NFL Veterans Looking To Stay At A High Level


For many NFL players the end can come very suddenly. One day you’re Priest Holmes, and the next day you’re, “remember that guy?”

However, some NFL stars seem to age like a fine wine, and continue to be productive many years longer than others at their position.  This year we’ll see the final season of one of those players, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith, Sr.

Smith is the kind of guy you’d immediately write off as too small if you were judging him coming out of college. At just 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, it’s no surprise that the former Utah product wasn’t drafted until the third-round of the 2001 NFL Draft.

After his rookie season with the Carolina Panthers, Smith only failed to catch at least 50 balls only twice in his career. Once in 2004, when the durable receiver missed 15 games due to injury, and again in 2010 when he caught only 46 passes.

For a smaller guy who played the game with as much physicality and reckless abandon as he did, Smith has been remarkably durable during his 14-year career. Over the course of those 14 years, he’s only missed 26 games. If you take away the 2004 season which was basically completely lost, he only missed 11 games over 13 years.

Despite his durability and the fact that he looks like he could play another five years, Smith announced this offseason that 2015 would be his last year in the NFL.

The productivity is still there.

Last season, in his first year with the Ravens, Smith caught 79 balls for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns. The 79 receptions is a total that he hasn’t surpassed since 2007, and 15 more than he had a season prior in Carolina.

Last year, Smith became Joe Flacco’s go to guy, and he’ll be even more heavily relied on in 2015, as veteran receiver Torrey Smith bolted for the San Francisco 49ers, and the Ravens have only first-round draft pick Breshad Perriman and a group of virtual unknowns behind him.

For all of Smith’s numbers, when he wraps up his illustrious career at the end of this season, we’ll always be left wondering how many more yards and touchdowns the brash receiver could have racked up if he had been able to play with an elite level quarterback during the prime of his career.

14 years is a long time to play in the NFL, but that’s a milestone that Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson passed three years ago when he transitioned from being one of the best cornerbacks the world had ever seen, into a safety. At the time it seemed like a sign of the end for Woodson, but the transition has gone so well, we may never actually see Woodson retire.

All joking aside, Woodson is about as close to football royalty as one can get. From being a Heisman Trophy winner to a Super Bowl champion, there isn’t much missing from the legacy of one of the more humble and soft-spoken defensive stars this league has ever seen.

If any defensive back deserves to be as brash and loud as so many defensive backs are, it’s Woodson. From being the only defensive player to win the Heisman in recent history, to his accomplishments in the NFL, there is no arguing that the Raiders, then Packers, then Raiders again, cornerback and safety is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and one of the best defensive backs ever.

Like Smith, Woodson’s durability played a huge role in his greatness and longevity. While he missed chunks of a few seasons, he played in at least 15 games in 12 of his 17 NFL seasons, and only missed a total of 30 games over the course of his career.

Somehow, after 238 games, 235 of which he started, 924 tackles, a whopping 60 interceptions and 32 forced fumbles, Woodson still looks like he has a lot left in the tank.

It’s a good thing that the veteran safety seems to have a lot left in the tank heading into 2015, because the Raiders look like a team that could be ready to take the next step, and Woodson’s leadership will be key for a team with so many emerging young stars. With a growing young nucleus of stars like Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and Khalil Mack, the Raiders look like they’re building a solid football team for the first time in a long, long time.

Ok, enough about these physically fit guys extending their greatness. It’s time to give some love to a guy who is going to enter his 12th NFL season while carrying around 325 pounds! Of course, 325 pounds is what Vince Wilfork would like us to believe he’s carrying around, but to those of us with some experience in the girth department, we know that’s likely being a little generous.

Regardless of what the scales actually read when Wilfork hops aboard, the reality is the former first-round pick from Miami is not only a great defensive tackle and football player, the guy is a great athlete.

While the Houston Texans were featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks, we were not only able to witness Wilfork ingratiate himself into Texas culture by rocking some overalls (shirtless) and cowboy boots, but we also got to hear how the big man was schooling punks out on the basketball court.

Wilfork’s skill set is as big as his personality, and anyone who has seen him with a football in his hands understands that this isn’t just some fat guy out there to take up space and open up opportunities for his teammates, he’s a playmaker.

During his 11 NFL seasons, Wilfork has pulled down opposing quarterbacks 16 times for sacks. He’s forced five fumbles, and he’s recovered 12, but nothing he’s done on the defensive side of the ball is as impressive or fun to watch as seeing the 325 pounder (we’ll go with it Vince) pull down an interception and run with the football. Most defensive tackles would be thrilled to walk away from a career having intercepted a single pass, but Wilfork picked off three while a member of the New England Patriots.

Durability has also been a big part of the longevity for Wilfork as it has for Smith and Woodson. He lost 12 games to injury in 2013, but otherwise only missed six games (three games twice) over the course of his career, and he played all 16 games in eight of his 11 NFL seasons. Those are impressive numbers for a guy spending his time in the trenches, especially at nose tackle where he spent many years.

This year, the 11-year vet will have an opportunity to be part of something special if everyone can stay healthy in Houston. Wilfork, safety Raheem Moore, and second-round draft pick Benardrick McKinney will be added to a defense that already boasted the best defensive player in the world, J.J. Watt, and is hoping to see big years out of returning players like Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing. If everyone is healthy and firing on all cylinders, the Texans defense will be scary.

The NFL is a young man’s game, where 30 is old for most, and the death knell for running backs. Just don’t tell these guys who have kept thriving long into their NFL careers. These three stars may be long in the tooth, but they’re not short on talent or drive.

About Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan has covered the NFL for almost a decade and is a host and producer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio flagship 620WDAE/95.3FM. Pat covers the NFC South and NFC East for Football Insiders. Follow him on Twitter, @PatDonovanNFL.