Early retirement is nothing new to the NFL, but as of late it's become a bit of a trend. Many experts speculate that early retirement has become a sort of epidemic and the leading cause could be related to the revelations of head trauma and the risks of brain disease associated with repeated or severe brain injuries. Other gruesome injuries are also the cause for a lot of retirements, like Joe Theismann's infamous broken leg. In rare cases, an athlete is just taken from us before their time, like Washington Redskins promising safety Sean Taylor and his untimely death in 2007.
The trend seems to be mainly caused by injury, and/or risk of injury. Combine that with the high impact, relentless, and tolling game of football it comes as no surprise. What this means at face value is that we'll never know when our favorite players may call it a career but we shouldn't ever condemn them for doing so. Even if a player seems to have a few more years of good football left in the tank, it could mean the difference of retiring able-bodied and healthy.
This list has been composed to touch on a lot of the different reasons players leave the game too soon, but it’s not big enough to squeeze in everyone. There have been players who have been banned for life, like Stanley Wilson of the 1989’s Cincinnati Bengals for drug use. Indefinite suspensions were left out too, like the one Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon is currently serving, thanks to his personal conduct and legal troubles. We wanted to make the list an honorable one considering some of the names we used.
Now, here’s the list of the NFL’s top 15 players who could have played a lot longer.
15 Maurice Jones-Drew
Speaking of Jaguars, Maurice Jones-Drew left the NFL before the age of 30 after his stint with the Oakland Raiders turned out to be less than stellar. Easily one of the best Jacksonville Jaguars in franchise history, Jones was a standout in his years with the organization. After a strong eight seasons with the club, Jones was poised to take his talents to another team and signed with the Oakland Raiders for the 2014 season. He’d start only one game, play in 12, and carry for less than 100 yards and didn’t see the endzone for the entire season. His struggles on the field were obvious, but fans hoped it was an adjustment phase.
That may have been the case but nonetheless, Jones felt like he’d given the game all he had, and so he made the decision to sign a one-day contract with the Jaguars and retire from the NFL in Jacksonville the following season.
14 Jake Locker
At only 26 and projected to be a standout dependable backup option in the 2015 free agency market, Jake Locker instead walked away from the NFL, and a sizable paycheck.
If you were asked to hold a clipboard and perform hand signals from the sidelines for $1 million you’d be a fool to say no. For Jake Locker, the decision wasn’t so simple, after four seasons in the NFL as an injury-prone backup, the burning desire to play football at the level the NFL demands was no longer there. One of the strong points of Locker when scouts were eyeing him was his character, and his decision reflected that.
It takes character to admit when the spark is gone, as most others would suck it up for the payday. Locker’s priorities now are his family and pursuing interests outside of the gridiron. He previously stated that baseball could be a backup plan for him, but there's no sign of him pursuing that career yet.
13 Troy Aikman
It had been long speculated that concussion issues ultimately led to Troy Aikman’s retirement, but when asked about it, Aikman said it couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is, back issues had been taking a toll on the Cowboys quarterback for years. After the 2000 season, Aikman was set to receive a generous extension that would allow him to play out the remainder of his career. Aikman was 34 at the time and looked to have a few more seasons left in the tank. Instead of an extension, and after one of his worst statistical seasons, Aikman was forced into retirement due to his lingering injuries.
With other great quarterbacks like Elway, Manning, Brady, and Brees playing well into their late 30s it’s obvious that barring Aikman’s back issues, he could have played for a lot longer. If Aikman had played longer, the Cowboys may not be looking at two playoff wins in 20 years.
12 Jon Beason
Another injury plagued superstar, Jon Beason was a monster since his first ever NFL game. He was consistent and a record smasher in his first four seasons with the Carolina Panthers. The former 1st round pick, Beason was also a three-time Pro-Bowler and defensive leader for the Panthers from 2007-10. After the outstanding start to his career, Beason suffered an Achilles injury and was eventually replaced by rising star Luke Kuechly.
