The NFL world might have been shocked by a run of retirements by San Francisco 49ers players Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis last year, and again by Calvin Johnson's plans to retire this offseason, but the decision by New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo to hang up his cleats shouldn't be met with the same gasps.
Mayo, who turns 30 next week, isn't the same player that he was over the first five seasons of his career (2008-2012), when he validated his selection as the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft by earning NFL defensive rookie of the year honors and, later, two Pro Bowl nods. His body has been broken down by injuries over the past three seasons, including a pair of season-ending injuries in 2013 and 2014, and even when he was healthy at points this past season, his role in the Patriots' defense was reduced.
With that in mind, the possibility of Mayo calling it a career had been floated in recent weeks, so it shouldn't catch many off guard. Mayo's career has simply run its course.
Nearly eight years ago, Mayo entered the NFL with such maturity, leadership and reliability that his teammates dubbed him an "old soul." Even as a 22-year-old rookie in 2008, he walked through the locker room with the look of a grizzled veteran.
"That guy was born with facial hair," former teammate Gary Guyton said in 2009. "Only guy I know that was born with facial hair."
Mayo was the third-oldest Patriots defender under contract for next season, younger only than defensive end Rob Ninkovich and defensive tackle Alan Branch. At this point in his career, he was not only an "old soul," but an old body, as well.
Once tapped as a more athletic replacement for Tedy Bruschi when the longtime Patriots linebacker was nearing the end of his career in New England, Mayo was the victim of the same sort of youth movement several years later when Dont'a Hightower (first round, 2012) and Jamie Collins (second round, 2013) took on larger roles.
Mayo played in 96 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps in 2012 before a pectoral injury in 2013 and a knee injury in 2014 took tolls on his body. Even though he returned in 2015 to play in all 16 games, his playing time dropped dramatically. He was on the field for 36 percent of defensive snaps, considerably less than both Collins (71 percent) and Hightower (54 percent), even though both of those players missed time due to either injury or illness. The Patriots also worked Jonathan Freeny (35 percent of snaps) into the mix, sometimes in place of Mayo.
Even as Mayo wore down physically, he remained one of the most well-respected players in the locker room, as safety Devin McCourty made clear in an Instagram post:
Can't imagine playing a season without this guy @jerod_mayo51 ...can't thank him enough for what he's done to help my career and help me as a man. Been a blessing how teammates turn to brothers...one of the greatest Patriots to lace the cleats up...I gotta come hit the basement with the Fam...always I appreciate you and @mrsmayo51 adopting me LOL -Dmac
And as Chandler Jones added on Twitter:
— Chandler Jones (@Chan95Jones) February 17, 2016
Mayo was also a career-long favorite of coach Bill Belichick, who has long sought players with Mayo's work ethic and intelligence in running the defense on the field. It would hardly be a shock if, at some point down the road, Mayo and Belichick explored the possibility of working together as coaches.
What was clear was that Mayo wasn't likely to be in the team's plans next season at his high $11.4 million cap number, the second-highest on the team after quarterback Tom Brady ($15 million). Even restructuring his contract last offseason after the back-to-back season-ending injuries, the cost to keep Mayo was too high for a team tight on salary-cap space and flush with younger options at linebacker.
We don't know for sure if the Patriots had informed Mayo that they intended to move forward without him, but it wouldn't be surprising given the circumstances, nor is Mayo's decision to retire.
Mayo entered the NFL with the look of a five-year veteran -- he was named a captain in only his second season -- and now the "old soul" will exit the game with all of the wisdom of a player who spent decades in the league.