Aging NFL Stars Poised for a Rebound Season

Russell S. BaxterContributor IJune 29, 2014

Aging NFL Stars Poised for a Rebound Season

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    Maurice Jones-Drew (21) enters his ninth NFL season but only turned 29 in March.
    Maurice Jones-Drew (21) enters his ninth NFL season but only turned 29 in March.Associated Press

    We are just a few days removed from the 2014 NBA draft, so it is only natural that we are talking about rebounding.

    But instead of analyzing young and emerging basketball stars, we are taking a look at a number of NFL veterans who are far from shot and on their way to bounce-back campaigns.

    We targeted nine pros who have made their mark in the NFL for more than a few years and will now show why they are on their way to better things in 2014. All had disappointing years by their standards. And their standards are pretty high.

    To be fair, we did not include the likes of former Pro Bowl performers such as Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman or New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who missed significant time due to injury and finished their seasons on injured reserve. That would be the easy way out.

    Instead, a number of players here were cast off by their clubs this offseason, while others were a bit nicked up and now search for some sort of fountain of youth (probably Gatorade flavored) that will prove they still have some good football left to offer.

    So here's a look at some veteran performers who took a bit of a fall this past season but will get right back up in 2014.

RB Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    The photo above proved to be a somewhat accurate description of the kind of season running back Steven Jackson and the Atlanta Falcons had in 2013.

    This past season, Mike Smith's team fell to 4-12 after a 13-3 campaign that saw them earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Similarly, in his first season with the Falcons, Jackson saw his streak of eight consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more yards rushing come to a streaking halt.

    The three-time Pro Bowler missed four games this past season, and his 543 yards rushing on 157 carries were the worst and second-worst totals of his career, respectively. And even when he was available, it should be noted that no team in the NFL totaled fewer rushing attempts than Atlanta in 2013.

    But look for that to change this fall. The team bolstered the offensive line with the additions of free-agent right guard Jon Asamoah and first-round rookie right tackle Jake Matthews. Atlanta also added running back Devonta Freeman to a corps that includes Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers.

    Look for these Falcons to be a lot more balanced in 2014 and Jackson to be a big part of that.

WR Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There is still plenty of fight left in 13-year veteran wide receiver Steve Smith.

    Just ask new Baltimore Ravens teammate Lardarius Webb.

    Recently, the veteran wide receiver and his new teammate had a little disagreement. Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com reports that all's well that ends well and that the situation has literally come full circle.

    Back to the more important stuff. After 13 seasons and team records in catches (836), receiving yards (12,197) and total touchdowns (75), the five-time Pro Bowler was let go by the Carolina Panthers this offseason.

    He wound up latching on with the Ravens in March, and as noted by Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun at OTAs earlier this month, there is still plenty of fire left in the belly of Smith, who was always known for being feisty.

    That should be very good news for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who needs all the help he can get following a disappointing 2013 season in which he served up a career-high 22 interceptions.

DE DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It is still somewhat hard to believe that seven-time Pro Bowl defender DeMarcus Ware is no longer a member of the Dallas Cowboys.

    Welcome to the reality of today's NFL. Yes, money was certainly at the root of the evil here that caused the parting of the ways between Ware and the team that drafted him in the first round in 2005. But the fact remains that in nine seasons with the team, he missed only three out of 144 regular-season games and racked up 117 sacks and 32 forced fumbles.

    Of course, those three games did come this past season in a forgettable year for the Cowboys defense, in which Ware totaled a career-low six sacks and zero forced fumbles.

    In terms of the Denver Broncos, Ware's new team, someone who should know feels that this addition, along with others, is a big plus.

    "[On] paper, going into training camp trying to be better than we were the year before," said general manager John Elway to Ashley Fox of ESPN.com recently. "I kind of feel like we're there. That doesn't mean the outcome is going to be different or the same, but you like to give yourself the best chance as you can. We like where we are on paper."

    That paper is where you can find Ware these days. Come September, look for him in an opposing backfield near you.

OLB Julius Peppers, Green Bay Packers

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    It appears there will be some new variety on the men in the land of cheese.

    A little pepper jack, anyone?

    Is eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers, the second overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in the 2002 draft (the first season of the league’s current eight-division format), truly coming off a shaky season? Of course, trying to find a Chicago Bears defender who had a good year in 2013 is a lot easier said than done. But he did total 45 tackles, have a team-high seven sacks, grab his ninth career interception and return a fumble for a touchdown.

    Now the 12-year pro, following his release by the Bears this offseason, will be roaming the tundra at Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers, lining up at outside linebacker in Dom Capers' defense.

    That's good news for Aaron Rodgers, who will no longer have to elude the athletic defender. But it remains bad news for the remainder of the quarterbacks in the NFC North.

    Teaming Peppers with outside linebacker Clay Matthews gives Green Bay an interesting set of bookend pass-rushers, granted both can stay healthy. The odds are with Peppers, who has missed just two games in his last 11 seasons and started all 64 contests in four seasons with the Bears.

QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    There are seemingly as many detractors as supporters of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

    Apparently, that goes with the territory when you are one of the game's all-time greats.

    However, "all-time" was nearly applicable in a different way for the three-time Super Bowl champion in 2013, his 14th season with the Pats.

