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Early retirees add difficult variable to NFL teams' scouting philosophies

INDIANAPOLIS -- When Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead evaluates players, there’s a wrinkle he must increasingly consider.

How long will this player want to play?

“It’s kind of a new movement,” Snead said. “We have discussed it in the back rooms of how you can predict that, which is probably a tough element to predict.”

Historically, most NFL players have retired when forced -- when no team wants to sign them anymore. While that’s still true, an increasing number have voluntarily walked away from the game while there’s still interest in their play.

In the past year, several young players have retired from football, some citing concerns over their health or a lack of a desire to continue to play. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired when he was 24. Former Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker retired at 26. Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch retired after nine NFL seasons but is only 29. Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson is pondering retirement at age 30, though he's still a valuable part of the offense.

It causes a conundrum for teams. While they’ve always wanted players who love football, there is now one more variable as they consider what return they’ll get on their investment.

“We do a lot of psychological profiling,” Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said. “We bring psychologists in to talk to players. A lot of it depends on where are you going to invest in a player. Is it a seventh-round pick or is it a top-five pick? And you do have probably a little bit more time in the top-five picks to make sure those guys are committed and you hope that they get to a second contract.”

Medical concerns are playing a much greater role than in the past. When Borland retired, he told ESPN he was worried about the health of his brain. Today’s players have far more information about the impact of traumatic brain injury than their predecessors.

And scouting is no lock to reveal what a player will feel after playing a few NFL seasons or how his perspective on a long career could change.

“I think every once in a while you’re going to run into those players,” Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. “Borland, if you scouted Borland ... he’s one of those players who would’ve scored off the charts in terms of his passion and his want-to to be a great player. The hardest thing about scouting really is you never truly know what’s in a man’s heart.”

That’s always been an issue to some degree, Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith said. Love of the game is an intangible quality that’s difficult to decipher.

“You can ask about his weight-room ethic, his classroom ethic, how much he studies, how much he works out,” Smith said. “There are behaviors you can look for that gives you the ability to try to predict. But at the end of the day, it’s just a feel when you sit down and talk to a man and look him in his eyes and talk about the sport.”

It’s not a sport that suits everyone -- but it is one that can allow a talented player to earn millions rather quickly. That can create long-term financial stability if handled properly and reduce the need for a player to stick around longer.

“Some people love it more than others,” Snead said. “Some people, it’s who they are even though it’s their job. And through the interview process you figure that out. Because those guys, guess what, they’re usually going to play and play and play until you kick ‘em out. When they’re done, they may coach. They may get into the front office when they realize they can’t live without the sport.”

From a team’s perspective, that’s the ideal kind of player.