It's well known that the field life of a professional athlete is brief, especially in a brutish, high-contact sport like American football. The most accomplished players are considered to be of exceptional longevity by the time they reach their mid-30s. Once they start that latter end of that long trek to 40, every offseason brings a barrage of questions about retirement—just ask Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Tom Brady, all of whom have confirmed so far this offseason that they're not going anywhere just yet.
Of course, it's easy for these multiple Super Bowl winning franchise quarterbacks to quiet speculation. But, as they say, time waits for no man. Around the league, other players too are creeping down the line toward retirement. Whether from injuries, advancing age and declining physical ability, or unfortunate free agency situations, the thought of retirement must pass through the minds of any player over a certain age whose career futures are not perfectly clear.
Here are some of the many players throughout the NFL that could consider hanging up the cleats this offseason. With March 9th looming, the beginning of the new "football year," when all contract years in the league end and free agencies begin, be on the lookout for the retirement announcements to start floating in.
15 Jay Cutler
Halfway through last season, after rebounding from a thumb injury and missing five games, Jay Cutler returned to impressive numbers in a deft dismantling of the Minnesota Vikings, with the Bears coming out on top 20-10. In this game, Cutler earned a 100.5 passer rating and played like he was performing CPR on the corpse of the Bears' 2016 season. This proved to be a fluke, as Cutler would then play horribly against the Dolphins before injuring his shoulder and missing the rest of the season; the Bears would go 3-13.
This was only the most recent of Cutler's injuries and sporadic play over the last few seasons, which has led the Bears to officially announce that they're seeking a trade partner for their former starter.
However, Cutler has reportedly been considering retirement. Although he is 33, the numerous injuries he has suffered over his career make it hard to imagine he'll have the same longevity as a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. One couldn't really blame Cutler if he decided to call it quits this offseason.
14 Terence Newman
A long career has seen Terence Newman play cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings, three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, and the nine-season run with the Dallas Cowboys that remains as his most extraordinary. As recently as 2014 he was playing at a level not far removed from his younger years. The 38-year-old Newman's career total of 841 combined tackles and 41 interceptions exemplify his value on any team's secondary.
But this 14-season veteran cornerback wavered in 2016 and posted paltry numbers in the Minnesota's last three games of the year. As he enters free agency this offseason, there is a significant chance that the Vikings forgo another contract with him. He may be a highly experienced player, but he's knocking on 40's door. That's not the kind of cornerback teams tend to look for.
13 Fred Jackson
Appearing most recently for the Seahawks in 2015, the former Bills franchise running back was absent entirely from the league for all of 2016. But Jackson has never announced any sort of official retirement, having courted his former Buffalo team into another deal as recently as last offseason.
Most running backs tend to fall off by the time they're 30, as it's one of the most physically demanding roles in the league. Despite being 36, Jackson still seems like he's got the fire to get out on the field and carry the ball, but it's hard to imagine any team, even the Bills, to whom he's been so loyal, investing in a player who long in the tooth like him.
You can expect an official retirement announcement from Jackson this offseason. Alternatively, if no team signs him for 2017, we are probably safe to assume he will go quietly.
12 Karlos Dansby
You might be wondering why Dansby is on this list, as he just played one of the best seasons of his career, in terms of stats. Purely from a numbers standpoint, his 114 tackles in 2016 playing for Cincinnati are outpaced only by his 2012 campaign with the Dolphins (134 tackles) and his 2013 year with the Cardinals (122 tackles), and ranks similarly to his 2008 season, where he accumulated 119 total tackles.
But there's an intangible element that numbers only hint at: weariness from age. At 35, this Bengals linebacker still packs serious heat on the field, but while his tackle numbers are consistent, this season saw him as a factor on fewer big plays. With zero interceptions and only one sack in 2016, Dansby is still a perfectly competent LB who is perhaps experiencing some of the subdued gusto that comes with 13 seasons in the NFL.
11 Adam Vinatieri
Placekickers have notoriously long careers in the NFL; they often occupy more than a few spots on the top ten oldest players in the league. Due to the low impact, relative to other players, that their position has to endure, kickers commonly play well into their 30s and sometimes 40s—don't be surprised if Justin Tucker, currently 27, is still in the NFL a decade from now.
This is, of course, not to discredit the athleticism required of an NFL placekicker, as they are often some of the most vital players in the game. Take Adam Vinatieri, whose 21 (!) seasons in the NFL, half with the Patriots and half with the Colts, have earned him his nickname "Mr. Clutch." With 84.3% field success—over 500 successful FGs in his career—there is no doubt that Vinatieri is an elite player and an embodiment of the longevity of a good placekicker.
