BEST BY AGES
We love these summer spacefillers, like this from Kevin Seifert at ESPN.com wherein we are reminded that time flies as QB RUSSELL WILSON is 31 and QB MATT RYAN is 34:
Our ranking of the NFL’s best players at each age level serves as a reminder that the league’s best quarterbacks are also its oldest. The best defensive players are all under 29 years old. Here’s the full accounting, which utilized Pro-Football-Reference.com and was based on how old a player will be on Dec. 31, 2019.
Note: Projections for the 2019 season are provided by ESPN’s Mike Clay, and contract details are via Spotrac.
Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers
Clay’s 2019 projection: 47 tackles, 8 sacks – Signed through: 2023
We of course haven’t seen most of the NFL’s 21-year-olds on the field yet, but Bosa was the best position-neutral prospect in the 2019 draft class. Independent of any discussion about his decision to sit out most of last season at Ohio State, there is near-unanimous consensus that he will be a high-level pass-rusher as a rookie. He joins Dee Ford, acquired from the Chiefs, on a rebuilt Niners defensive line.
Runners-up: Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Steelers linebacker Devin Bush and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray all are in position to have strong rookie seasons.
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Clay’s 2019 projection: 2,060 scrimmage yards, 13 touchdowns – Signed through: 2022
After leading the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage in 2018, Barkley will enter his second season in the MVP discussion. The Giants’ decision to move on from wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and the looming quarterback transition from Eli Manning to Daniel Jones leave Barkley as the every-down anchor of their offense. He touched the ball 352 times last season. Is there any doubt he’ll surpass 400 in 2019? (To answer the inevitable question: The NFL’s post-merger record for touches in a 16-game season is 492, by the Buccaneers’ James Wilder in 1984, as a 26-year-old.)
Runners-up: Browns cornerback Denzel Ward made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after intercepting three passes in 13 games, and he’ll enter 2019 with a chance to prove he is a genuine No. 1 cornerback.
Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Clay’s 2019 projection: 101 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions – Signed through: 2022
His position is listed as safety, but James really is an all-around defensive beast. The Chargers smartly used him all over the field in his rookie season. Pro Football Focus charted him with 205 snaps on the defensive line, 418 in the box, 188 at cornerback (slot or outside) and 216 at safety. He could one day challenge Aaron Donald as the best defensive player in the game.
Runners-up: The NFL’s young stars at this age include Broncos pass-rusher Bradley Chubb, Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, Colts offensive lineman Quenton Nelson and Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Clay’s 2019 projection: 4,681 passing yards, 33 TDs, 12 INTs – Signed through: 2021
The reigning MVP beats out a highly competitive field after putting together one of the best seasons for a passer in NFL history. Most exciting for fans: Given the annual twists Chiefs coach Andy Reid employs, along with the NFL’s long career arc for quarterbacks, it’s reasonable to think that Mahomes has 15 more productive seasons left on the field.
Runners-up: Mahomes beat out Jets safety Jamal Adams, Chargers pass-rusher Joey Bosa, Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, Saints tailback Alvin Kamara, Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Clay’s 2019 projection: 796 receiving yards, 5 TDs – Signed through: 2019
Hill’s speed, deep instincts and versatility make him a transcendent player in this era when it comes to athletic talent. Pro Football Focus credited him with 796 receiving yards on throws that targeted him at least 20 yards downfield, by far the most in the NFL in at least the past 14 seasons. Whether it is on deep throws, quick strikes in the slot or jet sweeps, Hill is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Off-field issues, most recently an investigation into injuries suffered by his child, threaten his availability for at least part of the 2019 season.
Runners-up: Landon Collins, who signed as a free agent with the Redskins, is arguably the NFL’s top box safety. Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper is a game-changer. So too are running backs Derrick Henry (Titans) and Phillip Lindsay (Broncos), Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones and Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt. Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey took a step back last season, but he has a chance to bounce back in 2019.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
Clay’s 2019 projection: 1,314 receiving yards, 9 TDs – Signed through: 2019
Thomas was virtually uncoverable in 2018, and he is on the cusp of a precedent-setting new contract. He led the league with 125 receptions and dropped only three of the 148 passes thrown in his direction, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. And he has produced incredible career numbers. He is the only player in NFL history to catch more than 300 passes in his first three seasons (321).
Runners-up: This age group is loaded, including pass-rushers Frank Clark (Chiefs) and Jadeveon Clowney (Texans), Buccaneers guard Ali Marpet, Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, 49ers tight end George Kittle, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon and defensive linemen Trey Flowers (Lions) and Grady Jarrett (Falcons). But Thomas was the logical choice.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Clay’s 2019 projection: 1,374 receiving yards, 10 TDs – Signed through: 2022
Both Hopkins and the Browns’ Beckham are elite, transcendent receivers. They were born five months apart, but Hopkins has appeared in 36 more NFL games and has been a far more reliable player. After four seasons of a quarterback mess in Houston, Hopkins’ productivity surged in 2017 upon the arrival of quarterback Watson. He has scored 24 touchdowns in 31 games over that period. Since the start of the 2017 season, Beckham has nine touchdown receptions.
