Hanson will set an NFL record for seasons with one club (21) if he's a Lion in 2012.
This is not your father's National Football League—and in more ways than one.
With modern free agency comes the transience of NFL players that most now-generation fans and analysts have grown up with. More teams and more dollars create a labor landscape where more "better opportunities" lie with other teams, the grass often seeming truly greener on the other side (double entendre intended).
There are fewer men spending the entirety of their careers with their drafting organization. And, on a less ambitious scale, more players are failing to even reach five-, seven- or 10-year stays with their first teams, let alone subsequent employers.
Despite this cultural foundation in today's NFL, its antithesis is alive and well in the form of Detroit Lions placekicker Jason Hanson's career. If the fogie field-goal kicker can fend off University of Illinois undrafted rookie free agent Derek Dimke—no foregone conclusion given my rating of Dimke as the No. 2 kicking prospect in this past class—he will establish a new standard by appearing 21 seasons with the same club.
Have a look at this slideshow, where I touch on the longest-tenured (though not necessarily the oldest nor most experienced) player on every current NFL roster. I will be utilizing two great resources, Ourlads and Pro Football Focus, in bringing you some color to each guy's writeup.
Brian Moorman, punter, 6'0", 175 lbs., Pittsburg State University, Seattle Seahawks undrafted free agent 1999, DOB: 2/5/1976
Buffalo Bill since 2001
Moorman made the Pro Bowl and was named All-Pro in consecutive seasons back in 2005-2006, highlighted by leading the National Football League in gross average yards per punt (45.7) in 2005.
He has twice recorded the longest punt for that season in the NFL—in 2009, and his career-best in 2002—at 84 yards. Moorman has only had two punts blocked in 847 career boots, an impressive feat given his longevity.
Coming off a personal-best 48.2 gross average a year ago, Moorman appears poised to hold off 2012 undrafted rookie free agent Shawn Powell (Florida State University) to continue his punting chores in Buffalo.
John Denney, long snapper, 6'5" 255 lbs., Brigham Young University, Miami Dolphins undrafted free agent 2005, DOB: 12/13/1978
Miami Dolphin since 2005
Denney has played in every single Dolphins' game since he signed in 2005 and was rewarded with a Pro-Bowl nod following the 2010 season.
New England Patriot since 2000
Brady's football career, and to an extent his personal life as well, is one of the iconic stories in ongoing modern sports. A skinny, slow-footed, two-year starter that was an afterthought coming out of Ann Arbor 199th overall. He changed the fate of the Patriots franchise on the gridiron and has children with two actress/supermodels away from it.
He has been named to seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams while leading New England to five Super Bowls, three world championships, taking home Super Bowl MVP honors in two of those victories and NFL MVP in still two other campaigns (2007, 2010).
He has paced the league in nearly ever meaningful statistical seasonal category at least once throughout his career, including a 117.2 passer rating and NFL-record 50 touchdown passes in 2007. Brady already finds himself inside the top five or ten of numerous career passing charts and figures to threaten many of them with the few years he still has left.
Bryan Thomas, outside linebacker, 6'4" 250 lbs., University of Alabama-Birmingham, New York Jets 1st round 2002, DOB: 6/7/1979
New York Jet since 2002
Objectively, Thomas is probably seen as a disappointment after being selected 22nd overall by the Jets. As a perimeter pass-rush player that has started and played a lot every year of his career—until a season-ending injury last season—he has never registered double-digit sacks. And his career high of 8.5 in 2006 is the only time he has notched more than six in any single season.
He has also failed to make many impact plays on the ball, accumulating very few forced fumbles, fumble recoveries or pass deflections relative to his volume of playing time.
But according to Pro Football Focus' ratings the last four years, Thomas has been one of the more consistent and dependable run-defending outside linebackers in the game. As recently as 2009, he ranked No. 2 in the NFL amongst outside 'backers versus the run, and he has missed very few tackles over this time period.
