A good pass rusher works like a lumberjack, delivering continuous blows with the ax until the tree comes crashing down. In their prime, it can breed a lavish lifestyle, with the potential to earn $100 million salaries or Super Bowl MVP trophies.
But they’re all playing on a play clock otherwise known as age. The job of a pass rusher is to be unrelenting, but some day, they all must relent.
With the skill in such high demand, teams often look for ways to get the most out of a pass rusher running on less juice than before. Rather than break the bank for a big name, they’ll try to extend a savvy vet as far as his effectiveness can go.
The Broncos are a case in point. In February, they overcame some of the league’s worst quarterback play to win the Super Bowl behind a rush for the ages. Von Miller might have gotten the MVP trophy and a $114 million contract for his harassment of league MVP Cam Newton, but only slightly less devastating to the Panthers offense was his 33-year-old partner in crime, DeMarcus Ware.
A four-time First-Team All-Pro, Ware is one of a handful of aging pass rushers teams will be counting on this season. They’ll all hope their aging warriors can perform more like John Abraham, who averaged 11 sacks a season with the Falcons and Cardinals from age 32 through 35, and less like Jared Allen, whose skills ran dry with the Bears before his contract did.
The necessity of staying old
The list of teams relying on thirtysomethings to key their pass rush this season includes almost half the league:
- Steelers: OLB James Harrison (38)
- Packers: OLB Julius Peppers (36) and ILB Clay Matthews (30)
- Dolphins: DE Cameron Wake (36) and DE Mario Williams (31)
- Falcons: DE Dwight Freeney (36)
- Colts: DE Robert Mathis (35)
- Broncos: OLB Ware (34)
- Ravens: OLB Terrell Suggs (33) and OLB Elvis Dumervil (32)
- Chiefs: OLB Tamba Hali (32)
- 49ers: OLB Ahmad Brooks (32)
- Rams: DE William Hayes (31)
- Patriots: DE Chris Long (31)
- Buccaneers: DE Robert Ayers (30)
- Panthers: DE Charles Johnson (30)
- Seahawks: DE Michael Bennett (30), DE Cliff Avril (30)
- Browns: OLB Paul Kruger (30)
The ideal scenario for a team is to draft a promising pass rusher and develop him into a force. But the window to win in the NFL can be a tight one, and few positions need grooming quite like lifelong 4-3 players converting to 3-4 roles, or interior linemen who find far better athleticism across the line at the pro level.
Meanwhile, young pass rushers who develop into stars are starting to price many teams out. Headlined by 27-year-old Miller and 25-year-old Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who signed the two richest non-quarterback deals in NFL history, a total of five pass rushers have netted contracts exceeding $40 million guaranteed so far in 2016.
As an affordable alternative, teams pounce on household names who are clearly losing a step. They aren’t game-wreckers, but they could be bargains. In the same offseason when Miller collected $70 million in guaranteed money, veterans such as Dwight Freeney and Chris Long each signed on to play with new teams for only the promise of $1 million.
For the player and the team, relying on aging legs to fill an athletic role is a calculated risk.
How can it work?
It’s all a game of asking a veteran to offer what he still can and not what his body won’t let him.
The Arizona Cardinals have perhaps been best at winning the gamble since Bruce Arians took over as head coach, with Abraham leading the team with 11.5 sacks in 2013 and Freeney doing the same with 8 sacks last season. Both were 35-year-old street signings.
Arizona’s plans for the two were different, with Abraham commanding 79 percent of snaps in 2013 and Freeney just under 25 percent last season. But they also were different types of players. Abraham (133.5 career sacks) was a lankier rush end whose long-term durability preserved his freshness, whereas Freeney (119.5) has built a career around a spin that needed limited reps to remain an asset.
The one constant that aided both players was the scheme. The Cardinals run a 3-4 base with blitzes from all over, such as double A-gap attacks and rushes from press corners. It creates a layered approach that can make veterans like Freeney or Abraham a cog in the machine rather than the primary rusher counted on to consistently beat the blindside tackle.