    Brady attempted 628 passes, the second-highest total of his career, and completed 60.5 percent of them, the second-lowest rate since becoming the team's starter in 2001. His 25 touchdown passes compared to 11 interceptions paled in comparison to a year earlier, when he threw for 34 scores and was picked off only eight times.

    Some of that can be blamed on a new set of targets, some on suspect pass protection (Brady was sacked 40 times) and some on the efficient signal-caller as well. Regardless of the reasons, the standout quarterback will be another year familiar with the likes of 2013 newcomers Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, while wideout Julian Edelman and a healthy Rob Gronkowski will (eventually) be back in the mix.

    You know you have had a great career when an off year still means throwing more than twice as many touchdowns as interceptions.

    Season No. 15 figures to be very interesting for No. 12.

CB Champ Bailey, New Orleans Saints

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    Bill Haber/Associated Press

    Not only was 2013 the final season for veteran cornerback Champ Bailey as a member of the Denver Broncos, but it proved to be one full of mixed results.

    Yes, the Broncos reached Super Bowl XLVIII in the 12-time Pro Bowler's 15th NFL season. But it was a forgettable year for the injury-plagued Bailey, who played in a career-low five games and failed to pick off a pass for the first time in his impressive career. You are talking about a defender who has totaled 52 career interceptions in his decade-and-a-half in the league.

    Understandably, the Broncos released him this offseason as they looked to remake their defense. Now he's a member of the New Orleans Saints and a defensive backfield that includes new free safety Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler with 27 takeaways in five seasons.

    Both are looking to give the Saints' surging defense something it lacked in 2013—making the big play. Sean Payton's club managed a mere 19 takeaways this past season.

    Of course, the stakes are a lot higher for the team as well as Bailey, who is obviously at the tail end of his career and who would love to add "-ion" to the tail end of his first name.

QB Eli Manning, New York Giants

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    Ron Antonelli/Getty Images

    It probably wasn't that big of a shock when New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning led the NFL with 27 interceptions this past season.

    Back in 2007, he tied for the league lead with 20 interceptions, and in 2010 the veteran signal-caller was picked off a league-high 25 times. He has certainly been a giver, but the takeaway is also a pair of Super Bowl titles over the past seven seasons.

    What may surprise some is the fact that Manning, along with first-round classmates Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, has already played 10 NFL years. The next decade for Manning and the others begins this fall, where he and the Giants hope to rebound from a season that saw him commit 29 of his team's league-high 44 turnovers and Tom Coughlin's team open 0-6 on the way to a 7-9 finish.

    There were concerns that it could be another long year after offseason ankle surgery for the savvy pro. But it has been all systems go during OTAs and minicamp.

    And keep this little coincidental oddity in mind: Manning and his Giants always seem to come up big when expectations aren't so very high.

RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Oakland Raiders

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    USA TODAY Sports

    One of the most unusual (and sad) stats in recent years was the fact that then-Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 414 yards in his first six games in 2012. He would miss the final 10 games that season yet still somehow manage to lead Jacksonville in rushing yards that year.

    This season, after eight years and a franchise-record 81 total touchdowns with the Jaguars, Jones-Drew returns to the West Coast, where he played his college football (UCLA). In 2014 he'll be teaming with Darren McFadden and hoping to get the Oakland Raiders back on track after a miserable 11 seasons...and counting.

    This past season, the powerhouse runner ran for a team-high 803 yards and finished third on the team with 43 receptions. Now more than one year removed from the Lisfranc injury that shelved him for the majority of 2012, he hopes to regain the form that made him a three-time Pro Bowler and the league's rushing champion three years ago.

    He figures to get his opportunities with a Raiders team that finished 12th in the NFL this past season in rushing. But team leader Rashad Jennings (ironically, Jones-Drew's one-time fill-in with the Jaguars) signed with the New York Giants this offseason.

    If nothing else, Jones-Drew should see opportunities in the passing game this season. Bleacher Report columnist Cian Fahey wrote

    Jones-Drew is one of the few running backs in the NFL who can be left alone with a defensive end or linebacker and still be effective. He doesn't simply chip pass-rushers before breaking into a route, and he doesn't need to constantly be part of a double-team.

    There are plenty of new faces in Oakland this season. It would be nice to see MJD looking like his good old self in 2014.

DT Kevin Williams, Seattle Seahawks

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Talk about a reversal of fortunes?

    One year after playing for the team that allowed the most points in the league in 2013, defensive tackle Kevin Williams has joined the Seattle Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions who also happened to allow an NFL-low 231 points this past season.

    The former Minnesota Vikings standout and six-time Pro Bowler comes off a year in which he played 15 games, totaled 29 tackles and collected 3.5 sacks. Now he looks to add a little experience to a Seattle defensive front that released veteran defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, while defensive tackle Clinton McDonald signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    In 11 seasons in the league, Williams has racked up 60 sacks and five interceptions. He figures to add some depth to a group that includes starters Tony McDaniel and Brandon Mebane and second-year pros such as Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams, as well as rookie fifth-round draft choice Jimmy Staten.

    Via Jayson Jenks of The Seattle Times, the Seahawks will pick their spots with Williams in their defensive rotation. And when it comes to the veteran defender, perhaps he could not have picked a better spot.

     

    Some statistical support for this piece was provided by Pro Football Focus, Pro-Football-Reference, NFL.com and ESPN.com.