Highlighting the NFL's All-Over-30 Team
Of all the many treasured chestnuts of NFL wisdom, one rings truer every year: "It's a young man's game."
As the years roll on, NFL teams are turning to younger players to fill bigger roles earlier. Productive starters on the wrong side of 30 aren't looked at as veterans with valuable experience; they are seen as rapidly depreciating assets.
Given the choice, teams would rather roll the dice on a cheap, unproven young buck with fresh legs and a strong back than risk pledging guaranteed money to a star just a step or two ahead of Father Time.
That's why stars over 30 are so rare: Not only are they still hanging with the youngsters, they're defying the laws of nature to remain among the best players in the NFL.
To honor their achievements, let's assemble an All-Over-30 Team, a starting lineup of standout players who'll play the 2013 season after their 30th birthday.
Some ground rules: This is the best possible 22-player squad that can be formed out of over-30 players, not a "greatest active" squad. We're not going to be counting "rings," but judging who's the best man for the on-field job right now, at all 22 positions.
We're also not trying to make the "All-Old" team; we're not looking for the oldest possible viable starters, but the best possible starters given their age.
With all that said, here's the NFL's All-Over 30 Team.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
The most important player on the roster comes first.
Both are surefire Hall of Famers, both have gotten it done with a variety of supporting casts, both have been among the best in the league every year they've played and both had particularly excellent seasons last year. They finished one-two in Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted yards above replacement for 2012.
Manning, unlike Brady, has succeeded with two different teams and several head coaches. Manning proving he's "still Peyton" after a debilitating neck injury and high-profile team change elevates his performance even further. While we're splitting hairs, he gets a razor's edge for being almost a year-and-a-half older than Brady at age 37.
With the offseasons Manning's Broncos and Brady's New England Patriots have had, it wouldn't be surprising to see Manning clearly top Brady in stats and achievements in 2013.
Running Back: Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons
Out of all the positions in the NFL, none of them have shorter careers than running backs.
Finding a legitimate starting running back over 30 is difficult, let alone a standout. The new feature back of the Atlanta Falcons, Steven Jackson, is just that.
With eight seasons as a full-time starter under his belt, the powerful runner will celebrate his 30th birthday on July 22. Though he struggled with injuries in 2007 and 2008, Jackson has run for at least 1,000 yards in all eight of those seasons.
Though not known as an all-purpose back, the three-time Pro Bowler has an active five-year streak of 300-plus receiving yards, and he's never had fewer than 38 receptions as a starter. In fact, Jackson's career high of 90 receptions tops ex-Falcon Michael Turner's career total.
Jackson ran for 4.1 yards per carry in 2012, just off his career pace of 4.2. He's not a home run hitter, but Jackson has more than enough power left in his legs to help the Falcons take the next step: to the Super Bowl.
Running Back: Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
Gore spent his first six seasons in the NFL as the 49ers' best offensive weapon, grinding out yards with almost nothing around him as they cycled through coaches and quarterbacks. Gore battled through six seasons without a winning campaign, fighting injuries and occasional challenges to his spot at the top of the depth chart.
Yet three of Gore's four Pro Bowl nominations have come in the last four seasons, including 2012. He rushed 258 times for 1,214 yards, for a 4.7 yards-per-carry average—above his career mark of 4.6. Gore added eight touchdowns to the mix, helping drive the 49ers to an NFC West title, the No. 2 seed and the Super Bowl.
Wide Receiver: Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
Perhaps no wide receiver in recent years has done as much for his team as Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans. For years, it seemed he was a one-man offense on a squad destined to tantalize but never capitalize.
When Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, J.J. Watt and the other Texans stars came together in 2012, though, the then-31-year-old Johnson finally had the health and supporting cast to repeat the numbers of his prime: 112 catches for 1,598 yards and four touchdowns.
Johnson received his sixth Pro Bowl nomination, which will look shiny on his shelf next to his two first-team All-Pro nods. If Johnson repeats that kind of production, he and the Texans should have no trouble making another playoff run.
Wide Receiver: Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons
The stunning 2011 arrival of young standout Julio Jones bumped fellow Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White out of a lot of football fans' minds.
It's not like White has lost anything since being named first-team All-Pro in 2010, though; his 92 catches and 1,351 yards last season kept a six-year streak of 80-plus catches and 1,100-plus yards alive. Though Jones had 10 touchdowns to White's seven, White was well ahead of Jones in both receptions and yards.