Runners-up: Along with Beckham, this level includes fellow Browns receiver Jarvis Landry, Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and cornerback Byron Jones, Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley and Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.
Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
Clay’s 2019 projection: 60 tackles, 13 sacks – Signed through: 2024
If you strip away positional value, and thus equalize him with quarterbacks, Donald might be left standing as the best player in the NFL — at any age. Pro Football Focus credited him with 113 pressures in 2018, a more eye-popping number than his ridiculous 20.5 sacks, even though he was double-teamed on 61% of his snaps. His fanatical conditioning suggests he is due for several more dominant seasons, for which he will be well compensated. His 2018 contract extension includes an additional $26 million in full guarantees over the next two seasons, on top of the $40 million signing bonus he already has been paid.
Runners-up: Only Donald could overshadow Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, a first-team All-Pro in 2018 whose work is finally being recognized, and Bears linebacker Khalil Mack, who dominated during his first season in Chicago.
Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys
Signed through: 2024
Why does Martin get the nod over teammate Tyron Smith, the Cowboys’ left tackle, as well as Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox? Martin is without question the NFL’s best player at his position, has been named an All-Pro in three of his first five campaigns and should have at least five more seasons of high-level play — and perhaps as many as eight seasons — ahead of him.
Runners-up: In addition to Smith, Peterson and Cox, this age also includes Steelers guard David DeCastro, Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David, Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Clay’s 2019 projection: 4,330 passing yards, 34 TDs, 14 INTs – Signed through: 2021
This age group was one of the toughest to decide, pitting a top-five quarterback against two of the league’s top disruptors. But Luck got the nod over Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt and Broncos edge rusher Von Miller because of position value. The only player more important than a pass-rusher is a quarterback. In completing a career-high 67.3% of his passes in 2018 and throwing for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, Luck demonstrated he is fully recovered from shoulder injuries that dragged him down during 2016 and 2017.
Runners-up: Along with Luck, Watt and Miller, this age group includes Falcons receiver Julio Jones, Ravens safety Earl Thomas, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Clay’s 2019 projection: 3,610 passing yards, 27 TDs, 7 INTs – Signed through: 2023
Even though he threw 22% fewer passes in 2018 as compared with the previous season, Wilson set a career high with 35 touchdown passes and a career low with seven interceptions. That performance suggested Wilson is just hitting his top-end stride as a passer. It also prompted a contract extension that included a $65 million signing bonus and locks up Wilson through his 35th birthday. Given the age trajectory of today’s top quarterbacks, Wilson might be due one more big payday before he retires.
Runners-up: Raiders receiver Antonio Brown, a four-time All-Pro, has something to prove in a new uniform. The Dolphins’ Reshad Jones is one of the NFL’s best safeties. The Redskins’ Trent Williams can still play left tackle at a high level. Receiver A.J. Green’s production for the Bengals remains remarkable. The Bears’ Kyle Long is among the league’s top guards when he is healthy. And Richard Sherman, entering his second season with the 49ers, is still a highly competitive cornerback.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Clay’s 2019 projection: 55 tackles, 5 sacks – Signed through: 2019
With no clear-cut winner among this age group, Suh gets the nod for his durability and still-present disruption skills. He hasn’t missed a game in seven years, and his 845 snaps in 2018 ranked second among all NFL defensive tackles. In other words, his physical conditioning remains elite. Pro Football Focus credited him with 66 quarterback pressures, including the postseason, serving as a reminder that he can still wreck a play when he wants to.
Runners-up: Receiver Emmanuel Sanders caught 71 passes in 12 games last season, prompting the Broncos to pick up a $10 million option on his contract. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins has continued a late-career surge, earning Pro Bowl honors at age 28, 30 and 31. And Redskins cornerback Josh Norman remains a defender who must be accounted for on every play.
Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots
Clay’s 2019 projection: 1,183 receiving yards, 6 TDs – Signed through: 2021
Edelman faced a stiff challenge here from receiver DeSean Jackson, who remains one of the NFL’s best deep threats and has returned to an Eagles offense that caters to his strengths. It’s worth noting that the Patriots made a big play for free-agent slot receiver Adam Humphries, who presumably would have taken a chunk of Edelman’s reps and perhaps his job, but he signed with the Titans, leaving Edelman to continue playing in a scheme that favors the slot receiver and with a quarterback who loves throwing to him. Edelman had 850 receiving yards last season, and he figures to be a big part of the Pats’ aerial attack this season.
