NFL Stars Most Likely to Hang It Up After This Season
Most NFL players identify their dreams at a young age, playing catch in the backyard as children, going to football camps and sharpening their skills as collegiate athletes. So, we can understand why it's difficult to walk away from the game.
Nonetheless, Father Time ages everyone. Some players never lose the passion to play, but their bodies wear down because of the physical demand. Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was in tears when he announced his retirement in August at 29 years old.
"I know my journey has had some ups and downs, and physically it has taken its toll over the last four years, and that is why I'm here [retiring]. And the mental and emotional toll that takes as well," Luck said.
In many cases, teams stop calling a player's agent when the client shows a significant drop-off in production. Without a market, the player will struggle to land a roster spot, especially in the late stages of their career.
As the season winds down, we'll take a look at stars and notable players around the league and provide context as to why they may retire when the 2019 campaign ends.
We'll avoid veterans who unretired to suit up for one more season such as tight end Jason Witten and center Ryan Kalil. Who hasn't experienced life after football and sits on the fence about their short-term future?
QB Eli Manning, New York Giants
After a 2004 draft-day trade that flipped No. 1 overall pick Eli Manning and No. 4 selection Philip Rivers, the former spent 16 seasons with the New York Giants. He built a streak of 210 consecutive regular-season starts before former head coach Ben McAdoo benched him for Geno Smith during the 2017 campaign.
Now, Manning's career seems like it's headed to an end. This season, head coach Pat Shurmur opted to start rookie first-rounder Daniel Jones after two weeks.
In a small sample size, Jones has shown enough promise behind a shaky offensive line that ranks 17th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. Unlike Manning, he's also mobile, which allows him to extend plays while under duress.
In Weeks 14 and 15, Manning started for an injured Jones. After his last outing, the longtime veteran walked off the field and met with his wife, Abby, and kids as cameras flashed.
"Hadn't played in a few months," Manning said. "I don't know if I'm gonna play again. So it was pretty obvious why it was important."
The 38-year-old, whose contract expires at the end of the season, may stand on the sideline for the last time at home against the Eagles in Week 17. He made his regular-season debut as a backup versus the rival NFC East team Sept. 12, 2004.
QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
In January, Drew Brees will turn 41 years old, and his contract voids at the end of the league year. The New Orleans Saints may also already have the heir to his starting spot in Teddy Bridgewater, who helped lead the club to a 5-0 record while Brees recovered from thumb surgery.
After his first game back, Brees chose to appreciate the present when asked about his extended time on the sideline, per Glenn Guilbeau of the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.
"I feel like there are a lot of great moments ahead," Brees said. "I'm going to treasure every moment. I'm going to stay in the moment and make the most of it."
The Saints clinched the NFC South title with a win over the Atlanta Falcons on Thanksgiving Day. New Orleans could finish with the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Brees isn't likely thinking about retirement.
On top of that, the outcome of the Saints' season will probably factor into his decision. Like Peyton Manning, he could go out on top with his second Super Bowl victory. Conversely, a disappointing loss may reel him back in for another season.
Brees made an immediate decision to return last year, so we could have an answer soon after the Saints' campaign ends.
QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Other than wideout Julian Edelman and running back James White, Brady doesn't have a reliable target in the passing game, which has hindered his productivity. Through 15 games, he has a career-low QBR (53.1).
In the past, skeptics have prematurely predicted Brady's decline, but he hasn't elevated an average offense this year. And the Patriots shouldn't expect him to do so at 42 years old. Their wide receiver corps features two rookies, N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, a newcomer in Mohamed Sanu Sr. and 39-year-old tight end Ben Watson.
Like Brees', Brady's contract voids at the end of the league year, and like Brees, he isn't looking too far ahead. He talked about retirement on The Greg Hill Show (h/t WEEI's Ryan Hannable) in October.
"For me, it's been good because I am just taking it day by day and I am enjoying what I have," Brady. "I don't know what the future holds, and the great part is, for me, football at this point is all borrowed time."
At his age, Brady understands he's a rarity as a starter in the NFL. Perhaps a seventh ring will finally satisfy his appetite. If he doesn't perform well in the playoffs with average and inexperienced assets around him, the ultra-competitive quarterback may choose to play elsewhere with a better supporting cast.