Baltimore Raven since 1996
Following Tom Brady, Ray Lewis gives us our second NFL icon and future Hall-of-Famer to qualify for inclusion in this slideshow. After 13 Pro Bowls and seven-time recognition as an All-Pro, Lewis is realistically in the twilight of a career that represented a generation of defensive excellence in Baltimore.
He was at the center of the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl-championship unit that is regarded as one of the greatest single-season defenses in league history, mentioned in the same breath as the 1985 Chicago Bears. He capped off that year by winning both Super Bowl MVP and NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Lewis has ceded the mantle of best inside 'backer in the game to Patrick Willis and he is not the coverage player he was during his prime, but he is still a well above-average performer belying his age. Pro Football Focus tells us that over the last four seasons, covering a total of 4,437 snaps, Lewis has totaled a 91.7 cumulative score, understanding that zero is indicative of average play.
Robert Geathers, defensive end, 6'3" 280 lbs., University of Georgia, Cincinnati Bengals 4th round 2004, DOB: 8/11/1983
Cincinnati Bengal since 2004
Geathers has certainly made good on his draft slot, nearing a decade in the National Football League and starting for more than half of it, but he has also managed to disappoint in some respects as well. Following the 2006 campaign that saw him record 10.5 sacks as a non-starting pass-rush specialist, he has only been able to muster 13 total sacks in the five seasons since.
Well-respected Bengals online insider, Joe Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) shares: "...He's pretty much non-existent as a pass-rusher. With Carlos Dunlap clawing his way into the starting left defensive-end role very soon, Geathers and his third-largest contract on the team need to be worried."
"He's not explosive and doesn't have the speed to get around the edge...Now he's used on run downs and is relieved by Dunlap in (obvious) passing situations. Geathers still gets some interior rush snaps in nickel packages but I expect Jamaal Anderson and Devon Still to take those in 2012."
And Pro Football Focus backs these general sentiments up with its ratings of Geathers over the last four seasons. Not once during this time span has Geathers produced a positive (above zero) single-season overall rating, twice approaching negative-15, with a correspondingly minus pass-rush grade in all of those years to boot.
Phil Dawson, placekicker, 5'11" 200 lbs., University of Texas, Oakland Raiders undrafted free agent 1998, DOB: 1/23/1975
Cleveland Brown since 1999
Dawson is the only active NFL-er that was a member of the expansion Cleveland Browns franchise that was reborn in 1999 with Tim Couch ill-advisedly at the helm following his No. 1 overall selection.
And while Dawson has never been an elite performer, receiving All-Pro 2nd Team honors in 2007, he has earned his longevity with admirable consistency in a division that is arguably the harshest on kick specialists due to its northern Mid-Atlantic climate and outdoor stadiums.
He enters 2012 with a career field goal percentage of 83.1, led by a 27-for-29 (93.1%) ledger in 2005 and a career-best 7 of 8 beyond 50 yards just last year in 2011.
He appears to be relatively unchallenged for his job this coming season as 2011 undrafted free agent Jeff Wolfert, out of the University of Missouri, is the only other placekicker currently on the roster.
Casey Hampton, nose tackle, 6'1" 325 lbs., University of Texas, Pittsburgh Steelers 1st round 2001, DOB: 9/3/1977
Pittsburgh Steeler since 2001
Although not quite as famous and visibly impactive as Ray Lewis for the Baltimore Ravens, it can be readily argued that Hampton has been the literal and figurative centerpiece for a football generation of staunch Steeler defenses.
Surrounded by other All-Pro-caliber defenders during his tenure in Pittsburgh—James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter to name a few—Hampton himself has drawn five Pro-Bowl assignments, and his dirty work in the trenches has largely enhanced those men behind him in their effort to make plays.
Human beings with his dimensions and longevity are extremely rare, and the fact that he has been able to maintain a high level of play for so long should be the basis for the rare discussion of a nose tackle for the Hall of Fame.