Despite the setback, Beason rebounded when he was traded to the New York Giants in 2013, but the injuries would pile up. He simply was never the same explosive player he was prior to his injury. The following seasons would be significantly reduced by injuries until doctors advised the standout linebacker he had to retire or suffer permanent damage to his knee. At only 30 years old, Beason was forced to retire, another victim of the injury bug.
11 Chris Borland
There’s not many NFL fans who wouldn’t recognize Chris Borland’s name. The standout rookie linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers shocked the sports world when he announced his retirement prior to his second year in the league. What came as most shocking for some was Borland’s reasoning for his decision. After a lot of consideration and research into the dangers of repeated head trauma, Borland weighed the pros and cons of a multi-million dollar career and potentially risking his long-term health. He decided the game of football just wasn’t more important than his individual health.
"For me, it's wanting to be proactive," Borland said. "I'm concerned that if you wait 'til you have symptoms, it's too late. ... There are a lot of unknowns. I can't claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don't want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise."
He retired last season with the support of his organization and teammates and continues to deny any chance of a return.
10 B.J. Raji
B.J. Raji looked to be on track to build on a comeback season in his young career after missing the entire 2014 season. While his 2015 numbers weren’t outstanding, he did provide a formidable presence on Green Bay’s defensive line. Surprisingly, Raji decided to call it an early career instead, well, sort of. Worded as more of a hiatus, Raji has decided to not suit up for the Packers in the upcoming 2016 season and makes no promises for 2017. When asked why, Raji explains that he’s lost the passion for the sport and wants to take on new challenges. At only 29 years of age, Raji is still young and could easily play for a lot longer-- if he wanted to.
While it's possible Raji indeed comes back for the 2017 season, it's unlikely he'll return at the level he was during his prime. It's unlikely the Packers would even welcome him back, so this may in fact be a retirement, whether Raji admits it or not.
9 Jerod Mayo
Once a Patriot, always a Patriot. Jerod Mayo was able to put together a full 16-game campaign with New England this past season after struggling with injuries through the previous two. Despite career-low totals, the linebacker managed to stay healthy during the season, something he said was huge when deciding to hang up the cleats. It must have taken a lot of sacrifice for Mayo to return to the field after two devastating seasons. How much more work would he have had to put himself through to keep meeting the demands of an NFL schedule?
It was ultimately the injuries that shortened Mayo’s career and though he was still able to physically play, he chose not to, insisting that his long-term health and being able to spend quality time with his family was more important to him. As much as you may love the game of football, you can't fault anybody for wanting that in their life.
8 Jason Worilds
When news broke out that Jake Locker and Patrick Willis had retired, the football world was left dumbfounded. When it was reported that Jason Worilds, a premier free agent wide receiver at the prime age of 27 had retired, you could hear the jaws of experts and analysts hit the floor. It was said that Worilds was walking away from at least $15 million guaranteed, and his reasoning for it? Worilds wanted to take time away from the game of football and focus on his religion. If Worilds does decide to come back to the NFL, within the next year or so, we’re certain he’ll find work. It's hard to imagine any of us walking away from such a large amount of money but when you put into perspective the dedication it takes to be an NFL player, you can understand it a little more. We'll see how Worilds feels a year or two from now.
7 Sean Taylor
This is obviously far different from other entries on this list, as it was no choice of Taylor's for his career, and ultimately his life to end.
In November of 2007, Sean Taylor’s life was tragically cut short at age 24 and he was taken from friends and family well before his time. An up and comer who was best known for his helmet smashing hits and defensive ability, Taylor was the anchor of a Washington Redskins secondary and had the traits of Brian Dawkins’ punishing hits and Ed Reed’s ball hawk capabilities.
Taylor struggled off the field with personal issues but was noticeably turning his life around before tragedy struck. Taylor was shot in his home by intruders who had been scouting his property for some time. Had Sean Taylor been given the opportunity to play out his career, there’s no telling how high he’d reach. Taylor may have been talked about today as a future Hall of Famer.