Still, though, Vinatieri is 44 freaking years old! He's the oldest active player in the league, and even the kickers have got to hang it up eventually. His 87.1% success rate in 2016 is a down tick from 2015, but not his worst season. Perhaps we'll see another season out of the South Dakota native; perhaps he's immortal. But it also would surprise exactly no one if the oldest player in the league decided to call it quits this offseason.
10 Dwight Freeney
Another of the league's oldest players, Dwight Freeney proved himself as a more than credible threat in his 11 seasons as an Indianapolis Colt—in his first four seasons there, he earned 51 sacks, just over 40% of his career total. Despite lackluster numbers in '06 and '07, he found a resurgence for the remainder of his time with the Colts, posting good results, if not the same as his first four years.
Then, in 2013, Freeney was traded to the Chargers but sat out most of the season on injury. Since then, he has been passed between three teams—San Diego, Arizona, and Atlanta—in four seasons. He most recently appeared in Super Bowl LI, where he scored a grazing sack on Tom Brady, but the 37-year-old is nevertheless on the latter end of his career. Stranger things have happened than if, having appeared in his third Super Bowl, this 37-year-old NFL veteran hung it up this offseason.
9 Josh McCown
In sports, a "journeyman" is a player whose technical competence doesn't necessarily equate to any sort of great success. These players have the skills to hold down the fort, as it were, but very rarely do we see them lead a team to a championship. They'll often play for many different teams in their careers, often as a placeholder while the franchise attempts to find their next big thing.
There is perhaps no other player in the NFL who fits this definition better than Josh McCown. Four 14 seasons, he has been on the roster of seven different teams, often as a second or third stringer, but also started games for the Raiders and Buccaneers. For the last two seasons, he has started for the Cleveland Browns and somehow managed to squeak out 18 TDs in that time. (18 TDs is far from impressive but this is the Brows we're talking about.)
However, even the Browns have standards, and as they are in the hunt this year for a potential franchise QB in the draft, they recently waived McCown from their roster. He is currently a 37-year-old free agent. Sure, many QBs in the league are around the same age, but those names—Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, Rivers—are passers their teams have built franchises around. McCown, ever the journeyman, has never been in direct conversation with such names. Competency aside, it's hard to imagine any team wanting to sign a free agent like McCown, which may lead to his retirement this year.
8 Anquan Boldin
Anquan Boldin will one day be in conversation as one of the best wide receivers of his generation. The Super Bowl champion and three-time Pro Bowl pick has now spent 14 years in the NFL, explosively earning himself 13,779 receiving yards and 82 touchdowns.
Most of this proficiency came in Boldin's first 12 seasons. And while it's no small feat to play so consistently and fiercely for 12 years, in the last two there has been a noticeable downswing in his level of play. While still a valuable asset in his new home of Detroit—he signed there last offseason—as he ages there will be diminishing returns. Boldin played in all 16 games last season, but only received for 584 yards—about half of his 2014 season with the 49ers and nearly a third of his explosive rookie year.
As stated, he will be remembered as one of the best of his generation, but as he approaches 40—he turns 37 in Week 5 of this coming season—Boldin's field life might soon come to an end.
7 Julius Peppers
In his 15th season in the NFL, and third with the Green Bay Packers, the 6'7" defensive end Julius Peppers had perhaps his least productive season in his career. In 16 games and 11 starts, he posted 23 combined tackles and 7.5 sacks, which is far less than any of his previous 14 seasons—even in his rookie year, in which he only played 12 games, he posted higher numbers.
Of course, it's no surprise that a 37-year-old is not playing on the same level as a 23-year-old, and the game of football is more than just its numbers. Peppers is a seasoned veteran, and helped lead a Packers defense to a major upset over the Cowboys and a bid at the NFC Championship.
As the new football year starts next month, we could see Peppers enter free agency. If he does, he may call it a day on his NFL career. This surefire hall of famer has more than proven his mettle.
6 Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco is still on the younger side of the others on this list. At 32 years old, he has played nine seasons in the NFL, all with the Baltimore Ravens, during which time he has led the team to a Super Bowl championship and earned the coveted Super Bowl MVP. This put Flacco, only 27 at the time, in conversation with other QBs who had earned the honor—Peyton and Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady. (While many have cast doubt on whether Flacco has earned the "elite" consideration, that's a topic for another time.)
