The NFL is a grown man's league, but it's also undeniably a young man's league.
While it's not unheard of for players to play effectively into their mid-30's and beyond (yes, even the guys who actually get hit every now and then), it's certainly more of an anomaly in football than it is in some of the other major North American sports like baseball.
The inherently physical nature of the game takes its toll on the body quicker, and drop-offs are more sudden and acute. As we approach the end of this topsy-turvy 2010 campaign, here's a look at some of the household names that are starting to reach their twilight years, as well as a glimpse forward into the future.
The 2011 draft prospects named here might not-quite-yet be household names, but they might eventually take the places of some of these grizzled veterans in the years to come.
This is the view we've had of Favre more often than not in recent weeks. It's jarring to the brain; it almost doesn't compute. The ageless one himself ... relegated to the bench?
Alas, it certainly seems to be that time, once and for all, for good old No. 4. After missing his first start since before color TV, he came back this week only to get knocked out again, perhaps this time, for good. Next year, we won't have Brett Favre to kick around any more.
I'm gonna say Ryan Mallett, the strong-armed quarterback from Arkansas. Both Andrew Luck and Cam Newton figure to be off the board by the time the Vikings pick at ninth, and if they want to go with a quarterback here (sorry Tavaris Jackson), Mallett could be a good fit. Like Favre, he's a junior, but indications are he'll declare. If he does, he's from the South (like Favre), he's got the aforementioned strong arm (over 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns this season), and he got the moxie and maturity to lead a pro-style offense.
Owens has actually been somewhat of a revelation this season along the banks of the Ohio. Somewhat written off as a malcontent after being run out of each of his previous stops, including last year's failed experiement in Buffalo, he arrived in Cincinnati this year with a lot of baggage.
Teaming up with his buddy Chad Ochocinco has done wonders for his game, though (even though Ochocinco has already been turning petulant playing the Robin to Owens' Batman). Still, Owens is 37, and not getting any younger.
A.J. Green, the wide receiver from Georgia, might fit the bill here. At 6'4", he's got the size, and big play ability that teams covet at this position. He's also a deep threat, averaging nearly 16 yards per catch this season. Not learning to be a diva might also help his appeal.
Williams effectiveness and role in the Dolphins' offense has been slowly but steadily decreasing over the last few years. While he can still be effective in short bursts - his 597 rushing yards and 4.3 yards per carry average are still reasonably respectable — it's clear that his best years are behind him.
Plus, who knows when he may get the urge to do some private expanding of his horizons in a foreign country again?
An obvious choice is Mark Ingram, Alabama's supremely gifted running back. He certainly hasn't been nearly the force he was last year, during his Heisman and National Title winning uber-season, but he still possesses the necessary ability to absorb contact and make people miss, to step into the NFL and contribute. He's also used to carrying a large part of the load under intense pressure. He'll be a natural for Miami to at least consider.
Let me start out here by getting this on the record — I am NOT saying that Ray Lewis is CLOSE to being done. See the stresses on the NOT and CLOSE? There.
All I am saying is that Lewis is now 35, is the only remaining player from the Ravens' Super Bowl winning team from a decade ago, and will have to start slowing down eventually. Right? I mean, come on, he can't keep being the best inside linebacker in the game forever? Can he?
Michigan State's Greg Jones is one of the top inside linebackers who looks to be available in next year's draft. He's helped the Spartans become the 18th best defense against the run in the nation this season.
Of course, nobody can truly replace Ray Lewis, and I'm still not saying he even needs to be replaced yet, but just ... oh, just move on to the next slide aready and leave me alone, will ya?
Gonzalez is still going strong, having reached a major milestone by catching his 1,000th career pass earlier this season. He's got 62 receptions for 591 yards and 5 touchdowns, and has been a leader while fitting in well in the Falcons' locker room.
He wouldn't be on this list, though, if there wasn't this caveat — he's 34, and has taken a lot of punishment over the years. He's taken it well, but Atlanta would be well served to start thinking about the future.
Lance Kendricks, out of Wisconsin, has the skill set of a prototypical pass-catching tight end. Playing in the Big 10, for the run-heavy Badgers, hasn't helped his stat line jump out and scream at you, but those in the know appreciate his soft hands and refined route running abilities. And hey, 39 catches for 627 yards and 5 touches for a college tight end is nothing to sneeze at.
I've always been a Donovan McNabb fan, even going back to his days at Syracuse. I'm with the camp that wrinkles their nose at the way he was treated earlier this year leading to his exit from Philly, and I'd love nothing more than to see him continue to succeed.
The truth is though, he's looked shaky at times this season, behind an admittedly shaky Redskins line. As likeable as he is, he's not a long-term solution in the nation's capital.
In a similar scenario to the Vikings, both Luck and Newton will have had their names called already once the 'Skins are on the clock at number 8, but Washington's Jake Locker may still be there. He even already plays for a Washington.
He's got the bullet-point skills to be a fine NFL signal caller — strong arm, experience in a pro-style passing offense, and a maturity beyond his years. This hasn't been his best season, but we'll see him taken high nonetheless.
Yeah, I know, Vinatieri doesn't count — he's a place kicker, which means that he plays the one position where, even at the age of 38, he's still considered a spry youngin. And he's still got that golden leg, hitting on 22 of 24 field goal attempts this year, and leading the league with 45 extra points without a miss.
Age is a cruel beast, however, sparing nobody. Remember, I'm not saying this is his last year, or even his last as a starter. You just know that NFL teams are always keeping one eye peeled for who's next. At least the smart ones. And the Colts are certainly one of the smart ones.
