It happens every single season around the NFL. Certain elite-level players find themselves in the midst of regression. If could have started years before only to be magnified during a specific season. Though, as we know with both running backs and wide receivers, it’s something that can also happen in the blink of an eye.
Father Time does not discriminate. He catches up with everyone. Some of the greatest players in NFL history have seen this first hand.
From a wide receiver in the desert who will be calling Canton home soon to a Super Bowl champion the Steel City, here are seven NFL stars likely to fade in 2017.
Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver, Arizona Cardinals
There was a question as to whether Fitzgerald would return for another season in the desert. With 13 years under his belt and a treasure trove of accomplishments to call his own, no one would have blamed the future Hall of Famer if he stepped away from the gridiron.
But for Fitz, there was more to be accomplished. Arizona’s struggles last season left a bitter taste in his mouth. Along with fellow veteran Carson Palmer, the idea of returning for a season to right that wrong seemed to make a lot of sense.
“I’m a year removed from being in a game like this, that’s competitive,” Fitzgerald said back in February. “I got David Johnson. I got Patrick Peterson. I got Tyrann Mathieu, Chandler Jones. All these super-talented guys coming back on this team. I can’t go out on 7-8-1. That’s not how I want to do it.”
Unfortunately, the 33-year-old Fitzgerald showed a steep decline in production last season. Sure he caught a league high 107 passes while putting up a tremendous 71 percent catch rate. The issue here is that Fitz averaged a career-low 9.6 yards per reception. That brought his average yards per target down to an absurdly low 6.8.
He’s no longer capable of stretching the field and keeping defenses honest. As the receiver’s athleticism continues to deteriorate so will his ability to make a huge impact. We have seen it with other great former receivers of Fitzgerald’s kind such as Reggie Wayne and Roddy White in the recent past.
Father Time catches up with you in a more rapid clip at wide receiver than any other position outside of running back. We saw the beginning stages with Fitz last season, and it’s only going to be taken to a whole new level in 2017.
Calais Campbell, defensive line, Jacksonville Jaguars
When Campbell opted to sign with the rebuilding Jaguars rather than join Denver or remain in Arizona, it threw a lot of people for a loop. At 30 years old, he doesn’t have many years remaining in the NFL. Some figured the two-time Pro Bowler would want to contend for a title as his career reaches its twilight.
Apparently, $15 million per season and $30 million guaranteed spoke to Campbell more than a chance to vie for a Lombardi. No one should blame him for that. Heck, most of us would go the same route.
Unfortunately for the nine-year pro, he now goes to a different scheme with a different coaching staff and will be working with other defenders he’s never played with. We’ve seen how this story has played out in the past when it comes to 30-plus year old defensive linemen of Campbell’s pedigree.
How did Jason Taylor’s career turn out when he moved on from the Miami Dolphins to both the Washington Redskins and New York Jets? A combined 15.5 in three years to be exact. That came after Taylor racked up an average of 12 sacks in his final three seasons in South Beach.
It’s a story that has been repeated over and over again. Reggie White and Jared Allen are also prime examples. Veteran defensive linemen — some Hall of Fame caliber — switching teams at the end of the careers. Then, struggling to do anything of substance once they have moved on.
For Campbell, the Hollywood ending here would have been a return to Arizona. Once the Cardinals decided to give Chandler Jones a contract valued at $84 million, that was thrown out the window. Even then, Campbell could have opted for a situation with a better supporting cast. If he’s ultimately tasked with being the primary pass rusher in Jacksonville, it will likely become a downright failure. That’s the harsh reality of the situation here.
Frank Gore, running back, Indianapolis Colts
When is Gore going to actually hit that wall every running back before him has? Here’s a dude that entered last season with over 3,000 career touches under his belt. He responded by recording 1,302 total yards and eight touchdowns for the Colts.
That’s simply absurd given the tread on his tires and his advanced age of 33. It really does speak volumes about Gore’s longevity, something pretty much every great running back before him can’t say.
Gore will now head into the 2017 at the age of 34. To put that into perspective, Carson Wentz was not even a teenager when Gore made his NFL debut with San Francisco back in 2005.
