NFL Nation: 2011 Oldie Goodie

NFC North: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
7/15/11
1:00
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Projecting the best 30-and-over player in my division at the start of the 2014 season:

Many of you were outraged to learn that Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams was not among the nominations for ESPN.com’s Dream Team of Tomorrow. Williams just completed his first full season as a starter, but I bet some of you were surprised to learn that he turned 28 in March.

Fear not. I saved a special place for Williams in this post. He will be 31 at the start of our Dream Team era, and it’s reasonable to think he’ll still be a high-functioning starter at that point, even if his best and fastest days are behind him.

You have to remember, Williams is a new starter but he’s not new to the Packers. His senior season at Louisiana Tech was 2005, and he signed on to the Packers’ practice squad on Nov. 29, 2006. He spent 2007-09 as a backup, rising to the role of nickelback and then replacing an injured Al Harris in late 2009.

I would argue Williams was the Packers’ best defensive back last season, when he was named to the Pro Bowl. Some players reach stardom right away and others are late bloomers. Williams belongs in the latter category, a timetable that leaves him older than most players who have just arrived on the national scene.

Leaving Williams off the Dream Team nomination list was a borderline call, but if anyone in this division is poised for post-30 success, it’s him. He has a clean health history, having never missed a regular-season game, and he plays a low-contact position that offers legitimate hope for success at a relatively advanced age. Williams’ cornerback counterpart with the Packers? It’s Charles Woodson, age 34.

NFC South: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
7/15/11
1:00
PM ET
Projecting the best 30-and-over player in my division by the start of the 2014 season.

When the 2014 season opens, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees will be 35 years old. By then, the guy who has been the NFC South’s best player for the last few years might be closing in on the end of his career.

But Brees still will be one of the best players in the division and there are multiple reasons for that. The guy always has taken good care of himself and should be able to play into his late 30s. The shoulder injury that left his future in question when he was leaving San Diego hasn’t been an issue since he got to New Orleans.

There was some sort of knee injury last season and that might have had something to do with Brees throwing a career-high 22 interceptions. But the knee seemed to be fine as Brees led the Saints through players-only workouts this offseason. This is a guy who’s been at the top of his game from the time he joined the Saints in 2006, and there’s no reason to expect a dramatic fall in the next few seasons.

But that’s not just due to Brees’ talent, conditioning and work ethic. There are other factors that should help him remain a top quarterback into his late 30s. He’s got an offensive line, led by Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, that does a nice job of protecting him, and a slew of receivers, tight ends and running backs who can make things happen after the catch.

In Sean Payton’s offense, everything is tailored to Brees’ strengths. He doesn’t have to run and he doesn’t have to throw the ball 60 yards downfield. His job is to be accurate and spread the ball around to a bunch of different guys who can make plays. Heck, Brees might be able to keep doing that into his 40s.

AFC West: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
7/15/11
1:00
PM ET
Projecting the best 30-and-over player in my division by the start of the 2014 season.

This was not a difficult decision for me.

It had to be Philip Rivers.

I think the San Diego Chargers' quarterback is the best player in the division now, and I think he will still be the best player in the AFC West in September, 2014.

Rivers will be 32 at the start of the 2014 season. He will still be in his prime, and he will still be an elite quarterback.

There really is no other choice. I can see Rivers as a dominant player for the next seven to 10 years. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2004 draft simply has the feel of a quarterback who will succeed in the league for 15 seasons.

His length of dominance will, of course, depend on his durability. Staying healthy has not been a problem -- he has never missed a game in the five seasons he has been the Chargers' starter. He healed famously fast from his lone major injury, an ACL he tore in the 2007 playoffs.

So, I don’t see injuries prematurely ruining Rivers’ career. Rivers and the Chargers will still be extremely relevant in the middle of this decade and beyond.

AFC South: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
7/15/11
1:00
PM ET
Projecting the best 30-and-over player in my division by the start of the 2014 season.

The Texans could have a different management and a different coach in 2014; they could be running a different scheme.

But quarterback Matt Schaub will be three years more experienced and as a 33-year old quarterback with 10 years in the league. I envision him right at the peak of his powers and the most dominant 30-or-over player in the AFC South when that season kicks off.

I think it’s fair to question his mental toughness or ability to produce at the toughest moments based on what he’s done so far. In the same vein, however, I can see him improving in those categories the way he’s improved in durability.

If he does, he could be at a stage where he still has most of his physical prowess when the mental side of things clicks all the way in.

Peyton Manning should be starting to wind down. And odds are reasonable that Jake Locker or Blaine Gabbert will have busted and the other won’t yet be peaking. Schaub could be the best of the division.

I picked him over Colts safety Antoine Bethea, Texans receiver Andre Johnson and Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis. I expect they could all still be quite good in 2014 after they’ve turned 30. Like Schaub, Johnson will actually be 33 at the start of the 2014 season.

NFC West: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
7/15/11
1:00
PM ET
Projecting the best 30-and-over player in my division by the start of the 2014 season.

A quick look through NFC West rosters showed 112 players already in their 30s or scheduled to turn 30 by the first month of the 2014 season.