Probably closer to retirement than a player like Ray Lewis, particularly in the wake of a semi-serious knee injury, his biggest legacy role now may be to tutor 2012 rookie and heir-apparent Alameda Ta'amu in becoming his eventual replacement.
Andre Johnson, wide receiver, 6'2" 225 lbs., University of Miami, Houston Texans 1st round 2003, DOB: 7/11/1981
Houston Texan since 2003
He is arguably the best wideout in the National Football League today, though that is a spirited debate with names like Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Ruvell Martin...just kidding with that last name.
It may be my age speaking, but I find it interesting to note that Johnson is the longest-tenured current Texan since a lot of the industry still considers him a budding superstar.
And a superstar he is. On top of enviable talent that combines elite size, strength, deep speed and ball skills, Johnson has put it together for years with outstanding production.
Now with a great team around him and a quarterback in his prime in Matt Schaub, Johnson need only stay healthy to close out the rest of his own physical peak in grand fashion.
He has five Pro Bowls, two All-Pro teams, two NFL receptions titles and two NFL receiving yardage crowns on his stat sheet. He has also led the league in receiving yards per game in two other seasons (2007, 2010) but fell short of the aggregate leader because of games missed due to injury.
Justin Snow, long snapper, 6'3" 240 lbs., Baylor University, Indianapolis Colts undrafted free agent 2000, DOB: 12/21/1976
Indianapolis Colt since 2000
Similar to our previous long snapper, the Dolphins' John Denney, Snow has not missed a single game during his entire NFL career, all spent with the Colts.
He has not garnered any individual postseason recognition but has been a member of some great teams, including working with two of the best placekickers in the last 10 to 15 years in Mike Vanderjagt and Adam Vinatieri.
Playing 12 years in the National Football League at any position without missing a game is worthy of praise.
Brad Meester, center, 6'3" 310 lbs., University of Northern Iowa, Jacksonville Jaguars 2nd round 2000, DOB: 3/23/1977
Jacksonville Jaguar since 2000
I have always remembered Meester as a prospect because he came from the same graduating class as I did and from a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) program, referred to at the time as Division I-AA, which is the same level at which I had participated.
In fact, he was the third small-school player taken in that draft class, following a pair of first-rounders from Jackson State University, and was the only center prospect selected before the sixth round.
Meester has been a starter during his entire career, the first three years of which came at left guard before moving back to center, and he is listed No. 1 on the Jags' depth chart once again heading into camp. Two undrafted free agents follow him, including 2012 rookie Mike Brewster from Ohio State University.
He has never received any postseason recognition but has instead been a model of consistency and dependability, including late in his career. Pro Football Focus reports that Meester has averaged 1,062 snaps over the last three years, never fewer than 1,048, with positive overall grades for the past two seasons and three of the last four.
In 2010, his 15.2 final overall rating ranked fifth in the NFL among centers that year per PFF.
Eugene Amano, center, 6'3" 310 lbs., Southeast Missouri State University, Tennessee Titans 7th round 2004, DOB: 3/1/1982
Tennessee Titan since 2004
After having no offensive lineman appear on this list through the first ten teams, there have now been two featured consecutively, both being centers. Like Meester, Amano has seen time and made starts at both center and guard after coming out of an FCS program. But Amano has only been a consistent starter over the last four seasons.
Also distinct from Meester is how Amano has not earned positive grades over the last few years from Pro Football Focus. In 2010 and 2011, covering 1,771 snaps at center, Amano has a combined score of negative 40.2, largely underscored by atrocious reviews as a run-blocker.
Interestingly, Amano spent the previous two seasons (2008-2009) as the primary starter at left guard where his overall grades are much closer to average, even defensibly adequate. Despite all of this, Amano is still listed as the Titans' No. 1 center with three formerly undrafted college free agents behind him, including rookie William Vlachos from the University of Alabama.
