Fuel Gauge: How Much Do Notable NFL Vets Have Left in the Tank?
It's a dilemma that presents itself to the NFL's senior set each and every year: To play or not to play.
The league is home to a young man's game—especially in an era when rookie contracts are so team-friendly. Odds are good that if you've kicked around the league for a decade, your salary is bigger than that of the kid who just got there.
The kid who's coming to take your job on the team that's trying to decide if you can still do it at a high level.
Trying to decide how much fuel's left in your tank.
Among the group of veterans included here is one Super Bowl MVP and at least three no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famers. Each has garnered their share of individual accolades.
It's also fair to ask if each has reached the end of the line.
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
Quarterbacks like Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints are some of the highest-profile veterans in the NFL. Neither are getting any younger. Brees will turn 39 this month. Brady will turn 41 in August.
But given that Brady just led the league in passing yards and that both he and Brees just led their respective teams to the playoffs, it's fair to say they have plenty of gas left in the tank.
With at least one veteran quarterback, however, it's not as certain—a quarterback who has enjoyed more postseason success than Brees.
The 2017 season was an unmitigated disaster for the New York Giants—a disaster that most assuredly did not spare Eli Manning. Manning's 3,468 passing yards marked the 36-year-old's lowest output since 2008. Manning's completion percentage and touchdown passes hit their lowest marks since 2013.
Manning went so far as to tell Art Stapleton of NorthJersey.com that this was the first time he wasn't sure he'd be back with the team for the following season. "Yeah, you could probably say that," Manning said.
"I guess there's more uncertainty this year than after others," Manning said. "But it's always a disappointing day, that the season's over, [other than] the two years you win Super Bowls, where it's not. It's always tough that it's coming to an end and another year that didn't go as we wanted. You just try to learn from each game, each year, each situation and try to be better for it."
Here's the thing. Yes, Manning struggled. He's on the downslope of his career. And it's been a good long while since he last won a playoff game: Super Bowl XLVI.
But there are any number of teams that can tell New York how hard it is to find a starting quarterback capable of playing at Manning's current level—much less his high point.
Manning hasn't bottomed out. And even if the Giants draft a quarterback at No. 2 overall, they could still use Manning as a mentor and bridge to the future.
If, that is, he wants to stick around at all after being embarrassingly benched by Ben McAdoo.
Because there are a number of teams that would be happy to give Manning a chance to play in 2018.
Fuel Gauge: Three years, but not all of them will be spent in a Giants uniform.
Josh McCown, QB, New York Jets
Before the season began, the argument for calling Josh McCown a "notable" veteran was pretty weak. The 38-year-old quarterback had been around the NFL for 14 years, but that was about it.
He had one magical season in 2013 with the Chicago Bears, for whom McCown started five games and threw 13 touchdown passes against just one interception.
That big year got McCown a two-year, $10 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—and McCown promptly flamed out. After one year with the Bucs, he moved on to two forgettable, injury-marred years in Cleveland.
Over that three-year span, McCown started 22 games.
He won twice.
Given that "performance," not much was expected from McCown in his stint with the New York Jets—his eighth team.
What the Jets got was the best season of his career.
McCown set career highs in completion percentage (67.3), passing yards (2,926) and touchdowns (18). His passer rating of 94.5 was bested only by that 2013 season with the Bears. And McCown's five wins in 13 starts were the second-most of his career.
A Jets team that was supposed to be the tastiest of tomato cans was instead a tough out this season—largely because of McCown.
While McCown's level of play was extraordinary, the way his season ended was not. Injuries have always dogged him, and since that breakout season in 2013, McCown has played only 37 of 64 games.
Per ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, Jets head coach Todd Bowles indicated the team is open to McCown's return, but there's also a chance McCown could decide to hang them up—possibly to pursue a career in coaching.
That last course of action might be for the best. McCown would be 39 when he hit training camp in 2018, and given his history (and injury history), his odds of backing up his success aren't especially good.
Fuel Gauge: One (more) injury-shortened season.
Frank Gore, RB, Indianapolis Colts
On one hand, Indianapolis Colts running back Frank Gore has had one heck of a career.
With 24 carries for 100 yards in the season finale against the Houston Texans, the 34-year-old Gore got to 14,026 career rushing yards. Only five ball-carriers in NFL history have eclipsed that benchmark.
Gore's big game against the Texans also continued a remarkable streak for the 13-year pro. He tallied 1,206 yards from scrimmage this season, which marked the 12th consecutive year he accrued that many yards.