Considering the heights to which he has already gone in his career, the lukewarm seasons Baltimore has had since have put a certain damper on Flacco's momentum. Since their Super Bowl victory, they've only made the playoffs once, and in 2015 posted their first losing season, 5-11, since Flacco has led their offense. Granted, he missed the last third of that season with a knee injury, and the following year helped the Ravens rebound to 8-8, but still missed the playoffs.
Flacco's gusto on the field has been noticeably subdued since returning from the injury. His age makes retirement for him this offseason a long shot, but stranger things have happened than a young-ish player calling it quits due to injury.
5 Larry Fitzgerald
Like Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald is among the best wide receivers in his generation, and his legacy will go down as such once his career is over. As far as franchise wide receivers go, Fitzgerald is inseparable from the Cardinals. During his 13 seasons there, he has caught 104 touchdowns and received for almost 15,000 yards—eight of his 13 seasons has seen him receive for at least 1,000, and two in which he didn't saw him miss more than one game.
By all appearances, Fitzgerald still has long-term value. He continues to be a prolific target for Carson Palmer, especially on deep passes and under high pressure. (Who can forget his game-winning pass in the breathtaking 2015 NFC Divisional round game against the Packers?) Even in 2016, he remained a strong showing in all 16 games, despite the Cardinals' overall lukewarm season.
But anything can happen. Remember when Calvin Johnson retired at the peak of his game? How about Al Toon, for our older readers? Fitzgerald has already made a great legacy for himself, and short of a Super Bowl ring, he has very little left to prove.
4 James Harrison
Among the oldest players in the league, James Harrison is well aware of his standing. Much media attention has focused on his age and how, despite it, he is still in monstrously good shape. As the all-time sack leader in Steelers franchise history, he has been an asset on the defensive line during both of his runs with the team, having earned two Super Bowl rings with them.
But he has had two stints in Pittsburgh; in 2014, Harrison retired from the game. After being released from Cincinnati after the 2013 season, he resigned with Pittsburgh and announced his retirement shortly thereafter. However, he returned to the team after a series of injuries severely limited the Steelers' line.
The past few years have been successful for Harrison, but at 38, it would be the furthest thing from farfetched to see him retire this offseason. He's done it once before, after all.
3 Antonio Gates
At 36, this tight end has spent his entire career in San Diego as a stalwart and prolific receiver and lineman. With the Chargers' impending move to Los Angeles, some doubt has been cast on whether the aging Antonio Gates will make the move up Interstate 5 with the rest of the team.
In 2016, he missed two games and only started in nine, after starting in only four in 2015. His receiving yardage has dwindled down into the the mid-500s, whereas in his younger days it often climbed toward 1,000—this, despite having only four seasons with 16 starts.
Gates has not suffered any serious injury since 2008, but his youngest days are certainly behind him. He may very well return to—or rather arrive at—Los Angeles at the beginning of the 2017 season, but it's equally logical for him to call it a career this offseason.
2 Jamaal Charles
The age of 30 is a turning point for running backs. It is generally the age at which their careers begin to decline. In the case of Jamaal Charles, it appears that he has been unfortunate enough to fall off a bit earlier; since 2015, both of his seasons at Kansas City have ended abruptly due to an aggressive ACL tear. Suddenly, one of the hottest running backs in the NFL has gone two seasons without any significant action.
We've seen time and again players recover from bad injuries and go on to have a few years left in the tank, but to see Charles miss basically two entire seasons around the time that most running backs peak is disheartening. It would be great to see this Texas native return for a few more seasons, but don't be surprised if this ACL injury forces him out of the game entirely.
1 Tony Romo
Tony Romo got dealt a bad hand. He has consistently been a great quarterback ever since becoming a starter at Dallas in 2006. If not in the same class as the Mannings and Bradys of the world, his raw potential was certainly comfortably in company with, if not slightly ahead of, the likes of Andy Dalton and Philip Rivers. But the one thing that has kept him from being great—truly, historically great—has been his frequent injuries.
Aside from the shoulder injury that shelved him for the better part of 2015 and all but one game of 2016, he was also significantly injured in 2010. All in all, Romo has only had four seasons in his career in which he played in every game. As a consequence, his career stats don't necessarily reflect his full potential.
It would seem that this full potential might be past its chance to be realized. Romo turns 37 this offseason, and the Cowboys have pretty much found the golden ticket in Dak Prescott in Romo's absence. Talk has been floated of trade deals, particularly to Washington or the Broncos, it may very well be that Romo decides, with lingering injuries and advancing age, that his time on the field has come to an end.