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The age-wall for defensive backs in the NFL

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A.J. Bouye will be 29 at the start of the 2020 season. How long can we expect him to be an above average CB in the NFL?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Pro-football-reference.com now has free access to data on pass coverage for defenders from the 2018 and 2019 seasons (PFF has similar data but it is behind their pay-wall).

One of the nice things about the PFR data is that it shows the age of the players at the start of the season. There were 273 players who had enough coverage snaps to qualify in 2018 and 263 players in 2019. In 2018, 37 of those players were 30 years old or older. In 2019, 32 of them were 30 years old or older.

This got me wondering about how long “old” defensive backs can continue to play well in the NFL?

Chris Harris jr. will most likely be playing for a new team in 2020. He will be 31 at the start of the 2020 season. Hall-of-Famers Darrell Green and Rod Woodson are the guys everyone cites when the discussion of holding off Father Time for NFL defensive backs comes up.

Green was an AllPro at the age of 31 and made the Pro Bowl at the ages of 30, 31, 36 and 37 as a corneback. He started 16 games for Washington at the age of 39. He then was able to play three more season as a their CB3 at the ages of 40, 41 and 42. Green was a freak of nature.

Similarly Rod Woodson was able to play extremely well late into his 30s. He was 38 in his final NFL season. He made All Pro as a safety the year before at the age of 37. He was still playing CB until he was 33 and then made the switch to safety. He made the Pro Bowl at the age of 31, 34, 35, 36 and 37. Rod Woodson was also a freak of nature.

The oldest defensive back in the league in 2018 was former Bronco Mike Adams, who was 37. The oldest defensive back int he league in 2019 was Tramon Williams, who was 36. The best defensive back in the league in 2019 in terms of passer rating allowed was Earl Thomas. He was 30 and allowed a passer rating of 24.2. The best “old” CB was Jason McCourtey, who was CB1 for that elite pass defense in New England. McCourtey allowed a passer rating of 54.7 at the age of 32. His brother, also 32 and also playing for the Patriots, allowed a passer rating of 61.0.

So guys can continue to be elite defensive backs in the NFL after the ago of 30, but the question remains - for how long?

In 2019, there were only 20 defensive backs who primarily played CB over the age of 30 (19 if you exclude Kareem Jackson). Interestingly enough, two of them made the Pro Bowl, Richard Sherman and Joe Haden. Both were elite still as coverage corners, so they both deserved the honor.

By passer rating allowed, Chris Harris was 16th out of those 19 “old” CBs in 2019. Only former Bronco Aqib Talib, Dre KirkPatrick and Josh Norman were worse. Recently released, Prince Amukamara, who has been discussed as a free agent for the Broncos, was also pretty bad in 2019. He was pretty good in 2018 for the Bears, and his play dropped off considerably in 2019 as did much of that Fangio-led Bears defense that got them to 12 wins and into the playoffs in 2018.

Tramon Williams and Jonathan Joseph should be encouraging to those who hope that Chris Harris Jr. and A.J. Bouye can both return to their elite form in 2020 after the age of 30. Both Williams and Joseph continue to play well at CB in their mid-30s.

That being said, there are many many CBs who can’t. Williams and Joseph (and Darrell Green) are the exceptions. It should also be noted that Tramon Williams was much worse in 2018 at the age of 35 than he was in 2019 at the age of 36. Williams allowed a passer rating of 114.1 in 2018 and only 79.3 in 2019. I’m not sure how much of that was how he was used in 2018 versus 2019. He was listed as starting 16 games in 2018 and he is only listed as the starter for 7 games in 2019, so he might have moved from CB2 to CB3, allowing him to better use his veteran guile to compensate for his “aging” legs.

Poll

Will A.J. Bouye return to his 2018 form while playing for the 2020 Broncos?

This poll is closed

  • 82%
    Yes - he was misused in 2019 in JAX
    (560 votes)
  • 17%
    No - he has hit the age-wall and he can no longer be an effective outside CB in the NFL
    (122 votes)
682 votes total Vote Now