Gore is set to hit free agency after three seasons in Indy, and he told Mike Wells of ESPN.com that he has a certain type of team in mind when it comes to continuing his career.
"Quarterback, O-line, have to be my type of style of team," he said. "Nasty, physical, punch you in the mouth. I don't want to finish like this. I know I can still play. I want to help a team."
But it's fair to question just how much Gore can help a team at this point in his career.
Yes, his raw numbers have remained decent. But his per-carry production tells a different story. Over 10 years in San Francisco, Gore never gained fewer than 4.1 yards per carry. In three years in Indianapolis, he's failed to hit 4.0 a pop once, including a career-low 3.7 yards per carry in 2017.
Gore's 961 rushing yards this year were his fewest since his rookie season (minimum 14 games played). Ditto for his four total touchdowns.
Gore can still have value as part of a committee and a steadying veteran force in the backfield.
But whether he's willing to acknowledge it or not, his days as the lead dog for a playoff contender have come and gone.
Fuel Gauge: One bad year we'll pretend never happened afterward.
Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Giants
Remember Brandon Marshall?
Remember when the 33-year-old was going to be the missing piece for the New York Giants offense? How, with Odell Beckham Jr., Marshall was going to put the G-Men back in the playoffs and maybe even into the Super Bowl?
It seems almost laughable now, given the disaster that was the 2017 Giants. Marshall played his part in the mess, catching just 18 passes for 154 yards in five games before an ankle injury ended his season.
Marshall isn't laughing. He told ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan he's already working to make sure his face-plant was a one-shot deal.
"I'm all-in on football. I've rebuilt my body. I think I'm two great years away from—and I'll say it, I want to be a Hall of Famer—and I think I got two great years to go to be mentioned with some of the greats," Marshall said. "I'm not just playing this game just to be a guy; I want to be remembered for the product that I put out on the field."
The problem is it wasn't a one-shot deal.
The only reason Marshall found himself on the other side of MetLife Stadium to begin with is that his 2016 campaign with the New York Jets was a disappointment. After piling up 109 catches for 1,502 yards and an eye-popping 14 touchdowns in 2015, Marshall's production free-fell to 59/788/3 the following year.
From 2007 to 2013, Marshall topped 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons for three different teams. His physicality and ability to body up defensive backs was second to none.
Throw it up, and Marshall would go get it.
But in three of the last four seasons (also with three teams) Marshall's failed to record 1,000 yards. He's lost a step (or several), and last year far too many catchable passes slipped through his hands.
Father Time is undefeated—and he's come for Marshall.
Fuel Gauge: He should retire, but he won't until after another down season.
Antonio Gates, TE, Los Angeles Chargers
For most of the season, it was assumed this would be it for Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.
With Gates taking a back seat in the passing game to youngster Hunter Henry and his contract set to expire, many thought there would be a farewell tour of sorts before the five-year countdown started on Gates' inevitable induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But then Henry got hurt. Gates was thrust back into a prominent role for a team that tried to scratch and claw its way into the playoffs after losing its first four games.
And Gates looked good.
In the last two games of the season, Gates hauled in 10 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. And as Mike DiGiovanna of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, that taste of action was all it took.
Old man Antonio isn't ready to hang them up just yet.
"For the last couple of months, I was kind of on the border, trying to figure out what I could do physically—can I still play?" Gates said. "Sometimes you need that reinforcement because as you get up in age, you need to go out there and physically do it, and that helps you mentally. I have a little saying that I tell my kids: 'I still have the juice.' It's fun to go out there and play and help the team win."
Obviously, Gates isn't the player who topped 1,100 receiving yards in 2009. Or even the one who found the end zone 12 times in 2014. Gates' 316 receiving yards marked a career low, and his three touchdowns were the fewest he scored since he was a rookie in 2003.
But Gates is also arguably the greatest tight end to ever play professional football and a lifelong Charger who has made it clear he's fine playing second fiddle to Henry in L.A.
Given that sense of self-awareness, it'd be stunning if the Bolts didn't bring Gates back for Swan Song: The Sequel.
Fuel Gauge: If Gates wants to play, let him. He's Antonio Gates. Duh.
Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles
If you're looking for Andrew Whitworth here, you're going to be disappointed.
Yes, Whitworth's old. But he stayed healthy in his age-36 season and played at a Pro Bowl level for the Los Angeles Rams. By all indications, Whitworth's fuel level is A-OK.
With Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles, the future is less certain.
In many respects, Peters and Whitworth are similar players. Both are in their mid-30s. Both have received more than their fair share of individual accolades—Peters has been named to the Pro Bowl nine times in 13 seasons. Both are the blind-side protectors for contenders to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII.
Perhaps "were" is a better word choice, because there's one massive difference between Peters and Whitworth—Peters has been watching from the sideline since he tore multiple ligaments in his knee in Week 7.
To his credit, Peters has shown the ability to bounce back from a major injury in the past—he returned to elite status at his position after rupturing his Achilles twice in two months in 2012.
But the older players get, the harder it is for them to return to form after major injuries. And with the Eagles sitting in the worst salary cap position in the NFL, per Over the Cap, Peters' cap hit of $11.7 million looms large.
Peters just redid his deal in June in an effort to free up cap space in 2017. A similar move could be coming for 2018. But it would be quite the stunner if the Eagles cut bait, injury or no injury.
The reality with Peters can't be dismissed, though: No one knows what the big man will look like in 2018.
Fuel Gauge: He'll be back in 2018. The question is whether he'll be back in 2018.
Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina Panthers
When Julius Peppers rejoined the Carolina Panthers in free agency in March, it was a feel-good story. After seven seasons with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, Peppers headed back to the team that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2002.
It wasn't known if the signing would be more than that. Peppers had logged just one 10-sack season since 2012, and at 37 years old he was one of the most senior defensive players in the NFL.
As it turned out, he had plenty of football left.
In 500 snaps for the playoff-bound Panthers (second-most among the team's defensive ends), per FootballGuys, Peppers piled up 11 sacks—tied with Mario Addison for the most on the team. Peppers amassed at least half a sack in 10 of 16 games this season.
Not bad for an old guy.
On the team's website, Peppers allowed he's not sure what the future holds.
"As for what comes next," Peppers wrote, "I'm taking this thing game by game. I'm hoping our last game isn't until the Super Bowl. But I'm not thinking about what happens the next morning when I wake up after our last game. When that time comes, we'll cross that bridge. But it's not like I know and I'm hiding it from everyone. I really don't know what comes next."
After 16 seasons in the league, there's always a possibility the end could come. Some players decline gradually. Others are seemingly fine one day and finished the next.
But given that Peppers hasn't had fewer than seven sacks in a season since 2007, the end doesn't appear to be anywhere in sight for the future Hall of Famer.
Fuel Gauge: If Carolina wins it all, he'll retire. If not, Peppers will give it one last shot.
Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins
After the Miami Dolphins fell from 10-6 in 2016 to 6-10 in 2017, veteran defensive end Cameron Wake wasn't shy while speaking with Joe Schad of the Palm Beach Post.
"Well, you make your bed, you've got to lay in it," Wake said. "We didn't do enough. We had high hopes coming in. We had, in my mind, the talent, and the situation right in front of us, over and over again. This week and last week, we had the opportunities. There is nobody to blame but the guys out there making the plays, or not making the plays. So you know, I put that on my shoulders. And I'm sure a lot of guys put it on their shoulders, as well. It should burn a little bit."
Wake's honesty is admirable. But all things considered, he shouldn't shoulder much of the blame for the Dolphins' poor record.
In his ninth season (the 35-year-old Wake was a late bloomer who got his start playing professional football north of the border), Wake piled up 36 total tackles and 10.5 sacks in 615 snaps, per FootballGuys—all highs among Miami's defensive ends.
It marked the second straight season that Wake eclipsed double digits in sacks and the fifth time in his career. With eight more sacks in 2018, Wake will join the 100-sack club.
As a matter of fact, since 2006, no pass-rusher has generated pressure more frequently than Wake, per Pro Football Focus.
Much like Julius Peppers, Wake's in the twilight of his career.
But if this year (and the year before that, for that matter) was any indication, the sun won't set on Wake's career just yet.
Fuel Gauge: Two years. Like I said, he was a late bloomer.
James Harrison, OLB, New England Patriots
It may be pushing it to call James Harrison "notable." When the 39-year-old (yes, he's 39) took the field for his debut with the New England Patriots in Week 17, it was just his second game since October. Harrison played only 27 snaps in that game and just 67 total this season, per FootballGuys.
But in that stint against the New York Jets, Harrison piled up five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. He also drew praise from a head coach who isn't prone to being effusive with his praise.