RB Frank Gore, Buffalo Bills
Through the first eight weeks, Frank Gore opened six games with the starters and performed at a decent level, logging 17 carries for a season-high 109 yards against the Patriots in Week 4. In Week 12, he passed Barry Sanders for third place on the all-time rushing list.
Over the last few weeks, Gore took a backseat to rookie third-rounder Devin Singletary. Furthermore, he has not averaged more than two yards per carry since his record-breaking outing.
In Weeks 13-15, Gore logged 23 attempts for 32 yards. He played just two snaps and didn't get a carry in the Bills' 24-17 loss to the Patriots last week.
During the summer, Gore made a cut-and-dried statement about retirement, per Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News.
"Nah, no, I'm not thinking about it right now," he said. "I'm just going out there every day, trying to compete and try to win a job. If I feel like I can't go out there this year, I'll say, 'Forget it.' If I still think I can go and feel good and [I'm] still enjoying it, I'll go. But right now, I'll just take it one day at a time and see where it goes."
To Gore's credit, he's been a solid asset to the Bills' fifth-ranked rushing offense, but the 36-year-old has shown a steady, notable decline in rushing yards and carries per contest since 2017.
If Gore feels like he's out of gas at the end of the year, his next stop would be Canton.
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Larry Fitzgerald has contemplated retirement in the past, but he's still on the field and making amazing catches. The 36-year-old hasn't been left behind in head coach Kliff Kingsbury's fast-paced offense either. He leads the Arizona Cardinals in receptions (71) and yards (759).
Kingsbury's system could breathe new life into Fitzgerald's career, but the 11-time Pro Bowler isn't ready to make a declarative statement about retirement. Scott Bordow of The Athletic tweeted the wideout's recent thoughts about his future two weeks ago: "It could be. You never know. You never know. I don't give it much thought. I've told you before, I stay in the moment, man. The career will end. When it ends, it end."
Fitzgerald has avoided major injuries during his 16-year career. He hasn't missed more than three regular-season games in any term. So, nagging body ailments won't likely be a major factor in his decision.
Because he's still a reliable asset to the aerial attack, hauling in 69.6 percent of his targets, Fitzgerald could suit up for another season and continue to serve in a lead role. His return may benefit a relatively young wide receiver group. Christian Kirk, who's a consistent starter, turned 23 years old in November. He's played just 24 career games.
If Fitzgerald retires, he'll walk away with the second-most receptions (1,374) and receiving yards (17,038) of all time—behind only Jerry Rice.
TE Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers
In the offseason, Greg Olsen received media job offers from Fox and ESPN, but he committed to suiting up with the Carolina Panthers for the 2019 campaign. While speaking about Luck's retirement, the tight end made a point about leaving the game on his terms.
In the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Olsen had nagging foot issues that cost him 16 games. Apparently, he didn't want injuries to end his career. This year, he's missed only two contests with a concussion.
Olsen, who's no stranger to media work, could transition from his playing career. Furthermore, he can walk away as opposed to limping toward retirement.
The Panthers' offseason moves may play a factor in Olsen's decision. The front office fired former head coach Ron Rivera after Week 13. And according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, team brass will try to trade quarterback Cam Newton.
Will Olsen want to play out the last year of his deal with a new quarterback in another offensive system? Carolina could also release the 34-year-old Olsen to save $8.1 million in cap space, per Over the Cap.
In the case of the latter scenario, tight end Ian Thomas, a 2018 fourth-rounder, would likely see an increased workload. Over the last two terms, he's flashed in Olsen's absence.
If faced with starting a new career or beginning a fresh chapter with his third NFL team, Olsen may be inclined to explore his professional pathway in the media.
EDGE Terrell Suggs, Kansas City Chiefs
After the 2018 season, Terrell Suggs decided to move on from the Baltimore Ravens and sign with the Cardinals. According to USA Today's Jarrett Bell, the seven-time Pro Bowler chose Arizona for reasons beyond X's and O's.
"I always wanted to play for my hometown team at some point, whether it was coming out in the draft or on the back nine," Suggs said
The Chandler and Hamilton high school and Arizona State product had a short stay with the Cardinals, who released him days before their Week 15 outing with the Cleveland Browns. Because the transaction happened after the trade deadline, he went on waivers, and the Kansas City Chiefs claimed him.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Suggs considered not reporting to his new club to try to get back to Baltimore. Nonetheless, he decided to play out the season in Kansas City after a discussion with head coach Andy Reid.