Runners-up: In addition to Jackson, defensive end Brandon Graham remains such a consistent and productive player that the Eagles handed him a new contract that fully guarantees nearly $25 million over the next two seasons.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Clay’s 2019 projection: 4,642 passing yards, 33 TDs, 8 INTs – Signed through: 2023
Although his performance has dipped a bit since the Falcons’ 2016 run to the Super Bowl, Ryan remains one of the NFL’s top 10 quarterbacks. He has missed only two starts in his career, both during the 2009 season. There was a time when a 34-year-old quarterback would be nearing retirement, but in this era of the NFL — and with a contract that provides fully guaranteed money into the 2021 season — Ryan and the Falcons have a multiyear horizon to make another Super Bowl march.
Runners-up: Safety Eric Weddle made the Pro Bowl last season in Baltimore and signed on with the Rams for 2019. Tailback Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, returned to the Redskins after putting together his first 1,000-yard season in three years.
Marshal Yanda, G, Baltimore Ravens
Signed through: 2020
Even if he has fallen a bit from the highest level of his career, Yanda remains a Pro Bowl guard — and a likely Hall of Fame selection — who is expected to be a full-time starter in 2019. Playing on a one-year contract, it’s possible that this season will be Yanda’s last. But there is a long history of offensive linemen playing well into their late 30s. Since 1978 — when the NFL expanded to 16-game seasons — there have been 98 instances of players starting every game in a season at either guard, center or tackle after the age of 34.
Runners-up: The 49ers’ Joe Staley signed a two-year contract extension to continue as their left tackle. And two of the NFL’s best kickers — the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski and the Lions’ Matt Prater — also will be 35 this season.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Clay’s 2019 projection: 4,195 passing yards, 32 TDs, 7 INTs – Signed through: 2023
From the perspective of his 56.8 Total QBR, a measure of play in context of game situations, Rodgers had the worst season of his career in 2018 at 35. Was it a sign of injuries catching up — and a reminder that it’s historically rare for quarterbacks to play at an elite level into their late 30s? Or will Rodgers return his play to previous standards under new coach Matt LaFleur? Rodgers’ performance is one of the biggest storylines in the NFL entering this season. His most recent contract extension, signed last summer, will make it difficult for the Packers to move on — if they even wanted to — before the 2021 season.
Runners-up: Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who hasn’t missed a game since the age of 31, has returned for a season in new coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. Meanwhile, Frank Gore (Bills) is hoping to become one of three running backs in NFL history to rush for more than 500 yards at 36 or older.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Clay’s 2019 projection: 4,739 passing yards, 29 TDs, 16 INTs – Signed through: 2021
Playing without tailback Le’Veon Bell in 2018, the Steelers asked their quarterback to carry the offense. At 36, Roethlisberger led the NFL in attempts (675), completions (452), yards per game (320.1) and — yikes — interceptions (16). The Steelers thought enough of that performance to give Roethlisberger a $37.5 million signing bonus, a sign that they view him as their starter for at least the next two seasons. Even at 37, Roethlisberger will only be the NFL’s fourth-oldest starting quarterback this season.
Runners-up: Pass-rushers Terrell Suggs (Cardinals) and Cameron Wake (Titans) both moved to new teams this offseason, but both can still be a force on the edge when used at the appropriate times.
Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
Clay’s 2019 projection: 4,237 passing yards, 29 TDs, 12 INTs – Signed through: 2019
Rivers had one of the best seasons of his career, based on QBR (71.2), in leading the Chargers to the AFC Championship Game. His passes were as accurate as ever (68.2 completion percentage), and his ability to perform under pressure remained strong. As his contract nears its postseason expiration, it’s difficult to imagine the Chargers wanting to move on just yet. They opted against drafting an heir apparent — fifth-rounder Easton Stick is more likely a multipositional player — and Los Angeles will instead enter the season with veteran Tyrod Taylor as its backup QB.
Runners-up: The Rams’ Andrew Whitworth remains an upper-level left tackle.
Benjamin Watson, TE, New England Patriots
Clay’s 2019 projection: 283 receiving yards, 2 TDs – Signed through: 2019
Runners-up: No other rostered player will be 39 years old when the season ends.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Clay’s 2019 projection: 4,265 passing yards, 29 TDs, 8 INTs – Signed through: 2019
Runners-up: Brees is the only 40-year-old rostered player at the moment.
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Clay’s 2019 projection: 4,346 passing yards, 28 TDs, 11 INTs – Signed through: 2019
Runners-up: There are no others like Brady at this age.
Adam Vinatieri, K, Indianapolis Colts
Clay’s 2019 projection: 25 of 29 FGs, 44 of 46 PATs – Signed through: 2019
At the moment, there isn’t a single rostered player within four years of the Colts kicker. He signed a new contract after converting 23 of 27 field goal attempts last season, and he has made it clear he will consider playing in 2020 as well. If he does, Vinatieri would tie George Blanda for the oldest player ever to appear in an NFL game. At 48, Blanda attempted 21 field goals and actually threw three passes for the Raiders in 1975.
Runners-up: On the field, and on the list of ages, Vinatieri is in a class of his own.