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NFL offensive tackles and the age-wall

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What does history tell us about whether or not the Broncos should spend big money on Andrew Whitworth?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

At the urging of a few other staffers, I’ve decided to turn this into a full article. With the release of Russell Okung yesterday, there is a distinct possibility that the Denver Broncos will end up with 36 year old, Andrew Whitworth, as their starting LT next season. Whitworth was still playing a high level in 2016. He made the Pro-Bowl and was PFF’s second best LT in the league last season. He was 1st team All-Pro in 2015 and second team All-Pro in 2014. He had made the Pro-Bowl three times and been 1st team All-Pro once during his eleven seasons in the NFL. By every measure, he was one of the best left tackles in the league in 2016. The question is how long can he be expected to maintain that level of play given his age?

Andrew Whitworth was born on December 12, 1981. At the start of next season he will be closer to 36 years old than 35. He will turn 36 during the season. Why should this bother you, because the list of NFL offensive tackles who have played well at that age is maddeningly short. There are two, Gary Zimmerman and Jackie Slater, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame. So let’s look at the career arc of those two offensive tackles and then some others to get a feel for when elite offensive tackles start to decline.

Those who beat the age-wall

Jackie Slater was not a LT. He played RT for his entire career which was spent with the Rams. Jackie Slater was a freak of nature. Born in 1954, he was able to block defenders who were almost half his age near the end of his career. He was drafted in 1976 out of Jackson State and played 20 NFL seasons, but he didn’t become a full-time starter until his 4th NFL season in 1979. He was never a 1st team All-Pro, but he made the Pro-Bowl seven times, the first time being in 1983. He played in 259 NFL games. His decline started in 1993 at the age of 38 when he suffered an injury that cost him half the season. He would play another three NFL seasons, but he was a shadow of the player that he once had been playing only 16 total games in his final three NFL seasons. He retired after playing in one game in 1995. In his final NFL game he was 41 years and 169 days old. In all of my research I was unable to find another offensive lineman who either played this long, or was playing as well after the age of 35.

Gary Zimmerman is the other example of an offensive tackle who played at a high level into his mid-30s. Zimmerman was born on December 13, 1961 and was taken third overall in the 1984 NFL supplemental draft by the Giants. He would never play for the Giants though as he spent the majority of his career with the Vikings. He was an immediate starter once he got into the NFL, but he didn’t play in his first NFL game until 1986. He finishing his career with seven Pro Bowl selections. He was named 1st team All-Pro three times - the last of which was after the 1996 season with the Broncos. He was very durable only missing 8 NFL games in his 12 year NFL career. We can argue if he was in decline in his final season in the league, 1997. He failed to make the Pro-Bowl that year after making it to the Pro Bowl in four of the previous 5 seasons. However, even if you don’t think that his play was waning, he apparently thought it was as he chose to retire after our Super Bowl victory. Zimmerman was 36 years and 43 days old when he played in Super Bowl 32, his final NFL game.

Age-wall victims

So let’s look at some other elite and very good NFL offensive tackles who are (mostly) no longer playing to see at what age their decline started.

Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz had his decline start at the age of 32 in 1991. Muoz was the 3rd overall selection in the 1980 draft. He was an immediate starter for the Bengals. He was retired after the 1992 season. There were only two years when he did NOT make the Pro Bowl – his rookie year and his final year in the league. He was selected to the Pro Bowl eleven times and he was a nine time 1st team All-Pro LT. He missed 8 games during his final NFL season. He was 34 years and 130 days old when he played his final NFL game. Munoz only missed 17 regulars season games during his 13 years NFL career. He arguable could have played longer, but he felt that he had nothing left to prove in the NFL. He was such an amazing athlete that he was used as a goal-line receiver, finishing his career with 4 receiving TDs on 7 catches.

Jake Long (Vikings) was the first overall pick in the NFL draft by the Dolphins in 2008. He was an immediate starter and made the Pro-Bowl in his first four NFL seasons. He was named 1st team Al-Pro once. His decline started at the age of 29 in 2013. He is currently 31 and has only started three games in the last two seasons. His knees are to blame for his decline as he has had multiple ACL tears.

Walter Jones was the 6th overall pick in the NFL draft in 1997 by the Seahawks. He started 12 games as a rookie and we a full-time starter in his second year. He made his first of 9 Pro Bowls in his third season, 1999. He was named first team All-Pro four times and he is in the Hall of Fame. He had his decline start at the age of 34 in 2008 - his final season in the NFL. His decline was rapid as he was a 1st team All-Pro in 2007. Jones only missed 8 games during his twelve year NFL career and was named to the Pro Bowl after 2008 which would be his final NFL season, but half of those eight games were in his final NFL season. His 2008 season was cut short due to a knee injury that would end his NFL career.

