When the Washington Redskins signed linebacker London Fletcher to a five-year contract on the cusp of his 37th birthday, they weren't signing an aging veteran to his last contract. What the Redskins got in re-signing Fletcher was a seemingly ageless defensive leader who led the NFL in tackles last season.
With two years of his contract guaranteed, can Fletcher prove that age is just a number?
Since the NFL began recording tackles as an official statistic in 2001, only two players over the age of 30 have ever led the league in the category. Longtime Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas was 33 when he achieved the feat in 2006, while Fletcher was a ripe 36 last season.
Having already defied the odds once, who is to say 37 will be any different for Fletcher on the stat sheet?
Middle linebackers absorb some of the most punishment of any position in the NFL, and Fletcher's 12 consecutive seasons of at least 100 tackles is just the recorded total of hits he has taken. There is no accounting for the number of blows Fletcher has seen taking on blockers of all shapes and sizes in his 14 years.
Fletcher has played 224 consecutive games in his career while starting 176 consecutive games since 2001.
If Fletcher was merely a tackling dummy, it perhaps the notion of decline would be more acceptable. Even the finest tuned machines in the world wear down at some point.
As is the case with many at his position, Fletcher is the quarterback of the defense. For the Redskins, he is the heart and soul of the defense, as well as one of the most gifted players the NFL has seen in recent memory.
One thing Fletcher has going for him is the youth the Redskins have surrounded him with, which likely plays a part in his ability to remain in peak physical condition.
Football is a young man's game, but Fletcher is keeping up with the likes of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan on the field.
He hasn't made a dozen Pro Bowls, or been voted Defensive Player of the Year, but what Fletcher lacks in highlight-reel recognition, he has made up for in other ways.
He was a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2009, and he won the Bart Star Award last season, which goes to the player best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.
Not to say Fletcher hasn't been recognized by the NFL and his peers, as he was recently voted as the 87th-best player in the league's Top 100 Players of 2012 poll.
If you watch tape from Fletcher's career, he is always around the ball or running to it. He never takes a play off or backs down from a challenge even as an undersized linebacker.
Fletcher's is not a prototypical linebacker by NFL standards, but he is an exceptional linebacker by anyone's standards. He can hit, he can run, he can lead and do it all at an age where most NFL players are either already retired or on a statistical downslope for their careers.
History is the only thing that says Fletcher can't be a leading tackler in the NFL. Fletcher has already shown that history has nothing to do with the levels he can perform to.
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