White's four-year Pro Bowl streak did snap in 2012, but that's more to do with the logjam at receiver in the NFL than his production. He's still producing like most NFL 20-somethings never will.
Tight End: Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons
Tony Gonzalez is the greatest tight end in NFL history, but his outstanding 93-catch, 930-yard, eight-touchdown 2012 season shows why he's still one of the best—regardless of age.
Jason Witten and Heath Miller of the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively, also put up big offensive numbers in 2012. Witten is also an excellent blocker, while Gonzalez is anything but.
Any of the three would be worthy candidates, but Gonzalez's combination of yards, receptions and touchdowns make him the best overall offensive threat.
If we're still looking for tiebreakers, Witten and Miller are just on the other side of 30, while Gonzalez is 37. That he's arguably the best receiving tight end in football after 16 seasons is nothing short of incredible.
Left Tackle: Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals
Andrew Whitworth isn't a household name. As a low-profile offensive lineman on a Cincinnati Bengals team that draws attention to itself with splashy play and stripy uniforms, he likely won't ever be.
That Whitworth finally made the Pro Bowl in 2012, seven seasons after the Bengals drafted him, shows the right people are finally paying attention to his play on the field.
The 6'7", 325-pound Whitworth has great size but a lean build, and he is a gifted pass protector. Pro Football Focus has graded Whitworth (subscription required) as a top-10 left tackle for four straight seasons. Whitworth was PFF's No. 1 overall offensive tackle in 2010.
To top it all off, the the 31-year-old Whitworth is as reliable as he is talented; he hasn't missed a start throughout that four-year stretch.
Left Guard: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles
It took Evan Mathis a little while to find his groove. Born in November of 1981, drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the 2005 draft, Mathis struggled to stay healthy—and struggled to stay on top of the depth chart.
The Panthers tried switching him to tackle before giving up on him, and Mathis bounced through both Miami and Cincinnati as emergency injury cover. Another stint with the Bengals finally earned Mathis a full-time shot with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011; all the run-blocker did was mash his way to Pro Football Focus' No. 1 overall guard grade (subscription required).
Not only did Mathis get re-signed to a massive five-year deal at the age of 30, he backed it up with another year atop Pro Football Focus' guard chart.
Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com even named Mathis the Eagles' offensive MVP of 2012. Not bad for a 31-year-old guard with three seasons as a starter under his belt.
Center: Chris Myers, Houston Texans
There are a lot of high-profile stars on the Houston Texans, including this list's Andre Johnson, tailback Arian Foster and defensive end J.J. Watt. Even on the relatively anonymous offensive line, left tackle Duane Brown is better known than center Chris Myers.
Myers will turn 32 on September 15, but he's finished in the top 10 of Pro Football Focus' center grades for each of the last four years running (and was No. 11 in 2008!). That includes a third-best plus-22.1 grade in 2010 and a No. 1 overall plus-31.0 grade in 2012.
Myers, whose great inside zone blocking creates creases for Foster and Ben Tate, was rewarded with a four-year, $25 million contract last spring.
Right Guard: Jahri Evans, New Orleans Saints
Jahri Evans is a walking example of what happens when you draft well. The New Orleans Saints selected Evans in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, and he's locked down the right guard spot for all 16 games of all seven seasons since.
Evans, who'll turn 30 in August, is in the middle of an astonishing streak: He's been named to the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro first team for four consecutive years. At 6'4", 316 pounds, he is part of the new crop of taller, bigger, more athletic guards able to combat today's 3-technique pass rushers.
It's no wonder Evans was Pro Football Focus' second-highest-graded right guard in pass protection, and fifth-highest overall guard, in 2012 (subscription required).
Right Tackle: David Stewart, Tennessee Titans
2012 was a banner year for young right tackles; Andre Smith, Gosder Cherilus and Sebastian Vollmer all had career years in their contract years.
Veterans, not so much. Over-30 stalwarts like Eric Winston, Todd Herremans and the Tennessee Titans' David Stewart all struggled with injuries—or, like Winston, are currently out of work.
Stewart, whose season was cut short with a broken leg against the Houston Texans in Week 13, was nevertheless Pro Football Focus' ninth-best right tackle, on the heels of a No. 3 finish in 2011 (subscription required). Once he gets back on the field, the 6'7", 318-pound Stewart should shine while working next to No. 10 overall pick Chance Warmack.
Defensive End: Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
A common problem with "All-" teams is dealing with defensive alignments. With the mix of 4-3, 3-4 and hybrid defenses out there in today's NFL, naming two "ends" and two "tackles" is difficult.