Larry Fitzgerald and Vernon Davis stood out right away as the ones best positioned to excel at that time. Some of the others with name recognition -- Matt Hasselbeck, Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, Adrian Wilson, Darnell Dockett, Lofa Tatupu, Marcus Trufant -- could be wearing down or out of the league by then.

I'll focus on Davis here because his contract runs through the 2015 season. Fitzgerald's deal runs only through 2011, making him more likely than Davis to depart the NFC West before 2014. Several factors point to sustained production for Davis:
  • Davis could lose a step or two and still rank among the most athletic tight ends of his generation.
  • The 49ers' quarterback play and offensive scheming figure to improve over the next few seasons. Davis, who has 20 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons after an underwhelming start to his career, stands to benefit.
  • Coach Jim Harbaugh values tight ends.
  • Davis' work ethic has always been there. He has matured considerably and that will continue as he ages.

Fitzgerald would overtake Davis as my leading candidate if the Cardinals re-signed him to a long-term agreement. His talent and work ethic should allow him to produce well into his 30s.

AFC North: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
7/15/11
1:00
PM ET
Projecting the best 30-and-over player in my division by the start of the 2014 season.

The NFL is such a year-to-year league that it's hard to predict which veteran players will continue to thrive. Injuries can take a toll on any superstar in his 30s and that player may never be the same.

But the "oldie but goodie" player I predict will still be dominant in the AFC North three years from now is Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 29-year-old will be 32 in 2014, and quarterback is one of the few positions NFL players can still dominate at an advanced age.

Other quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have recently put together some of their best seasons well into their 30s, and there's no indication Roethlisberger couldn't do the same. According to Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Roethlisberger played the best football of his career in 2010, which is a sign the two-time Super Bowl champion is in his prime years.

Health is the only concern for Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh has never put a good offensive line in front of him, and Roethlisberger's been sacked an astounding 221 times the past five seasons. That’s an average of 44.2 sacks per season.

As a result, Roethlisberger has suffered a variety of injuries to his foot, ribs and shoulder. But he's been fortunate to avoid any season-ending ailments. As long as that continues, Roethlisberger should thrive in Pittsburgh for years to come.

NFC East: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
7/15/11
1:00
PM ET
Projecting the best 30-and-over player in the division at the start of the 2014 season.

Of the NFC East players who will turn 30 before the start of the 2014 season, I predict the one that will still be going the strongest is Eli Manning of the New York Giants.

It was no easy call, considering that the current quarterbacks of the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are only one year older than Manning is. And there were, of course, other players and positions to consider. But the rules of today's NFL help quarterbacks first. Manning, like big brother Peyton, doesn't take a lot of sacks. The Giants have surrounded him with good receivers and a good running game and, I assume, will make sure to fix the offensive line before it gets too brittle. I also think Manning has shown steady improvement every year. (And yes, I know about last season's 25 interceptions. I think there's a decent chance that number was an aberration.) He was brought into his starting role the old-fashioned way, learning behind Kurt Warner as a rookie. He won a Super Bowl title as a young man and knows how to handle the pressure of big games and the New York market. He's got the temperament to succeed well into his 30s as long as he stays healthy, and I believe he's in a good position to do so.

Fun exercise. FYI, I also considered the following players (listed with their September 2014 ages): Miles Austin (30), Justin Tuck (31), DeMarcus Ware (32), Chris Cooley (32), Trent Cole (32), Tony Romo (34) and Michael Vick (34).

AFC East: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
7/15/11
1:00
PM ET
Projecting the best 30-and-over player in the division by the start of the 2014 season.

The New York Jets’ Nick Mangold will turn 30 in January 2014. And he will be the best 30-and-older player in the AFC East at the start of the ’14 NFL season.

Tom Brady probably can’t be counted on to be the same elite signal-caller as he is now that far down the road. Jake Long and Darrelle Revis won’t yet be 30 when the 2014 season kicks off. There are a lot of great players in the AFC East, but going with Mangold, the best center in football right now, was an easy selection for me.

Mangold is a player without a weakness right now. He has excellent power and strength, and utilizes those qualities well due to the great leverage and pad level with which he plays. He is a natural knee bender who strikes his opponent on the rise. Mangold also is superb with his hand placement. He moves very well for a center and isn’t a liability in space or getting to the second level to block a smaller man. He shows quickness off the snap and is quick to set in his stance after snapping the football.

Mangold is a fantastic run-blocker and is one of the few centers in the game today who can handle true space-eating 3-4 nose tackles without much assistance. But Mangold also more than holds his own in pass protection against quicker, penetrating defensive tackles or blitzing linebackers. Mangold is tough, finishes his blocks and sets the tone for his entire line. He is smart and very adapt with the line calls and the nuances of the position, while also being very technically sound with his footwork, blocking angles and body position. Again, he really doesn’t have a flaw to his game.

Like any player, as Mangold ages, he is sure to lose some of his athletic gifts. He might not move his feet quite as well. He might not be quite as quick or be able to play quite as low as he does now. But because Mangold is a tenacious student of the game and a tremendous competitor, he will still be an exceptional pivot well into his 30s.

Along with D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Mangold will be an anchor for the Jets this season, in 2014 and maybe quite a while longer.

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