"James worked really hard," Bill Belichick said, via Kevin Patra of NFL.com. "He worked really hard to get things down and to handle the roles that he was in today. Very professional, has a lot of experience but not in this system, so he had to do a lot of things to try to acclimate himself to what we do and terminology and adjustments and so forth."
It was a bizarre turn of events—after spending the overwhelming majority of his career in Pittsburgh, Harrison signed with Pittsburgh's mortal enemies just in time for the playoffs. Time may eventually heal the wounds, but for more than a few fans in Pittsburgh, the hero has turned heel.
One would think this has to be it—that Harrison's taking a run at one last championship before he'll finally call it a career and start his wait for the call from Canton.
But we've been saying "OK, this is it" in regard to Harrison since Barack Obama's first term as president, and he keeps coming back.
As a matter of fact, he keeps coming back as a surprisingly effective pass-rusher who can be a game-changer in spots.
I'm thinking he's a robot.
Fuel Gauge: Somewhere between 15 minutes and five seasons.
Derrick Johnson, ILB, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs rested many of their star players against the Denver Broncos in Week 17—among them 35-year-old inside linebacker Derrick Johnson.
It was the continuation of a theme for Johnson. After spending over a decade as an every-down player and topping 100 total tackles five times in six years from 2010 to 2015, Johnson's role has been scaled back in his 13th NFL season.
It didn't start out that way. Over the first eight games of 2017, Johnson was on the field for 100 percent of the team's defensive snaps seven times, per FootballGuys.
He was also getting gassed at an alarming rate for a four-time Pro Bowler.
But starting in Week 11, Johnson began getting regular blows. He hasn't played even 80 percent of the team's snaps since then.
It appeared to have helped—at least in coverage. As Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus tweeted, heading into Week 17, Johnson had allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap (0.4) of any inside linebacker.
Were this another team, that stat probably wouldn't be enough to keep Johnson in town. The Chiefs are up against the salary cap in 2018, and Johnson will carry a cap hit of $10.3 million after he redid his deal to free up cap space this season, per Over the Cap.
An aging player in decline with a fat cap hit is the poster child for cost-cutting cap casualties—especially when that player has two serious Achilles injuries in the past handful of seasons.
But while Johnson's not as fleet of foot as he once was, he's still probably the best inside linebacker the Chiefs have. So, unless that position becomes a priority for the team in the 2018 draft or Kansas City finds a bargain-bin free agent, it's not hard to imagine Johnson coming back for one last ride.
Provided he's amenable to taking a pay cut for the second year in a row.
Fuel Gauge: One more season as a player-coach-mentor for the young players Kansas City brings in.
Terence Newman, CB, Minnesota Vikings
As the Minnesota Vikings take a shot at being the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, 35-year-old offensive lineman Joe Berger told Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press that this is probably it for him.
"That's the way I'm thinking about it," said Berger, the team's second-oldest player. "To me, this is it. Things change, and stuff comes up. I'm not signing retirement papers as soon as I walk out of here, [but] that's kind of the way I see it. I'm 35 years old. It's been fun, but it's time for the young kids to do it."
Minnesota's elder statesman wasn't as direct. Cornerback Terence Newman, who turned 39 in September, is the oldest defensive player in the NFL not named James Harrison. Newman's also not ready to tip his hand regarding his future.
"When I'm done, nobody will know it," Newman said. "I'll be off into the sunset."
Newman's sunset has been coming for a little while now.
Mind you, it's not as if Newman played badly for the Vikings in 2017. In 560 snaps, per FootballGuys, spent mostly as the Vikings nickel back, Newman accrued 35 total tackles and one interception. He was a steady (if unspectacular) coverage man.
But that snap count was down almost 200 snaps relative to 2016, when Newman allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap (0.6) in the league, per Pro Football Focus.
In other words, while Newman's still playing relatively well, there was a noticeable decline. It was almost inevitable there would be—the guy will be 40 if he hits the field in 2018.
Newman may not have lived up to his draft slot (he was picked fifth overall in 2003), but he's had a fine 15-year career that included two Pro Bowl nods.
It's possible he'll sign his fourth straight one-year deal in 2018, but Minnesota's success this year may offer him the chance to do what many players dream of: go out on top.
If the opportunity does present itself, don't be surprised if Newman takes it.
Fuel Gauge: Newman rides off into the sunset after Super Bowl LII.