The first defensive end on our All-Over 30 team is Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens. Though the Ravens nominally play in a 3-4, Suggs is a hybrid pass-rusher who typically plays on the end of the line with his hand down.
Fellow over-30 veteran Dwight Freeney played a similar role for Indianapolis last season and was more productive as Suggs rushed his return from an Achilles injury and was clearly not at full speed until a two-sack, 10-tackle performance against Denver in the playoffs.
In 2011, though, Suggs racked up a career-best 14 sacks, along with 52 solo tackles, 23 assists and his fifth Pro Bowl nomination. Suggs was also named first team All-Pro that season and should be shooting for similar honors now that he's fully healed.
Defensive End: Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers
For most of his career, Justin Smith was a strong-side defensive end in a 4-3 system. He wasn't quite fast enough to rack up double-digit sacks as a speed rusher, and he wasn't powerful enough to overwhelm right tackles one-on-one.
Still, Smith racked up 43.5 sacks in seven seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and was a constant force against the run.
In 2008, though, Smith signed with the San Francisco 49ers—and dropped into then-head coach Mike Singletary's 3-4.
As a 3-4 end, Smith's blend of size, speed and power is overwhelming. Since making the switch, Smith has been named to four consecutive Pro Bowls and (subscription required) been graded the No. 1 overall 3-4 defensive end by Pro Football Focus in 2009, 2010 and 2011 (and was No. 5 in 2012).
In 2011, Smith was named first-team All-Pro at the age of 32. He'll turn 34 this September, but you had better believe Smith is still one of the best all-around defensive ends in football.
Defensive Tackle: Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots
When it comes to interior run-stuffers, there's one who stands above (and around) them all: Vince Wilfork, the massive New England Patriots nose tackle.
Though Wilfork has played in nearly every conceivable defensive alignment and set under Bill Belichick, his game is always the same: He takes on two blockers and collapses pockets and run lanes anyway.
Listed at 6'2", 325 by Pro Football Reference, Wilfork is visibly much larger than that, but he's still an excellent athlete with huge, powerful arms. At age 31, not only does he still do what he does at a very high level, in 2012 he received his first-ever first-team All-Pro nod and fifth Pro Bowl nomination.
Defensive Tackle: Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings
Kevin Williams is the prototype for the modern inside pass-rusher.
At 6'5", 318 pounds, Williams has plenty of size, but little extra fat on his body. He's a powerful, fast pass-rusher with a variety of moves, but he stays in his lane and doesn't abandon his run-stopping responsibilities.
Though Williams will turn 33 on August 16, he's still got more than enough speed to get to quarterbacks. He only registered two official sacks, but Pro Football Focus charted Williams (subscription required) in the top 10 of defensive tackles in both quarterback hits (9) and hurries (22).
Outside Linebacker: Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears
Lance Briggs is 32 years old. He's a 10-year veteran with seven Pro Bowl nominations to his name and was first-team All-Pro way back in 2005.
According to Pro Football Reference, he's missed only four starts since becoming a full-time starter after his rookie year. Yet despite 156 games on his odometer, Briggs was Pro Football Focus' third-best-graded 4-3 outside linebacker (subscription required) in 2012.
With 73 solo tackles, 29 assists, two interceptions and 1.5 sacks, Briggs proved beyond a shadow of a doubt he's still one of the best in the business—at any age.
Inside Linebacker: Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
Derrick Johnson wasn't ever a "bust," but until he got plugged into Romeo Crennel's 3-4, the 2005 No. 15 overall pick didn't deliver on his massive athletic promise.
At 6'3", 242 pounds and blessed with great hitting power, Johnson blossomed as a 3-4 inside linebacker, where he could tee up and hit running backs and quarterbacks alike. In 2011, Johnson not only earned his first career Pro Bowl nod (at age 29), he was named first-team All-Pro.
In 2012, Johnson got back to Hawaii with a career-best 110 solo tackles. Now age 30, Johnson seems to be just hitting his prime.
Outside Linebacker: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
DeMarcus Ware has terrified quarterbacks from every conceivable angle. At 6'4", 247 pounds, Ware is blessed with prototypical size for a 3-4 pass-rusher, and his incredible combination of speed and power has resulted in 111 sacks, seven Pro Bowl nods and four first-team All-Pro awards.
Was Ware in the best form of his life in 2012? No, to do that he'd had to have led the NFL in sacks with more than 20.0, his career high. Instead, Ware racked up "just" 11.5 sacks and was Pro Football Focus' 11th-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker (subscription required).
