The Fate of 12 NFL Veterans
Even the most experienced playmakers’ roles in the league diminish—either steadily decreasing or abruptly dropping off. Others continue playing at a high level and look like they’ll never retire.
With various rookies making a splash in the league and always more to come, the futures of some of the NFL’s most experienced players are unknown.
But will these old hands be hitting the field next season or hitting the golf course?
Terrell Owens (38)
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T.O. has been trying to return this entire year but hasn’t been able to find a suitor.
The six-time Pro Bowler has been cleared from an ACL tear, but the way his live workout went down was a blow to his confidence.
Though he has said via Twitter that he is not retiring, if he doesn’t land with a team before next year’s training camp, it may be the end for him.
With the way this season has unfolded that doesn’t seem likely. Sometime in the offseason T.O. will officially announce his retirement.
LaDainian Tomlinson (32)
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L.T. will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and has been dealing with injuries that made him miss time.
He’s close to passing Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin on the all-time rushing list and still wants to get that elusive Super Bowl ring.
Tomlinson isn’t done yet; he’s a passing threat and an effective third-down back.
He still has a year or two left. If the Jets choose to keep him, then he will stay. If not he can still go to another contender.
Ronde Barber (36)
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Barber is the active league leader for consecutive starts (197).
Tampa Bay had a solid cornerback in Aqib Talib. But after being placed on IR with a nagging hamstring injury and facing a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, his days there may be numbered.
Barber has already won a Super Bowl, and the chances of another one are nonexistent for this year as the Bucs have faded from relevance in the NFC.
The five-time Pro Bowler is signed to a one-year deal and may want to call it a career while he’s still healthy.
He’ll retire at the end of this year.
London Fletcher (36)
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Second on the active list of consecutive starts is Fletcher (177). He’s also No. 1 in tackles this year (146).
The 14-year linebacker is a true workhorse and on pace to put up tackle numbers close to his career highs. He’s one of the most consistent players at the position.
Even though he’s in the last year of his contract, he hasn’t hindered and will have games left. The captain should have one year left and then retire as a Redskin.
Chad Ochocinco (33)
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The former star has two years on his contract with the Patriots, which looks like his best chance at a championship.
That doesn’t mean they will want him. Ocho didn’t catch a touchdown until last week, which is surprising considering Tom Brady's knack for making his receivers' stats go through the roof.
However, he is still young compared to Moss and Owens who hung around for a while.
It’s likely he will land somewhere in 2012, keeping his career alive for two more years, perhaps.
Brian Dawkins (38) and Champ Bailey (33)
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There are 18 Pro Bowl appearances between these two defensive backs who have both found their way to the Mile High City.
Both guys have missed some games this season, and Dawkins is back to practice after a neck injury kept him out of the game against the Patriots. His experience and hard-hitting presence in the secondary was definitely missed as tight end Aaron Hernandez gained 129 yards and a touchdown through the air.
Bailey is still a top-level corner who can shut down a side of the field, and the Tim Tebow factor is an interesting motivator for any player.
If things continued the way they were in the beginning of the season, then Dawkins would have retired come the end of it. But now he may want to stick around for one more year of the Tebow era. Bailey either way would have had a year or two left if he stayed healthy.
Hines Ward (35)
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Ward’s won two Super Bowls, played in a third and is one of the toughest receivers to ever step on the field.
But he’s been usurped by Antonio Brown and has been a nonfactor in the passing game, which has moved toward faster younger players.
Still an effective blocker, Ward could win one more title, but either way he’ll be retired after the season is over.
Peyton Manning (35) & Jeff Saturday (36)
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Manning’s started more games with Saturday than with Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison.
And even if the Colts draft Andrew Luck, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Manning return. A talented young quarterback learning under a record-setting veteran worked perfectly in Green Bay, and it’s likely the same will be done in Indy. Pencil Manning in for a few more seasons.
Saturday’s remained healthy throughout his career, but he’s in the last year of a three-year contract, originally intended for him to finish as a Colt. Having an experienced center is helpful for quarterbacks of any age, so Saturday can both help Manning return or help Luck learn the ropes. He may stick around for one more year.
Donovan McNabb (35)
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McNabb was replaced by Christian Ponder and then waived by Minnesota.
Since then no team has taken a chance on him, even though multiple starting quarterbacks have gone down with injuries. Instead, teams like the Bears and Texans have decided to push forward with their young backups.
The former No. 2 pick is 17th all time in passing yards, but it looks like it’s too late in the year for McNabb to get with another team. If he doesn’t find a new home once April starts and the rookie QBs get drafted, McNabb will probably be done.
Ray Lewis (36)
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The Ravens were careful with his turf toe, which kept him out of multiple games. Now healthy Lewis has gotten right back to business with 10 tackles (nine solo) against San Diego. He is now 13 tackles away from reaching 2,000 for his career (via pro-football-reference.com).
He still plays at an elite level, which he has sustained for 15-plus years, but the toll on his body has to be wearing on him. His work ethic and conditioning can keep his body going for some time, but he will only want to play at his best, meaning Lewis may retire, rather than slowly fade away.
I really hope this isn’t his last season, but I’ve been on Ray Lewis retirement watch every recent offseason. And with the team contending for a Super Bowl, Lewis may give everything he’s got left for a final run. If the Ravens reach the big game, retiring as a champion would be fitting for the Hall of Famer.