These days, there seems to be a rush to judge young players in the NFL. It seems we have to label these guys as a future Hall of Famer or a bust within their first two years in the league. The truth is, no matter how a player's career starts off initially, it usually takes some time for him to reach his peak.
Every player is different, so it's hard to define when each one will reach the peak in his production. In trying to find a physical link, I discovered author Claudia Kalb made this claim in 1999: "Muscle mass peaks at age 25 and then decreases by about 4 percent per decade until the age of 50, when it drops by about 10 percent every 10 years."
If that is true, then it would make sense that most athletes wouldn't peak in performance until they are about 25 years old. A study of NFL players by the United States Sports Academy, which incorporated Kalb's claim, concluded, "Based on data gathered by several sources, it appears unquestioned that, in general, athletes reach their peak of on-field performance in their mid-twenties."
That coincides with my own thoughts on when most NFL players reach their peak. When I played during the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were told that a player's third year was crucial in a team's evaluation of him. No matter how their careers started, it was thought that third-year players would take an important step forward and show they would be good NFL players.
Otherwise, they would show they didn't belong in the league.
Obviously, this wasn't set in stone. Some guys mature faster as players, and some guys are just late bloomers. But when you consider that most NFL prospects are coming out of college and entering the NFL at 21, three years in would put them about where Kalb claims they have reached their physical peaks.
Playing in the NFL is not just about your physical prowess, however. It's also about how you use your physical ability and combine it with proper technique and mental preparation. In my opinion, that's one reason why some guys peak as players faster than others.
When you look at the guys who come from bigger college football programs with good coaching staffs, they tend to be more "NFL ready" than the guys who don't. If a player has been exposed to better technique work, then he can excel earlier than a guy who has better physical attributes but no technique, at least initially. Similarly, if he has had to digest a complex playbook and was taught how to watch film, he will be further along in those aspects, as well.
Around that third year, however, all players will have gone through roughly the same amount of coaching on the NFL level. That's where everything tends to start to even out.
Now the superior athlete has the opportunity to be the better player if he has worked hard at his technique and mental preparation. At the same time, the player with the superior technique can maintain his advantage if he has been working hard to improve his athleticism.
It usually comes down to that old axiom from Tim Notke, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."
Once an NFL player reaches his peak—provided his peak is good enough to play well in the NFL—the question becomes how long can he maintain that level of play.
There are many facets to answering that question. A huge one is, can they stay healthy? That is a major contributor to an NFL player's skill level starting to decline. If a player tears a knee or any other major joint, the rehabilitation will be long and arduous. In fact, he may never again be the player he once was.
Unfortunately, most of the time there is no accounting for why one guy gets injured and another stays healthy for the rest of his career.
You also have to consider the statement from Kalb to remember the role aging plays. If a player's muscle mass starts to decrease after age 25, how can he continue to perform at the same level in the ensuing years?
This question makes me think of guys like Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, who were fanatical about their diet and working out as they got older. Sharpe's former teammate, Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, has started to employ his strategy of losing weight this year in an effort to prolong his career, as well.
To maintain their peak performance while their body is starting to lose muscle mass, I believe it's safe to say those players will have to do more than ever in terms of preparing themselves physically and mentally before each season starts. More technique work, better diet, more lifting and more film work are likely the only ways they can maintain their high production level.
On the other side of the peak is the inevitable slide.
Pro Football Reference did a study on running backs, wide receivers, and quarterbacks. They concluded that: "The word 'old' means 28 for a running back, 30 for a receiver, and 32 for a quarterback."
Most running backs and receivers tend to rely on their athleticism more than most quarterbacks. Therefore, you would expect running backs and wide receivers to see their production decline a bit earlier in their careers. Most running backs also have to deal with more physical pounding than most receivers. That would logically make them more prone to rundown sooner, too.
I would imagine that the other position groups would see the age that their production starts to break down similarly. Those who took a physical pounding and relied heavily on their athleticism would likely experience their slides sooner than those who played positions where there wasn't as much of a need for one or both.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any studies to confirm or refute these suspicions.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that there are always anomalies. A player may tear it up their first year in the NFL and then immediately start to decline. Other guys may take a bit longer to make an impact and then play well for a long time.
Aside from injury, what it comes down to in my opinion is who is going to continue to push themselves even harder every year that they are in the NFL. They will have to make up for their physical decline with better technique and smarter play.
The truth is, at some point Father Time catches up with everyone. The only way to hold him off to the last possible moment is to put more work in. That's how players can reach their peak faster. That's also how they can manage to maintain that level of production longer.
There simply is no substitute for hard work.
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