A proper support system with scheme and personnel has allowed teams like the Ravens, Broncos and Packers to use veterans without overusing them. It’s what should in theory help the Dolphins this season as they pack two thirtysomethings onto the line alongside three-time First-Team All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
It’s a dangerous philosophy to ask more out of a player just as his body starts to offer less. The Ravens fell into the trap last year with Elvis Dumervil. The smaller rush specialist had lost the support system he had in Terrell Suggs, who missed last season with an Achilles tear, and Pernell McPhee, an end-outside linebacker combo who had departed to the Bears in free agency. Even though Dumervil’s snaps increased 20 percent from 2014, his sack total plummeted from 17 to 6.
The same kind of overzealous management took linebacker Paul Kruger from his best season to his worst last year, when the Cleveland Browns started asking him to drop more into coverage. It’s what helped wear down Allen in Chicago, where his $32 million deal and woeful secondary required him to still be near the dominant force he was in Kansas City and Minnesota. When he turned 33, the Bears asked him to rush standing up and cover the flats for the first time in his career.
For veterans like Allen, the NFL’s sack leader in 2007 and 2011, the drive for fame and money roars less than it did when the limbs felt fresh. For some, football eventually becomes a game that’s worth it until it doesn’t physically feel that way any more.
The concern bubbled in him as he entered his final training camp last season.
“I can be humbled. I had seven straight years with 10-plus sacks, so it never occurred to me not to have it,” said Allen, who ranks ninth all-time with 136 sacks. “… Missing games was not something I was accustomed to. Injuries weren’t something I was accustomed to. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I just go out and play.
“So yeah, I learned a lot about myself (in 2014). I thought I was a mentally tough guy, that circumstances weren’t going to get to me, and there were times when circumstances got to me. I focused on, ‘Jiminy Crickets, this is just miserable.’”
He was soon traded Carolina, where he posted 2.5 sacks as a reserve 4-3 end before literally riding off into the sunset.
Some veterans have enjoyed careers of remarkable durability, and that absence of additional bumps and bruises can make them a safer bet as they reach an age other players consider old. Abraham missed just two games between the ages of 29 and 35, and he only stopped challenging for double-digit sacks when a 2014 concussion forced an early-season end to a 15-year career.
Julius Peppers, who turned 36 in January, has played in 204 of 206 possible games over the past 13 seasons. He led the Green Bay Packers to the divisional round of the playoffs last season with a team-high 10.5 sacks as an outside linebacker, a position he didn’t play until he signed with Green Bay in 2014.
Peppers, who is tied with Allen with 136 career sacks, has succeeded in Green Bay in part because his size allows him to still play down on the line, including inside on some third downs. Whereas playing with a hand in the ground has a way of wearing down joints, it also preserves a player’s relative speed by giving him matchups against less athletic linemen.
Strength also outlives speed, which is partly how Justin Smith was able to elevate his career to a perennial Pro Bowl level in San Francisco’s five-technique position, even though he didn’t start playing it until he was 29.
Peppers’ snaps decreased from 74 percent in 2014 to 66 in 2015, just as his sacks increased from 7 to 10.5. Even for durable pass rushers who play with strength, age wins out eventually. Limiting the reps of a veteran rusher can be an effective way of maximizing his effectiveness while also reducing the wear and tear.
In Green Bay, Peppers and rush linebacker Clay Matthews might find that their best asset in the fight against age is each other. In the same way that Arizona’s heavy blitzing alleviated pressure on Abraham and Freeney, Matthews and Peppers aid one another by rushing interchangeably or in unison. Sometimes they overload the same side of the line. At other points, Peppers attacks of the edge and Matthews in the center in an effort to destroy lanes for the quarterback to escape.
Matthews just turned 30 and remains one of the fastest linebackers in the game. Playing him at inside linebacker, as the Packers have done mostly out of necessity the past two seasons, should extend his career by keeping his speed a force for the types of players he’ll rush against.
Other teams will employ their own plans for managing aging pass rushers this season. In Baltimore, expect Dumervil’s run-down snaps to decrease with Suggs back. In Miami, count on the double-teams Mario Williams and Cameron Wake to see to be limited with Suh playing between them. And in Pittsburgh, look for James Harrison to play fewer passing downs as first-round outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Bud DuPreee continue to pick up a complex defense.
The best game plans still can’t fight off injury or some of the self-doubt that comes in a game where some players are starting to retire young. They’re just the best some teams can do to try to keep the axes grinding.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.