a 11-5 season. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns his first season, but didn’t come close to those numbers the next couple years. He was growing into an NFL superstar.
But after his fourth season, time on the field became scarce. Sanchez is now labeled as a mentor from the bench, something that is generally reserved for the oldest quarterbacks in the league.
13 Justin Forsett, 31
Justin Forsett peaked when he was 29. Maybe he’s still got some left in the tank after turning 31 last year, but it doesn’t look likely that he’ll return to his star status. In 2014, Forsett was selected to the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,266 yards for the Baltimore Ravens. That season alone turned Forsett into a star. Forsett was a seventh round draft pick and making the Pro Bowl in 2014 made Forsett a star compared to the other seventh round draft picks.
The two seasons following that Pro Bowl season have been awful for Forsett, who turned 30 in 2015. He’s rushed for less than 300 yards since his Pro Bowl season and has played in just 18 games. Although Forsett can be labeled as a star, he deserves that status after the 2014 season when he carried the ball 235 times.
12 Vernon Davis, 32
Since turning 30 in 2014 Vernon Davis has seen a steep decline in production. In 2013, Davis was selected to the Pro Bowl for the second time in his career despite catching about 60 percent of the passes thrown his way. In 2014, he caught barely more than 50 percent. That’s when the downward spiral started for this used to be star.
Davis was once among the league’s best tight ends and led the league with 13 touchdown receptions during his 2009 Pro Bowl run. During the last the seasons, he’s scored just four times. Since turning 30, Davis has played in just about every game but has seen a steep drop in receiving yards as well as touchdowns. He still might have another season or two left, but don’t expect much production out of this guy.
11 Anquan Boldin, 36
Anquan Boldin’s body is keeping up (in terms of injuries) but his skill just isn’t matching the opposition like it used to early in his career. Boldin has played in most games throughout a majority of his career and that trend has remained true in the last couple of seasons. But the aging star has seen a steep decline in production. Boldin posted back-to-back 1,000-plus yard seasons during a few different stretches in his career. The last one came in 2013-2014. But the last couple years have been miserable compared to the production the wide receiver used to see.
Boldin hasn’t been near the 1,000-yard mark since 2014. Actually, he’s totaled 1,373 receiving yards in the past two seasons even though he’s played in 30 games. In the past, Boldin has surpassed that number in one season. Back in 2005, for example, he had 1,402 receiving yards and led the league with an average of 100 yards receiving per game.
10 Matt Forte, 31
Sure, 31 years old doesn’t seem that old. But turning 30 for running backs is a scary number. Forte, who turned 30 in 2015, has not played a full season in the past couple of years and he has not rushed for more than 900 yards in each season since turning 30. When Forte was in his 20s, he rushed form more than 900 yards each season. And he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in five of those seasons.
Forte has been to the Pro Bowl in just two seasons, but he’s played like a star for a majority of his twenties. But he was on a struggling Bears team during that timeframe. Forte is on a different team now, but the Jets don’t seem like a good fit for an aging running back.
9 DeAngelo Williams, 33
For the most part of his career, DeAngelo Williams has split carries with another running back. It’s most likely kept him in the league longer than most running backs have been able to last. But it’s not making him look any younger nowadays. But why would he? Williams has been in the NFL since 2006. Like any running back who has been in the league this long, Williams has had his share of injuries.
For this, we’ll forget Williams first nine seasons in the league. His past two years have been in Pittsburgh, and when Le’Veon Bell isn’t in the game, Williams has looked like a star. But he doesn’t get much playing time. Last season, he saw just 98 carries. Although sitting on the bench is good for a running backs longevity, it is really showing Williams age this late in his career.
8 Jason Witten, 34
Jason Witten just seems to have lost a step in his game. Plus the 34 year old looks a bit older every time he takes off his helmet. Witten is still playing in every game, and starting those games too. He’s done that just about his entire career.
Witten has been selected to the Pro Bowl an astonishing 10 times. But he’s seemed to lost a step or two in his game over the past couple of seasons. Especially last year. Sure, he’s still posting pretty good numbers for a tight end. But with how good we’ve seen Witten play, we would want to see more production out of him. Witten still had explosive games this past year, but they’re seemingly getting farther spread apart these days.