Matt Light was a second round pick of the Patriots in 2001 and an immediate starter at LT for them as a rookie. He would be named 1st team All-Pro one time (2007_ and he would make the Pro Bowl three times during his career. His decline with the Patriots started at 32 in 2010. He retired after in 2011, so his decline was very rapid. He started 15 games for the P*ts in 2011 and then retired after the season. After he retired he revealed that he had battled a debilitating disease (Crohn’s disease) for over a decade and that he could no longer deal with the disease and playing in the NFL.

Jonathan Ogden was the 4th overall pick in the NFL draft in 1996. He was an immediate starter as a rookie - starting all 16 games and he made his first Pro Bowl in 1997. He was also named 1st to All-Po following the 1997 season. He made 1st team All-Pro four times and was named to the Pro Bowl eleven times. His "decline" happened at the age of 33 in 2007. The Ravens’ LT was still playing in 2007 and made the Pro Bowl that season despite only staring 10 games. He was slowed by a toe injury. In his final season he only started 10 games (appearing in 11). He had battled the toe injury all year and he decided that he had nothing left to prove in the NFL. He was 33 years and 156 days old during his final NFL game. Given his statement, it’s possible that he could have played longer and still played at a high level, but he no longer wanted to. His decline may not have happened prior to his retirement, but we will never know.

Hall of Famer Willie Roaf was the 8th overall pick of the Saints in 1993. Like most of the tackles he was an immediate starter and made his first Pro Bowl in 1994. He was also named 1st team All-Pro in 1994. He would be selected to 11 Pro Bowls during his career and he would be named 1st team All-Pro three times. His decline started in 2005 at the age of 35. He was named 1st team All-Pro in 2004 while playing for the Chiefs. His 2005 season was cut short with injuries as he only played in 10 games, but he was still named to the Pro Bowl. Various nagging injuries slowed him and hurt his performance in his final season. He chose to retire rather than play at a diminished level. He probably could have played longer. He was 35 years and 258 days old during his final NFL game in 2005. Multiple teams tried to get him to come back for one more season in 2006 and 2007.

Orlando Pace was the first overall pick in the NFL draft in 1997 and an immediate 16 game starter for the Rams. He would make his first Pro Bowl in his third NFl season 1999. He would also be named 1st team All-Pro for the first time that year. Pace would make the Pro Bowl seven times during his career and would be named 1st team All-Pro three times - the last being in 2003. His decline really started in 2006 at the age of 31. He only played in eight games that season due to a knee injury. Then he re-injured his knee during the opening game of the season in 2007. He played through the 2009 season, but he was never an elite LT after 2005. He would play his last NFL game at the age of 34 years and 24 days old.

Tra Thomas never made 1st team All Pro, but he did make the Pro Bowl three times. He was drafted 11th overall in 1998 and was an immediate 16 game starter for the Eagles. His decline started at 33 in 2007, and he retired after the 2009 season. He was almost 35 years old when he retired. He was 34 years and 360 days old during his final NFL game in 2009 when he couldn’t make it as a starter for the Jaguars. He was brought in to be the veteran insurance plan in case #8 overall Pick Eugene Monroe was not ready to be a starter as a rookie at LT in the NFL. Monroe was a bust because, despite his draft status, he has failed to lock down a starting tackle position in the NFL for more than a season and has only started 16 games once during his NFL career.

Chris Samuels made the Pro Bowl six times but was never 1st team All Pro. He was drafted third overall in 2000. Samuels was an immediate starter in Washington and would make his first Pro Bowl in his second season, 2001. His decline started at 31 in 2008, he was done after the 2009 season. He hurt his knee during the 2008 season and missed 4 games. He would injure his neck in 2009 and retire after the 2009 season after playing only five games in that season. He was 32 years and 68 days old when he played his last NFL game.

Michael Roos was the 41st overall pick by the Titans in the 2005 draft. He was an immediate starter at LT and RT for them as a rookie. He made the Pro Bowl and 1st team All Pro only once (2008). His decline happened in 2014 at 32. Prior to the 2013 season Roos had only missed one regular season game during his NFL career. He only played in five game in 2014 before he missed the rest of the season with a knee injury. He was retired after the 2014 season. Roos decided to retire instead of risking permanent damage to his body. He most likely could have played longer, but he also was never really in the same class as the rest of the tackles in this article. He was exactly 32 years old when he played in his last NFL game (what a crappy way to celebrate your 32nd birthday).

Conclusion

There are instances of offensive tackles continuing to play at a high level in their mid 30s, but they are few and far between. Most elite offensive tackles start to decline at roughly the age of 32 if they haven’t already. At that point most of these men have been playing tackle football for 25 or more years. I can tell you from personal experience (I played center and guard in college) that playing on the line has a cumulative detrimental effect on your body. I’m sure that there are elite tackles that I have overlooked. Please sound off in the comments with anyone that I have missed and I will respond with the same type of analysis that I applied to the guys in this article.

While Andrew Whitworth is now the best option for the Broncos at LT, even if his level of play drops off a little in 2017, the front office needs to get him on a very short deal similar to what John Elway was able to do with Evan Mathis in 2015 (one-year incentive laden deal).