Champ Bailey, cornerback, 6'0" 195 lbs., University of Georgia, Washington Redskins 1st round 1999, DOB: 6/22/1978
Denver Bronco since 2004
Bailey gives this slideshow another future resident of Canton, Ohio (Pro Football Hall of Fame's location), but only made it on here by about two months as linebacker D.J. Williams was drafted later that spring in the first round.
He was acquired in the blockbuster deal that offseason with the Redskins that sent young star running back Clinton Portis to Washington. In one of the great con jobs in modern NFL trade history, the ill-advised move by the 'Skins serves as a stark case study in understanding value over replacement.
Hall-of-Fame caliber corners, which Bailey had already asserted himself to be with four consecutive Pro-Bowl trips after missing his rookie year, are the much rarer commodity on the NFL personnel landscape as compared to a bell-cow feature back.
Almost without exception, no matter how good a running back is, his production and contributing impact on an NFL team can be approximated in cheaper, younger players or in other ways (i.e. strengthening the offensive line or tailoring the scheme).
That is simply the reality of the positional talent pool versus that of cornerback. All right, enough on the soap box.
Bailey has gone on to seven more Pro Bowls, for a total of 11, along with three All-Pro nominations, the last of which culminated in 2006 when he led the NFL with 10 interceptions and 162 interception return yards.
Derrick Johnson, inside linebacker, 6'3" 245 lbs., University of Texas, Kansas City Chiefs 1st round 2005, DOB: 11/22/1982
Kansas City Chief since 2005
We anoint Johnson the longest-tenured Chief by a mere two rounds with punter Dustin Colquitt coming in the third round from Kansas City's 2005 draft haul.
In examining the Chiefs' roster, I was also struck by the fact that they are the first team so far in the study that does not feature a single player with at least double-digit years of experience overall in the NFL.
Following Johnson and Colquitt, who are entering their eighth seasons respectively, only Ryan Lilja with one more season to his credit trumps them (mostly spent with the Colts).
Johnson was one of the prospects I rated highly back in 2005, which was the first year that I began to formally document my pre-draft process with scouting notes and draft strategy thoughts. He had the rare physical talent and complete skill set to be a missile middle-linebacker type, following Ray Lewis and ahead of Patrick Willis.
But the early stages of Johnson's career were a massive disappointment, failing to make 100 tackles and many big plays during his first four years as a starter. As a fifth-year player in 2009, he was demoted to a sub-package coverage 'backer role, which as one of his primary strengths may have catalyzed his resurgence the last two years.
He has now started 32 consecutive games in 2010 and 2011, gone over 100 tackles both campaigns and notched 24 pass deflections. 2011 also saw Johnson make the Pro Bowl and be named All-Pro for the first time.
Sebastian Janikowski, placekicker, 6'2" 250 lbs., Florida State University, Oakland Raiders 1st round 2000, DOB: 3/2/1978
Oakland Raider since 2000
After embarassing itself by taking Janikowski 17th overall, which is meant specifically as a draft-strategy criticism and not really anything to do with Janikowski's then-prospects and later career performance, the Raiders seemingly added insult to injury by also using their fifth-rounder on punter Shane Lechler.
Janikowski gets the nod in this space by virtue of going four rounds ahead of Lechler, but both have maintained a stranglehold on Oakland's kick specialist roles, going on 13 seasons now.
And while I am philosophically opposed to using precious draft picks on kick specialists, keep in mind the VORP (value over replacement player) concept we discussed before; Lechler has gone on to be one of the greatest punters in NFL history.
The Polish-born playboy, who has had a number of run-ins with the law, mostly centered around alcohol offenses, is arguably the greatest placekicking prospect the industry has ever seen, befitting his mid-first-round selection.
But he has never come close to the success that would warrant his draft slot, or any really, as he boasts a sub-80% field-goal career line despite kicking at home in Oakland and on the road in San Diego and Denver all these years.
He was named to his first Pro Bowl just this past offseason but has never even enjoyed a single campaign of 90% or better in field-goal conversions. His lone statistical highlight was leading the NFL in field goals in 2010 with 33, but even that came on 41 attempts (80.5%), including a paltry 12 of 19 beyond 40 yards.