"I was really uncertain about my future last week, but I talked to Coach, and it was a brief conversation and I was like, 'OK,'" Suggs told reporters. "I asked coach, 'I just learned the hard way that a player like me just [doesn't] fit in anywhere."
Despite recording 37 tackles, eight for loss and 5.5 sacks with Arizona, Suggs was no longer a hot commodity at 37 years old. His contract voids five days after the Super Bowl.
At the end of last year, Suggs didn't consider retirement. This season, he was cut after his snap count dropped to 61 percent. The edge-rusher, who's ninth all-time in sacks (138), may contemplate life after the NFL.
LB Lorenzo Alexander, Buffalo Bills
For the first nine years of his career, Lorenzo Alexander played most of his snaps with the special teams unit. Before the 2016 term, he signed with the Bills and experienced a career rebirth under head coach Rex Ryan, who was fired late in that season.
In his first year with the Bills, Alexander recorded 12.5 sacks, 64 tackles, 10 for loss, six pass breakups and an interception, earning his second Pro Bowl berth.
Alexander has continued to play a key role under Sean McDermott and his staff. Last year, he finished third on the team in tackles for loss (11). This season, the 36-year-old tied his single-season high in pass deflections from last year (nine).
Even though Alexander has shown the ability to produce, he seems ready to start the next phase of his life.
In January, the linebacker talked straightforwardly about his future, per Nick Veronica of the Buffalo News:
"If you ask me today, yeah, this is my last year. At some point you've got to eventually walk away from the game and start the second half of your life. Obviously, I've got a lot of life to live and there are other things I want to do. I have four kids that I want to be a part of what they're doing, whether that's Little League sports, dance, soccer, whatever that may look like."
Alexander's contract will expire at the end of the term, so he can simply walk away without leaving money on the table. The 13th-year veteran's career can provide inspiration for other late bloomers.
FS Mike Adams, Houston Texans
In 2004, Mike Adams went undrafted out of Delaware. He spent eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns. For the most part, the New Jersey native served as a backup. He became a full-time starter with the Browns in 2011, then played two seasons with the Denver Broncos before earning two trips to the Pro Bowl in his three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
Adams extended the second half of his career with the Panthers in 2017 and 2018, logging 144 tackles, 16 pass breakups and five interceptions. He's tied for fifth among active players in picks with 30.
When Adams' contract with the Panthers expired after the 2018 campaign, he signed with the Houston Texans—but not until October.
Houston needed help in the secondary, but Adams hasn't carved out a steady role. The 16th-year veteran suffered a concussion in November, but he's played one snap since Week 9, listing as a healthy scratch in recent outings. Jahleel Addae has handled most of the backup work at safety.
At 38 years old, and with just one tackle this season, Adams may hang up his cleats after a long career that included those two standout campaigns with the Colts when he logged five interceptions in back-to-back terms.
K Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis Colts
None of us should be surprised if Adam Vinatieri walks away from the game. For starters, he's going to turn 47 years old Saturday. Secondly, he converted a career-low 68 percent of his field-goal attempts this year. Finally, his season ended because of a knee injury that required surgery, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Since the offseason, Vinatieri had the knee ailment, which may have contributed to his inaccuracy. In addition to his field-goal woes, the 24th-year veteran also missed six of his 28 extra points (78.6 percent).
Early in the season, the Colts tried out kickers, per ESPN's Field Yates, indicating the team contemplated moving on from Vinatieri.
After a 19-17 win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 2, Vinatieri said he would have a discussion with reporters. He missed two extra-point attempts in that game. As retirement rumors floated around, he shared his perspective.
"Sometimes we all need a little time to decompress. I needed a little extra time," Vinatieri told reporters. "Little time to clear my mind.
"I'm going to work this week to get the demons out and be clear-headed on Sunday."
Vinatieri's knee injury and his sharp decline in conversion rate may push him out of the NFL.
On the bright side, Vinatieri holds prestigious records. Last year, he passed Hall of Fame kicker Morten Andersen for most points scored. The Colts kicker has also made the most field goals in history (599). Both records will be hard to break long after he's retired.
Contract information via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.