7 Antonio Gates, 36
Antonio Gates had a rough year in his rookie season back in 2003. The year after, he had nearly 1,000 reception yards and 13 touchdowns. He went on to make the Pro Bowl, which he did for eight seasons in a row. During that time, Gates was one of the leading receivers who were redefining the way that tight ends played the game. Gates went from collegiate basketball player to a star in the NFL.
However, Gates is outstaying his welcome just a bit. For the last two seasons his production has been declining and it’s getting tougher to imagine that he was once a star in the NFL. In 2014, he was 34 and played in every game. But he’s struggled to maintain a presence on the field during the last two seasons and he’s not at all posting the numbers that he used to.
6 Chris Johnson, 31
Chris Johnson was the league’s best early in his career and he was amongst the league’s best for a good part of his career since starting in 2008. He had three Pro Bowl appearances, and a a season where he led the league with 2,006 yards and averaged a league high of 125.4 yards per game. And he had the league’s longest rush in 2009 with a 91-yard run (he also led the league with a 94-yard run in 2012).
But Johnson has had a rough few seasons. Johnson began his downward decline after the 2013 season. Once he turned. In 2014, when he was 29 years old, Johnson started just six games and rushed for 663 yards. In the las two seasons he has played in a total of 15 games and last year he played in just four games.
5 James Harrison 38
James Harrison turned 38 last year and he looks like he can still compete for a few more years if he wants to continue in the NFL. But he hasn’t been a consistent starter since 2013. Harrison was selected to the Pro Bowl five consecutive times between 2007 and 2011. Although he didn’t get selected the next couple of years, he extended his streak to seven straight seasons of starting in 10-plus games.
But Harrison has started in just 12 games over the past three seasons. You can’t blame the guy. His body has got to be wearing down after playing in the NFL for nearly two decades. But the former Defensive Player of the Year and former Super Bowl champion has a very successful track record, so he can stay in the league as long as he wants.
4 Tony Romo, 36
A lot of the guys out there wouldn’t want to give Tony Romo credit for being a star, but he has been since joining the league. It’s becoming harder to identify because of the young face taking over the Dallas offense, but Romo is one of the winningest quarterbacks in his time. Romo has led the Cowboys to 10-plus wins in three seasons and has been selected to the Pro Bowl four times. But he barely played in 2015 and didn’t get more than a few passes in last season because of injury (as well as the best rookie quarterback in the league taking over). Romo still may add to his 248 passing touchdowns (and he has only thrown 117 interceptions). But Romo’s presence on the sideline is a true testament to his continued aging.
3 DeMarcus Ware, 34
Here we have another guy who’s been an absolute superstar since he joined the league. But his production has been declining the past couple of seasons. DeMarcus Ware is a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl champion. Ware has led the league in sacks twice (2008 and 2010) and was the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. Ware, who was named to the 2000s All-Decade Team, missed just three games throughout the first 10 of his 12 NFL seasons. But in the last two seasons, he’s missed 11 games because of injuries. Ware was still a Pro Bowl selection in 2015, but he has been increasingly struggling to find time on the field. Ware is still one of the best defensive assets in the league, but his play is decreasing as he gets older.
2 Frank Gore, 33
Frank Gore is a workhorse who is still putting up very respectable numbers, but his yards per carry average is dropping significantly from his early days. He’s now averaging less than four yards per carry while he used to average easily more than four yards per attempt. Sure, that’s a minor difference. But it’s revealing for a back who’s played 12 seasons in the league. Gore has been in the league for more than a decade and has missed a very small percentage of his games.
Gore still rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, but rushed for just four touchdowns. He’s never been much of a scorer, but those four touchdowns are much less than his average. Gore may have a few years left, but it’d be tough to think he has more 1,000 yard seasons left in him.
1 Julius Peppers, 36
Like Dwight Freeney, Julius Peppers is among the top few best career players on this list. But unlike Freeney, Peppers is still showing up as a Pro Bowler at age 35 (that was last season though). Peppers is a nine-time Pro Bowler and has crazy numbers on the stat sheet. He’s been the NFC Defensive Player of the year and he burst into the league in 2002 as the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Peppers was named to the 2000s All-Decade Team and he has the fifth most sacks in NFL history.
The coolest stat in his long resume is his most blocked kicks in NFL history – 13. He’s also got the longest pick-6 by a defensive lineman – 97 yards. The fact that he can’t keep up with his previous production isn’t absurd, it’s just a sign of aging.