Cornerback: Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears
Everyone in Chicagoland knows Charles "Peanut" Tillman is the most criminally underrated player in the NFL. Not only does Tillman play a position almost impossible to evaluate while watching on TV at home, he played most of his career within a Tampa 2 zone-based scheme that obscured his ability.
Ask Calvin Johnson, though; he knows. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tillman held Johnson to just five catches and 70 yards on 13 targets over both games the Chicago Bears played against the Detroit Lions in 2012.
In fact, PFF just published a great analysis of Tillman and how one of the best cornerbacks in the game is overlooked by most NFL observers.
Though cornerback is a notoriously difficult spot for older players to thrive, the 32-year-old Tillman is doing just that.
Cornerback: Antoine Winfield
Antoine Winfield has been fighting a lot of the same stereotypes Charles Tillman's faced. Only, no matter what scheme he plays in, Winfield's physical style and eager, effective tackling in the run game is used to minimize his cover ability.
Yet for all of his 37 years, Winfield was Pro Football Focus' No. 1 overall cornerback in 2012 and 2010 (subscription required).
Yes, it's true that Winfield's scheme means he doesn't have to single-cover a lot of top receivers running go routes down the sideline.
Still, Winfield has played at an extraordinarily high level. That his three Pro Bowl nods have all come after turning 30 should tell you all you need to know about how exceptional Winfield's age-defying game is.
Free Safety: Ryan Clark, Pittsburgh Steelers
There are a few spots on the field where the over-30 pickings get slim, and free safety is one of those spots.
This is mostly because Kerry Rhodes and Quintin Mikell, two of the better free safeties in the game, are both free agents waiting for some team to wise up and make them offers.
Clark, named to his only Pro Bowl in 2011 and hardly a household name, was still Pro Football Focus' ninth-rated safety in 2012 (subscription required). Like Rhodes and Mikell did last season, Clark enters 2013 on the last year of his deal.
Worse yet for Clark, his successor, Shamarko Thomas, was just drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round. The 33-year-old Clark had better turn in the best season of his career if he wants to avoid sitting by his phone this time next season, like Rhodes and Mikell are now.
Strong Safety: George Wilson, Tennessee Titans
The poor Buffalo Bills had the unlikely fate of having two safeties in Pro Football Focus' top 10 (subscription required) on their roster in 2012, but neither with a secure future. While the Bills franchise-tagged free safety Jairus Byrd, they released strong safety George Wilson.
Wilson, now with the Tennessee Titans, is a 32-year-old veteran of seven seasons. However, he hasn't always been a strong safety. In fact, he was an undrafted free agent wide receiver who couldn't get on the field for anything his first few years in the league.
It wasn't until his 2007 transition to safety that things clicked for Wilson, and in 2009 he became a full-time starter. 2012, in fact, was his first year he stayed healthy enough to start and play all 16 games.
The Titans hope the abundance of tread left on Wilson's tires means he'll be able to continue to be an impact two-way safety for quite a while.
Kicker: Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland Raiders
This was an excruciating choice, since Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson had a splendid season in 2012.
Dawson was accurate on 93.5 percent of his field goals in 2012 (tied for second-best in the NFL), plus an amazing 7-of-7 on 50-plus-yard kicks. While Sebastian Janikowski was a sixth-best 91.2 percent accurate, Janikowski bested Dawson in 2011, per Pro Football Reference, and the two have see-sawed over the past several years.
Beyond their comparable accuracy, Janikowski is, and has been, the total package as a kicker. He's got excellent field-goal range, career field-goal accuracy of 80.6 percent (somewhat depressed by the number of extra-long kicks he's been called on to attempt) and has always been one of the game's best kickoff artists.
You couldn't go wrong with either, but the 35-year-old former first-round draft pick gets the nod.
Punter: Dustin Colquitt, Kansas City Chiefs
Punting might be the most ineffable art in football. There's no single number than can reveal the truth of its effectiveness. Even getting the right combination is hard.
Dustin Colquitt's 46.8 gross average punt distance is okay, but nothing special. However, when it comes to percent returned and number of punts downed within the 20-yard line, Colquitt was No. 2 in the NFL in both categories in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Colquitt's perfectly placed, hard-to-catch knuckleballs are ideal for today's punting game.
Here's a set of numbers that leaves no doubt, though: five years, $18.75 million. Per Adam Schefter, the deal Colquitt signed to remain with the Chiefs is the richest any punter has ever received.