In some ways his Raider-career longevity looks like an organizational commitment to justify his preposterous draft position. He will be challenged this year in camp by undrafted rookie Eddy Carmona from Division II Harding University.
Quentin Jammer, cornerback, 6'0" 205 lbs., University of Texas, San Diego Chargers 1st round 2002, DOB: 6/19/1979
San Diego Charger since 2002
Jammer, despite a long career as a starter that included some above-average play, is more associated with the cautionary-tale label as it applies to "can't miss" surefire prospects at the corner position.
While there is arguably more value in taking a marquee defensive-back prospect in the top 10, as opposed to offensive skill, there is still an awful lot of risk involved due to the steep developmental curve attached to the NFL cornerback transition, along with the grueling and isolating psychological disposition that also comes with it.
After going fifth overall and starting nearly every game since his second year in the league, Jammer has never earned postseason individual honors, nor has he intercepted five passes in any single season. And what began as above-average play earlier in his career has since deteriorated into middling—and lately downright awful—performances in recent years.
Returning to the analysis of Pro Football Focus, Jammer's snap totals the last four years (beginning with 2008) have dwindled from 1,153 to 1,009 to 989, and down to 889 last year. Simultaneously, his overall performance ratings in those years are: negative 1, negative 4.7, and negative 1.8, before falling off the table in 2011 at negative 13.7 with 13 of the 13.7 tied up in his coverage assessment.
For the first time since his rookie campaign, Jammer had zero picks last season despite being targeted often (66 times) and burned routinely (15.9 average yards per reception and six touchdowns). All told, opposing quarterbacks fashioned a 129.9 passer rating when Jammer was identified as the responsible coverage defender.
This downward spiral prompted a lot of offseason talk about Jammer transitioning to strong safety and/or more of an inside sub-package coverage player. But San Diego did not draft a single corner this past April, opting instead to sign a trio of undrafted free agents, and Jammer is still listed as a starting corner opposite Antoine Cason.
Along with a failure to properly upgrade its offensive line, the lack of depth/talent in San Diego's secondary is another reason I am not alone in predicting that both Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith will not be with the team after the 2012 season.
Jason Witten, tight end, 6'6" 260 lbs., University of Tennessee, Dallas Cowboys 3rd round 2003, DOB: 5/6/1982
Dallas Cowboy since 2003
The close calls continue for the honor of being featured in this slideshow. Witten's third-round genesis as a Cowboy trumps Tony Romo's undrafted free agent status in the same year for the distinction of being longest-tenured.
While Romo is a prototypical charismatic leading man, both on and off the field—somewhat befitting of what America is used to at the quarterback position—Witten was the best all-around tight end during his prime. With that window closing and the baton being passed to Rob Gronkowski, there is plenty of greatness on which to reflect.
Witten has racked up seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro designations, three times along the way surpassing 90 receptions and three other seasons with at least 79 balls caught. In fact, following his rookie campaign in the eight years since, he has averaged 83 catches a year.
Osi Umenyiora, defensive end, 6'3" 260 lbs., Troy University, New York Giants 2nd round 2003, DOB: 11/16/1981
New York Giant since 2003
Coming in three rounds ahead of similarly experienced G-man offensive lineman David Diehl is the elder statesman of New York's imposing pass-rushing defensive front, Osi Umenyiora.
With the news this offseason predominantly covering contract strife with the defending Super Bowl-champions, Umenyiora has conjured plenty of positive headlines, too, during a nearly decade-long playing career in the Big Apple.
A big-play machine so far in his career, Umenyiora may be used in more of a situational role with the emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck until he relocates in 2013; he has two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team to his credit.
Following his rookie season, he has never registered fewer than six sacks in any single season and, more impressively, has averaged 13 sacks per 16 starts throughout his career.