6 Patrick Willis
In a surprise move, Patrick Willis left the game at the prime age of 30. What’s not surprising is the reccurring culprit of early retirement; lingering injuries and the risk of permanent symptoms. After Willis struggled through the 2014 season with the 49ers, he publicly announced his retirement from the game. The seven-time Pro-Bowler had always been consistent and dominant in the linebacker position, but continuing foot issues forced him to miss much of his last season and the risk of permanent damage post-career ultimately made the choice for him. Feeling like he couldn’t perform at the level the NFL demands from his body, Willis retired, able-bodied and content with his decision. We can't help but think that Willis would still be one of the best linebackers in the game today if he stuck around, but you can't fault a player for thinking about his long-term health. Health is always more important than money and glory.
5 Marshawn Lynch
With a very telling social media post, Beast Mode called it a career after 10 seasons in the NFL. Despite the adversity he faced last season, Lynch was still widely considered one of the best running backs in the game. The decision didn’t come as a complete surprise as Lynch had been toying with the idea of retirement for the better part of the last three seasons. With Lynch's running style, it was obvious he wouldn't be able to sustain it for many more years. It's probably better in terms of our lasting memories of Lynch were him running over defenders, rather than an aging veteran clearly hanging on to his career for dear life.
When asked about a potential comeback, Lynch quickly put rumors to bed stating he was done, and when asked why his answer was simply, “I’m tired, is that good enough?”
Yes Beast Mode, that is plenty good enough.
4 Calvin Johnson
Calvin Johnson will go down as one of the most dominant receivers the game has ever seen. A first-ballot Hall of Fame career was abruptly ended last season when Megatron publicly announced his retirement at age 30. The news immediately crushed hearts and left many scratching their heads. Still performing at a high level, it seems plausible that Johnson no longer had the burning desire to sacrifice body and mind for the game of football and like many others in this list decided to end their career on their own terms. You wonder if the decision was strictly about his health or also the fact that the Lions still have not been able to escape their identity as a losing franchise. Megatron retiring at 30 was painfully reminiscent of when Barry Sanders retired at roughly the same age.
3 Bo Jackson
A multi-talented sports star, Bo Jackson had legendary potential coming out of Auburn in 1985. After the Buccaneers infamously sabotaged his rookie MLB season, Jackson said he’d never play for the organization. Some speculated he’d let go of football altogether, but when Al Davis and the Los Angeles Raiders redrafted Jackson in 1987, they came to an unorthodox agreement which would allow Bo to play both sports. Like so many others on this list, injury struck and struck hard. Jackson dislocated his hip on a harmless-looking play, the result would be a quick end to a promising football career. Jackson was only 28 at the time and had a lot of football left in him though Jackson himself has said he was contemplating football retirement before the injury occurred. We can still dream though. Just how long could a once in a lifetime athlete like this have played two professional sports?
2 Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders' retirement came as an absolute shock to the Detroit Lions and their fans. Even at 31, Sanders was still healthy and playing as well as he ever had. What made the decision so surprising was that Sanders had just agreed to a six-year $35 million extension the previous season. When asked why, Sanders finally admitted that Detroit’s losing culture slowly sapped away his competitive hunger. Subsequently, Sanders and his agent tried many times to move Sanders from Detroit but the organization wouldn’t budge. Sanders wouldn’t play another down of football, and many say it’s the only reason why he now sits third on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 15,269 yards, eclipsed by only Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith. A difference of just over 3,000 yards is what separates Sanders from Smith. Had Sanders just played out the remainder of his contract, there's no reason to believe he would've prevented Emmitt Smith from holding that mark, but may have even eclipsed 20,000 yards.
1 Jim Brown
There are not many who compare to Jim Brown, and it’s hard to argue he isn’t the NFL’s G.O.A.T. When Brown announced his retirement at the age of 30, he was still top of his game and consecutively nabbing rushing titles every season. His acting ambitions cut a legendary football career short, though it was widely known that Brown wasn’t going to play beyond the three-year deal he had with the Cleveland Browns. So we were left with nine seasons instead of 10, but one could easily imagine what could have been if Brown played for a few more seasons.
Brown was such a punishing runner that defenses were often left gassed and drained trying to take him down. Brown played in an era where running backs were the major stars on a team and his legendary status still holds up today. Would the Browns have won a Super Bowl if Brown had stuck around?