Football’s always been a young-man’s game—the NFL season is an arduous and unforgiving battle of physical attrition, particularly for players with less tread on the tires. But paired with the rookie wage scale that incentivizes teams to lean more on cheaper players locked into their fixed-cost rookie contracts, the NFL is younger than ever. Per Football Outsiders, the average snap-weighted age of each roster last season—i.e., the average age of the most important contributors on each team—was 26.46 years, breaking the record set the year before (a mark that had broken the record set the year before that, which had broken the record the year before that, and so on ...). With the league’s Benjamin Button act over the past few years, the football hasn’t gotten better—and more important, the youngest teams haven’t always had more success.
In fact, last year, five of the league’s seven oldest teams (the Bills, Panthers, Vikings, Patriots, and Eagles) went to the postseason, and the Super Bowl matchup (New England and Philadelphia) featured the fifth- and seventh-oldest squads, respectively. Going back to 2011—when the current league CBA was adopted—just two of the 14 Super Bowl squads ranked outside of the top 11 oldest: the 2013 and 2014 Seahawks (third-youngest both years). This suggests that while the speed and explosiveness young players bring to the table absolutely matters—and by the way, last year, exciting playoff squads like the Rams, Jaguars, and Saints were all among the league’s youngest—veteran savvy, bought only by years of experience, can certainly play a big part in success, too.
So, uh, does that mean we’ve been wrong to mercilessly pan Raiders head coach Jon Gruden for quickly assembling one of the league’s oldest teams in years? After all, the current CBA creates a conundrum for coaches and decision-makers, who are allotted less practice time now than ever before with which to teach players techniques, football fundamentals, and schemes. If coaches don’t have the time to teach players their core concepts, is there an advantage in stocking your roster with the guys who’ve been around long enough to have already learned them?
After watching 32-year-old, 11-year veteran Marshawn Lynch—who played under Raiders offensive line coach Tom Cable in Seattle, too, by the way—carry basically the entire Rams defense into the end zone on Monday Night Football, I admit my cynicism about old teams began to wane slightly.
This was further aided by 31-year-old journeyman tight end Jared Cook doing his own beast-mode impression in the opener, too, racking up nine catches for 180 yards in defeat.
The Raiders aren’t exactly a great example of the value in investing in the veteran middle class (those players with four-plus years of experience making less than “star” money) though, as Oakland doesn’t have much of a young talent base with which to augment those veteran players—especially after trading away pass rusher Khalil Mack. But the Raiders aside, it seemed like every time I looked up over the weekend, there was some “over-the-hill” guy making a big play, driving home the impact that players on the wrong side of 30—and I’m not just talking quarterbacks and kickers—can still make in the league.
Week 1 put a spotlight on the value a few of the league’s most weathered veteran players bring to their teams—the type of players that teams tend to toss aside these days in favor of younger, cheaper guys on rookie deals (in fact, some teams—the Bears, Texans, Chiefs, Jets—all feature just one or two major contributors over the age of 30 at all). One was even a last-minute signing that probably would have still been on the street had Derrius Guice not torn his ACL.
Adrian Peterson paced the Redskins offense on Sunday, rushing 26 times for 96 yards and a score while adding 70 yards on two receptions. The 33-year-old vet isn’t as explosive of a runner as he was earlier in his career, but he proved that he’s still got an effective jump cut, plenty of wiggle, and the ability to run through arm tackles.
Peterson was especially effective running to the outside, working off of blocks while navigating his way downfield.
And Washington deployed him from a number of looks and formations, with Peterson showing vision and creativity in the open field.
It’s early, but he looked like the type of foundational running back Washington’s badly missed over the past few seasons.
He wasn’t alone. In Miami, despite splitting time with 24-year-old backfield mate Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore—now 35—showed few signs of slowing in his advanced NFL age. The former Colts and Niners great, now with the Dolphins on a one-year, $1.1 million contract, ran the ball nine times for 61 yards in the marathon game, making up for a relative lack of juice by demonstrating the vision to pick running lanes, both between the tackles and on the outside.
Gore outrushed Drake and posted a 66.7 percent success rate on his runs, best at the position league-wide on Sunday, per numberFire. Not shabby for a guy who’s been in the league for 14 years.
In the Thursday night opener between the Falcons and Eagles, 35-year-old running back Darren Sproles got the start in the backfield. It was tough sledding for the veteran on the ground—he carried the ball just five times for 10 yards—but his talent as a pass catcher in the open field showed up when it mattered most. Sproles grabbed four passes for 22 yards, including this crucial third-down conversion in the fourth quarter, extending what would be the game-winning drive.