He was also robbed of postseason recognition and sorely undersold as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2010, after posting his third double-digit sack campaign (11.5) and setting a National Football League single-season record with 10 forced fumbles.
Mike Patterson, defensive tackle, 6'0" 300 lbs., University of Southern California, Philadelphia Eagles 1st round 2005, DOB: 9/1/1983
Philadelphia Eagle since 2005
Patterson arrived to the City of Brotherly Love in 2005, several rounds ahead of teammates Trent Cole and Todd Herremans, and has been a mainstay on the Eagles' defensive line ever since.
While Patterson was more active, making impact plays at a higher rate during his first three seasons as a starter (2006-2008), he has settled into an outstanding two-down defensive tackle role. Specializing as more of a run defender, Patterson allows the Eagles to keep its interior pass-rushers fresh throughout games.
Chris Cooley, H-back, 6'3" 250 lbs., Utah State University, Washington Redskins 3rd round 2004, DOB: 7/11/1982
Washington Redskin since 2004
Injuries appear to be taking their toll on Cooley and robbing him of some of the latter stages of his prime. But for a productive six-year period that saw him draw two Pro Bowl nods, he represented the prototypical H-back mold in NFL scouting.
He has excellent size and athleticism, but he is a bit of a tweener in terms of strength and inline blocking capability.
During what may end up as his six-year prime, Cooley started every single game in five of those years. He averaged 71 receptions a season in those healthy years and a double-digit average yards per reception figure in all of them.
Known for excellent hands, Cooley has surprisingly been a fumbler in the NFL with 11 on just 430 touches (all but two are receptions), which is a terrible ratio for a receiver.
Although smaller and less athletic than Cooley at the same point in their careers, Brad Smelley (University of Alabama) from the 2012 rookie class reminds me of Cooley in terms of play style and skill set. It is on the rich end, based on how productive Cooley has been, but that's the ceiling with Smelley.
Patrick Mannelly, long snapper, 6'5" 265 lbs., Duke University, Chicago Bears 6th round 1998, DOB: 4/18/1975
Chicago Bear since 1998
Covering a 14-year career, Mannelly has only missed nine regular-season games and only three prior to 2011 when he was active for just 10.
He has never garnered postseason individual honors but has worked with one of the most accurate placekickers in history since 2005, Robbie Gould, doing so in some of the harshest home-field conditions in the NFL at Soldier Field.
Jason Hanson, placekicker, 6'0" 190 lbs., Washington State University, Detroit Lions 2nd round 1992, DOB: 6/17/1970
Detroit Lion since 1992
Hanson was featured in the introductory slide but this section will permit me to go in a little deeper. After previously criticizing the Raiders for taking a placekicker, Sebastian Janikowski, 17th overall, I would be remiss not to mention that the Lions spent a second-rounder on Hanson back in 1992.
The catch being, with the benefit of hindsight, that Hanson is on the verge of becoming the longest-tenured NFL player with one team ever. And with the benefit of playing at least nine games a year in a dome, he has performed at a relatively high level throughout.
Entering 2012, his 82% field-goal conversion rate is good for 19th all-time in NFL history. Along the way, he has gone to two Pro Bowls and posted 11 different seasons at or above his career field-goal percentage.
He also has the distinction of posting two separate seasons with a field-goal rate of at least 95 percent, and late in his career—the last five seasons—he has mastered the field goal from beyond 50 yards, converting on an absurd 19 of 23 from that distance.
Donald Driver, wide receiver, 6'0" 195 lbs., Alcorn State University, Green Bay Packers 7th round 1999, DOB: 2/2/1975
Green Bay Packer since 1999
One of the National Football League's most venerable gentlemen, Driver has a great back story as a world-class high-jumper that emerged as a seventh-rounder from a Division I-AA (now FCS) program. He has also authored three children's books and was recently crowned winner on the latest season of Dancing with the Stars.