The best kicker prospect in the college ranks may just be Nebraska's Alex Henery. The senior from Omaha made 18 of 19 field goals this season, and has booted 68 of his 76 attempts through the uprights in his college career, an impressive figure for any college kicker.
He won't go in the first round, but he'll have his fair share of suitors eventually.
Ronde used to be known as the "other" Barber, as the less famous twin to the New York Giants' All-Pro running back Tiki. But Tiki has long since moved on, having retired at 30 to pursue a career in TV, leaving Ronde to carry on the Barber legacy.
He's done a fine job of it, too, becoming an All-Pro himself. This season he's recorded 61 tackles and 3 picks, but ... you know what I'm going to say next. He's 35, and his days of being an elite NFL cornerback may be numbered.
Tampa Bay will have to wait around until pick number 20 to start mining for gold, so Nebraska's Prince Amukamara figures to be a distant memory by then. More realistic is Miami's Brandon Harris. Traits like speed and athleticism are good ones to have for a cornerback, and he's got them in spades.
Give him a little time to mature his technique, and he'll be making a name for himself in the league in the not-too-distant future.
Taylor has always had one eye drifting towards his post-playing career. He could become an actor, or just an analyst, and everyone remembers the strange sequence of events surrounding his time on Dancing With The Stars, when Bill Parcells would have none of it.
Through all of the acrimony though, Taylor has remained an effective and feared presence coming off the corner. He is 36 now though, and count on him to know when to step away - sooner rather than later.
Defensive end is a difficult position to excel at in the pros, but Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan may be able to step in here. The 6'4", 263 pound senior out of Muncie, Indiana doesn't quite have the size of Taylor (few do), but he does have the ability to get to the quarterback, and appears to also possess the drive to continue to improve.
Mason has been a stalwart, first for Tennessee, and then for Baltimore, for a while now. He's eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving eight of the last nine years, and though he probably won't get there this season, his numbers are still quite respectable: 54 receptions, 718 yards, 6 touchdowns.
By now though, you know the drill. He's 36, and for a speed position like wideout (at 5'10" Mason is too undersized to simply outmuscle defenders), the clock of father time ticks just a bit louder.
Notre Dame's Michael Floyd is an underclassmen, but could make himself available come next spring. If he does, any number of teams could scoop him up, including Baltimore. He's compiled impressive stats: 73 catches for 916 yards and 10 touchdowns in just 11 games for the Irish. The Ravens won't be the only team hoping they get the chance to scoop him up when the time comes.
Brooking has been an impact player at middle linebacker since the late 90's, and the days of the Dirty Bird, in Atlanta.
Plying his trade now for Dallas in recent years, he's still been able to play every game this season and rack up 64 tackles to his name. But Dallas especially, has to be looking to rebuild after this season's debacle, and Brooking is 35.
Another guy who knows how to hit is Kelvin Sheppard, out of LSU. The senior from Stone Mountain, Georgia is one of a number of pro prospects on the Tigers defense, and helped that unit be the eighth stingiest, in terms of total yards, in the land this year. He shouldn't have any problem finding a job in the pros.
Sharper's story of late is a tale of two seasons.
Last year, he was one of the most important cogs on the defensive side of the ball for the Saints, leading the league with nine interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns, en route to helping them win the Super Bowl.
This year, he's been limited to appearing in just six games, and he's 35 years old.
Safety is a bit of a thin position going into the 2011 Draft, and there aren't many truly impact players that look to be on the board. One guy who might be a sleeper is Oklahoma's Quinton Carter. The Las Vegas native has 4 interceptions this year, and can blanket a receiver with the best of them. Look for him to not have to wait too long to have his name called next spring.
Saturday is a 4-time Pro Bowler, and 2-time first team All-Pro, who is almost a synonymous with Peyton Manning when it comes to running the well-oiled machine that is the Colts' attack. He calls the plays on the field for the offensive line, and is as invaluable a center as there is in the game.
He's also 35, and while his eventual departure is hopefully still a ways away for Indy fans, it is also nonetheless inevitable.
A center, especially one who carries as much of the burden of the offense as Saturday, who plays in a system like the Colts', with a quarterback as demanding as Peyton Manning, will be a tall task to truly replace long-term. Look to Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski as one of the few who may be up to the job.
Fletcher is another linebacker who, like the Cowboys' Keith Brooking, has been somewhat quietly been getting the job done in the trenches for years.
Not as heralded as some of his contemporaries, he's still valuable, and his competitive fire burns deep. He's got 80 tackles and three fumble recoveries this season. As with everyone else, though, time is not his friend. He's 35, and fans in D.C. have to be starting to wonder how much longer he'll be around.
Miami's excellent Colin McCarthy has a similar aggressive, ball-hawking streak as Fletcher, and a high aptitude for excelling at the next level. Miami's defense gave up only 146.3 yards per game this season, third best in the country, and McCarthy certainly had something to do with that. If he continues to develop, watch out.
You had to know that we couldn't leave him off of this list, didn't you?
Moss was banished from New England, then his mouth got him kicked out of Minnesota, and he finally caught on with Tennessee — and this has all just been in the last few months.
At only 33, he's one of the youngest guys on this list, and his ability to still force double teams, and beat them, is indisputable. But he obviously makes you wonder at this point if his head is still in it. Think of him as football's Manny Ramirez.
As Moss has only been on the Titans for a few games, it's not like he's truly going to need to be "replaced," but as much as the term fits here, Alabama's Julio Jones may get a chance to be doing the replacing. With Mark Ingram having a bit of an off year, Jones has been the beneficiary, exploding for 75 catches and 1,084 yards and 7 touchdowns. At 6'4" and 211 lbs. he can outjump opposing defenders just like Moss. A junior, he should probably be open to declaring and taking his talents to the next level.