NFL players age in dog years. The NFLPA says the average NFL career is a little over three years, while a Wall Street Journal study found it’s closer to 2.5.
Players who play just five years are statistical anomalies, and guys who play 10 or 15 seasons are becoming extinct. As players begin to retire earlier in an era of emerging science around brain trauma, we may soon stop seeing players on the field past 35.
Conversely, sports science provides better information than ever before on maintaining a healthy body to perform at a high level. Tom Brady is famous for his meticulous eating habits. James Harrison’s training regime has become Instagram famous.
Those two opposing influences have yet to reach any kind of breaking point. Players appear more likely to take advantage of the latter than succumb to the former.
All of that is to say: Players who can continue to play, do… if for no other reason than a player doesn’t walk away from the game; the game walks away from the player.
With that in mind, there are still a number of players performing at a high level well into their mid-to-late 30s. In no particular order, here are the five best.
Cameron Wake — DE, Miami Dolphins
Even at his age (35), even after an Achilles tear, Wake still kicks ass and doesn’t even bother taking names. Last season, the Dolphin star posted 11.5 sacks, good for sixth in the league. He was tied for third in forced fumbles (only because there was a tie for first), and was fourth in yards lost, a stat that measures how punitive a player’s sacks were to the opponent.
A number of pass rushers in this latest generation have played well into their 30s: Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, the aforementioned Harrison, and others. No one has remained as effective or dynamic this late in his career.
Part of Wake’s enduring excellence may stem from beginning his career in Canada (where he had 39 sacks in two seasons!) before coming to the NFL, a factor that also will prevent him from climbing as high on the all-time sack list as he rightfully should. It could also prolong his career past what it would have been if he had played in the NFL for two additional seasons.
Drew Brees — QB, New Orleans Saints
File this one under “duh.” There have been times the past few seasons when it would have been easy to point to a string of Brees performances and say, “See, he’s losing it.” By the end of the season, the Saints’ offense would be one of the best in the league and their quarterback’s numbers would be top-five in every imaginable category.
It’s the story of Drew Brees in New Orleans for the Sean Payton era.
At 37, Brees led the NFL in yards in 2016, the third straight such season. He led the league in attempts and completions two of the last three seasons.
It’s true — some of the velocity on Brees’ throws is down, but he is still among the most accurate rhythm throwers in league history. His touch remains second to none. To wit, 2016 was his third season completing at least 70 percent of his passes, something only Ken Anderson, Steve Young, Joe Montana, and Sam Bradford have ever done even once in the modern era.
In fact, Brees owns two of the top three completion percentage seasons in NFL history, and his ’16 season mark is seventh-best all-time. He’s still producing at an incredible level, and given how little he relies on velocity for his success, Brees could certainly play until he’s 40 or beyond.
Jason Peters — OT, Philadelphia Eagles
Carson Wentz hit a wall after a brilliant start to his rookie season. Jason Peters has yet to hit a wall in his career. At 35, he’s still one of the best offensive linemen in the business, finishing as the 10th-ranked offensive tackle according to PFF and fourth according to Bleacher Report top 1000, but the sixth overall player.
Even at his age, Peters’ athleticism hasn’t waned to the point of causing a drop-off in his play. He’s still deadly on the second level and an excellent pass blocker with light feet. Despite playing with a rookie quarterback, the Eagles were 10th in adjusted sack rate per Football Outsiders, which is a testament to the quality of Peters and bookend tackle Lane Johnson.
Peters has never gotten the credit he deserved from fans for being the high-level player he has been most of his career in Philadelphia. Part of that: Linemen rarely do get such credit. Part of it is a lack of overall success by the Eagles. Either way, Peters remains one of the game’s best blindside tackles.
Adam Vinatieri — K, Indianapolis Colts
One of the game’s all-time clutch kickers is still kicking (some pun intended) at age 44, and still producing at a high level. Just two seasons ago, Vinatieri led the league in field goal percentage. He remains one of the game’s best.
He was one of just five regular starters to make all of his extra points in 2016, and was tied for sixth in field goal percentage. Although he’s kicking in the AFC South, with generally ideal conditions for at least 14 games, Vinatieri isn’t just making bunnies.
The future Hall of Fame kicker led the league in attempts from 50+ last season and tied for the lead in makes, going 7-for-9. Only Matt Prater made as many from deep.
Tom Brady — QB, New England Patriots
What more can really be said about Brady? At 39, he’s coming off arguably his best season ever and maybe his most heroic performance in the Super Bowl.
He’ll be 40 when the season opens, and how much longer he’ll play feels very much undecided, particularly in light of the comments made by his wife over head injuries.
Brady has nothing left to prove, and we know he can still play at a high level. Is he the type of guy who will have to have a Peyton Manning-like final season to walk away, or will he win another Super Bowl and retire still at the peak of his powers?
That decision is for him, though it wouldn’t be hard to predict what the rest of the NFL thinks he should do.
He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in football and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. He could be AARP Tom Brady before he stops being Touchdown Tom Brady.