His run as a 10-year starter may come to an end in 2012, as there was some speculation this offseason about his release or retirement from Green Bay, but it included three Pro Bowls, seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons—including six in a row from 2004-2009—and over 10,000 career yards.
Kevin Williams, defensive tackle, 6'5" 310 lbs., Oklahoma State University, Minnesota Vikings 1st round 2003, DOB: 8/16/1980
Minnesota Viking since 2003
Williams is on a short list for one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL over the last decade. He has made six Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams in his career and been a starter since day one when he totaled 22 sacks in his first two seasons.
At his position, size, and age, it is possible that the beginning of his post-prime years are upon us, but a significant drop-off in quality and production should not be expected.
According to Pro Football Focus, in 2011, after missing the first two games, he went on to play 852 snaps and post an overall score of 17.8, including positive marks in both pass-rush and run defense.
Todd McClure, center, 6'1" 300 lbs., Louisiana State University, Atlanta Falcons 7th round 1999, DOB: 2/16/1977
Atlanta Falcon since 1999
Our third offensive lineman in the slideshow and our third center. There is probably a logical conclusion, and study somewhere to back it up, about the correlation between body size as well as frequency and intensity of contact that favors centers' longevity over that of the other offensive line positions.
McClure is another "steady Eddie" type that has never brought home postseason individual honors but has also started every Falcons' game since 2001 minus four, three of which came just last year.
Pro Football Focus' analysis of McClure shows an impressive, and likely overlooked/undervalued, level of quality consistency. Over the last four years he has totaled 4,380 snaps with three positive double-digit overall seasonal ratings. And in a nod to his well-roundedness, only once from 2008-2011 did McClure score negatively in a single significant seasonal category (2010 pass blocking).
Steve Smith, wide receiver, 5'9" 185 lbs., University of Utah, Carolina Panthers 3rd round 2001, DOB: 5/12/1979
Carolina Panther since 2001
Another one of the premier wideouts in the NFL, Smith enjoyed a career resurgence in 2011 from pairing with rookie passing phenom Cam Newton. Coming off a dismal 2010 campaign that saw him post career lows as a starter (14 games, 46 receptions, 554 yards), there was talk of Smith being too small and injury-prone to remain an elite playmaker.
He put those concerns to bed in 2011 with his fifth Pro-Bowl season, to go along with two All-Pro nods in his career (though one came as a dual return specialist following his rookie year), after starting every contest and putting up a 79-1,394-17.6-7 line.
In his lone All-Pro campaign at wide receiver (2005), he led the National Football League in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. He also paced the league in receiving yards per game in 2008, surpassing the elusive century mark (101.5) in that category in his 14 games played that year.
Will Smith, defensive end, 6'3" 285 lbs., Ohio State University, New Orleans Saints 1st round 2004, DOB: 8/4/1981
New Orleans Saint since 2004
Smith edged Devery Henderson by several rounds in 2004 to earn the distinction of longest-tenured Saint in this slideshow.
Smith has been a starter the last six years in New Orleans since garnering his only Pro Bowl accolade in 2006, when he put up the first of his two double-digit sack outputs (10.5). His career-high of 13 would come three seasons later in 2009.
He was also a terror as a pass-rush specialist rookie in 2004 when he registered 7.5 quarterback-takedowns and forced a career-best six fumbles.
Ronde Barber, defensive back, 5'9" 185 lbs., University of Virginia, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3rd round 1997, DOB: 4/7/1975
Tampa Bay Buccaneer since 1997
Cut from a similar cloth as the previously discussed Donald Driver, Barber has become one of the great ambassadors in the National Football League during his Hall-of-Fame career.
Often over-matched on the perimeter as a cornerback at this stage in his career, Barber will kick inside and play free safety alongside rookie first-round pick Mark Barron in trying to lead this secondary back from a disparaging 2011 performance.
Barber is considered one of the best Cover-2 corners of all time and played a pivotal role on some league-leading defenses during the Bucs' recent glory years. He is also one of the best ballhawks in NFL history, a trait that may lead his candidacy for Canton.