Receiver Brandon Marshall returned to his old stomping grounds in Denver on Sunday to reel in three of his six targets for 46 yards and a touchdown for the Seahawks, just narrowly missing out on a second score (called back due to offensive pass interference). Never a real speedster even in his prime, Marshall now relies on his size and route-running to make hay. Midway through the third quarter, he saw quarterback Russell Wilson break the pocket and, reacting instantly, broke off his original route and drifted toward the back of the end zone. Wilson lofted it up, and Marshall pulled it down.
The veteran got away with a slight push-off just before the catch—but that’s just the type of subtle hand-fighting that many of the league’s elite receivers utilize to make plays against talented, often faster defenders. As Michael Irvin once said, winning the ball “doesn’t require you to be masterful in your feet, ability, your cuts, it requires you to be masterful [in] your understanding of timing. I need to be open at the last second when the ball’s arriving, because I’m only going to be open for that second.”
Saints receiver Ted Ginn Jr. showed that type of late separation Sunday against the Buccaneers, too. The 33-year-old, 12th-year pro showed off some sage route-running skills against rookie corner Carlton Davis, going out and up to get free down the sideline.
Ginn, in the second year of a three-year, $11 million deal, isn’t quite the burner he was coming out of Ohio State in 2007, but with a finer understanding of how to use his footwork and head to deceive defensive backs, he’s still more than capable of getting behind a defense. Once known more for his drops than anything else, Ginn has not only kept his role as the Saints’ no. 2 receiver, he has quietly become one of the most efficient pass catchers in the NFL. Last year, he finished third in catch rate (75.7 percent, behind Benjamin Watson and Golden Tate) and second among wide receivers in DVOA, and he’s gotten off to a nice start in 2018, reeling in five out of six targets for 68 yards and a score on Sunday.
Speaking of aging speedsters, Buccaneers receiver DeSean Jackson is still out here, stressing defenses vertically and giving the safeties and corners tasked with coverage nightmares.
Jackson caught five passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns before leaving the game with a concussion, and his uncanny ability to track the ball in the air while running at full speed is still a dangerous combination for Tampa Bay.
Change happens slowly in the NFL. A league-wide pendulum swing toward older, more experienced rosters may not come this year, and unless the NFL collectively bargains a radically different CBA in 2021, it may not come at all.
For teams, stocking the shelves with young players offers tantalizing upside long term: Get a 21-year-old quarterback like Sam Darnold or, say, a 23-year-old running back like Christian McCaffery into your program, and by the time he’s ready for that second contract, he’s still just 26 years old and yet to enter his prime. And from the players’ perspective, with the way the league’s contract structure is set up (with a rookie contract structure in place), there’s millions of reasons to declare early: It’s the best way to get a head-start on that rookie deal, because once that four- or five-year fixed-rate contract is up, you finally have a shot at the big money. As FiveThirtyEight pointed out in May, the total number of underclassmen to declare each year has exploded since the new CBA took hold in 2011. From 2000 to 2011, an average of 49 underclassmen declared each year. Since the 2012 draft, it has been 87 a year; and in 2018, a record 106 underclassmen entered the draft.
While there are plenty of advantages in adding younger players—both monetarily and from a health or mileage perspective—it’s worth watching whether there’s a tipping point for the number of green, underdeveloped players coaches are willing to take on. The gold standard for championship building, Bill Belichick’s Patriots, have been one of the top 10 oldest teams in eight of the past 12 seasons. Tom Brady alone isn’t enough to skew their average, either. New England heads into 2018 with the third-oldest roster, per Jimmy Kempski’s initial 53-man roster survey (which is now slightly out of date, but useful as a basic guide). The Patriots have even punted some of their draft picks over the past few years in favor of more proven, ready-to-play commodities. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ decision to add a handful of veteran role players last offseason like Patrick Robinson, LeGarrette Blount, and Chris Long paid off big.
This year, relative senior citizens like Gore, Marshall, Ginn, and Lynch, while slow and dangerous behind the wheel, can still serve a purpose, because with little practice time, having a cadre of older vets—players who know how to make all the correct reads, how to decipher an opponent’s scheme, or, for linemen, even something as simple as the ability to play from a three-point stance—could provide teams with a competitive edge.