Entering play in 2012, Barber has career totals of: 27 sacks, 43 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries and 11 defensive touchdown returns. In 2001 he led the league with 10 picks.
Adrian Wilson, strong safety, 6'2" 230, North Carolina State University, Arizona Cardinals 3rd round 2001, DOB: 10/12/1979
Arizona Cardinal since 2001
Wilson has established himself as one of the few elite strong safeties in the NFL, a position that is generally seen as starved for talent on the modern football landscape. He combines elite size with excellent movement skills that aid in his efforts to blow up plays at various levels of the defense.
Like Barber in the slide before, Wilson is also an accomplished blitzer from the secondary with 22.5 career sacks, and an astounding eight in 2005 that may be a single-season record for a defensive back.
The following season (2006), he made his first Pro Bowl when he registered five sacks, four picks and four forced fumbles. He has also made four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, 2008-2011, with a single All-Pro nod along the way.
Steven Jackson, running back, 6'1" 235 lbs., Oregon State University, St. Louis Rams 1st round 2004, DOB: 7/22/1983
St. Louis Ram since 2004
Jackson may be one of the last elites among a dying breed of well-rounded, three-faceted bellcow feature backs. He came into the league with a tremendous blend of size, speed and skill. From there he also developed into an outstanding third-down player.
Unfortunately for Jackson, his best years have been squandered with a Rams franchise that has struggled immensely in the wake of the Vermeil-Martz-Warner years and the "Greatest Show on Turf."
Shelf lives for running backs that play almost every down and log as many touches as Jackson are precarious because their physical skills can appear to fall off the table from one year to the next. Curtis Martin, Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor are all similarly gifted backs whose careers enjoyed a bountiful arc before appearing two steps too slow all of a sudden.
There has been talk this offseason of getting Jackson off the field more, especially on third downs, which is where the overdraft of Isaiah Pead in the second round from the University of Cincinnati enters play. While I think that pick is rich for a back not likely to ever develop into a 200/250+ touch guy annually, he does have the ready skill set to spell Jackson.
In the seven seasons since his rookie year, he has gone over 1,000 rushing yards in each campaign, while averaging 336 combined touches from scrimmage. He never averaged even 4.5 yards per rush and only twice eclipsed double-digit scores in a single season, though not once in the last five years.
Brian Jennings, long snapper, 6'5" 245 lbs., Arizona State University, San Francisco 49ers 7th round 2000, DOB: 10/14/1976
San Francisco 49er since 2000
Jennings rounds out the group of veteran long snappers that have endured their way onto this slideshow. And like the others, he has shown an incredible level of durability in not missing a single game from 2000 to 2010.
But in 2011, when San Francisco very arguably featured the best special teams play in the NFL, Jennings played in only one game, according to Pro Football Reference. He has one Pro Bowl (2004) to his name and may have gone a long way to securing his place on the 2012 club when San Francisco cut his main competition, veteran Ryan Pontbriand, earlier in June.
Marcus Trufant, cornerback, 5'11" 200 lbs., Washington State University, Seattle Seahawks 1st round 2003, DOB: 12/25/1980
Seattle Seahawk since 2003
After missing significant time with injuries two out of the last three seasons, including 12 games in 2011, Trufant looks to return and lead a Seattle secondary that has developed quickly with young talent in his stead.
Arguably the top unit in the NFL, with apologies and discussion coming from the Jets and 49ers, Seattle's defensive backfield once again projects to be elite in 2012. Two factors could play huge in meeting or even exceeding expectations: a healthy Trufant and an improved pass-rush based on pieces it added in the draft and free agency.
Trufant himself has one Pro Bowl to his name but, from 2008 to 2010, Pro Football Focus scored him negatively in each of those seasons, largely based on poor coverage grades and incurring a lot of penalties. Despite his pedigree, Trufant may find himself in a sub-package role in 2012 or a potential cap casualty if the Seahawks feel that is the way to go.