But as with every running back before him in the history of the game, Father Time will surely catch up to Gore. He’s put it off for some time now. He just can’t put it off forever.
Averaging less than four yards per rush since joining the Colts in 2015, signs have been there that show Gore is in the midst of regression. The issue here is that Indianapolis has not had anyone to take the workload away from this future Hall of Famer.
This is something first-year Colts general manager Chris Ballard will surely fix during the 2017 NFL Draft. If so, look for Gore’s production to take a major hit in 2017. The writing is on the wall. It just remains to be seen if Gore can continue to erase it.
Terrell Suggs, linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Much like Gore, we have been waiting for Suggs to hit that wall. Even after coming off an Achilles injury he suffered the previous season, the then 33-year-old Suggs was able to rack up eight sacks for Baltimore in 2016. It was the 10th time in his 14-year NFL career that the future Hall of Famer recorded eight-plus sacks in a season.
Suggs put up his lowest number of total tackles, solo tackles and quarterback pressures in a full season since all the way back in 2003 when he was a wide-eyed rookie. Now a proven veteran with a ton of tread on his tires, this Arizona State product will soon become nothing more than a situational pass rusher.
It’s not necessarily a sad ending to an otherwise brilliant career. We’ve seen the likes of Robert Mathis, John Abraham and Julius Peppers thrive in these situations in the past. There’s no reason to believe Suggs won’t.
However, there surely are indicators that Suggs might be a bit different. Unlike those other top-end pass rushers, he’s been an every-down player throughout the vast majority of his career. Both Mathis and Abraham took on part-time roles around the age Suggs is right now. For Peppers, that role became a paramount theme of his career back in 2011.
None of these players had 14 years in the NFL under their belt when they made that transition. It’s not going to be an easy move for Suggs. And while it might be mitigated to an extent due to last year’s role in Baltimore, there has to be some concern here.
Also important to note, the Ravens have remained viable as an NFL contender because they simply don’t hang on to veterans as key pieces for too long.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the two-best players in franchise history, saw their roles diminish as their careers with the Ravens came to a conclusion. Expect that to happen to Suggs in 2017. This is only magnified for Suggs, who has suffered an Achilles injury an torn biceps in consecutive seasons.
DeSean Jackson, wide receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There’s a bit of a false narrative floating around that Jackson will somehow come to the Buccaneers and act as the deep threat for Jameis Winston. Sure that might happen. In fact, we wouldn’t bet against him stretching the field opposite Mike Evans. There are, however, a few different things working against Jackson here.
The former CAL standout was drafted in the second round by Philadelphia back in 2008 primarily because of his game-breaking ability. It was a level of on-field speed we had not seen from a top-end receiving prospect coming out of college in some time.
Jackson would go on to lead the NFL in yards per reception in three of his first nine seasons, including last year with the Washington Redskins. That lends some credence to the idea that he might be able to repeat this feat for Tampa Bay in 2017.
Not so fast.
Jackson will turn 31 this upcoming season. It wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal if he were capable of being a possession receiver like we’ve seen from other veterans, namely Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
The issue here is that as Jackson’s athleticism diminishes, he doesn’t have what it takes to change his game and to extend his career. Here’s a guy that caught just 56 percent of the passes thrown in his direction last season. To put that into perspective, Kirk Cousins completed passes at a 70 percent clip to the rest of his targets in D.C. during the 2016 campaign.
That tells us a story of someone that has been hit and miss recently. With his speed skills slipping, it will likely be more miss than hit moving forward. Now add in the fact that Jackson will now be catching balls from a quarterback in Jameis Winston that relies on receivers with huge catch radiuses, and there’s definitely cause for alarm here.
Richard Sherman, cornerback, Seattle Seahawks
Earl Thomas. We cannot emphasize just how much this All Pro safety has meant for Seattle throughout is career. And for Sherman in particular.
Once Thomas went down with a season-ending injury 11 games in last year, the Seahawks’ defense simply wasn’t the same. Postseason included, this unit gave up 30-plus points in three of its final seven games. For comparison’s sake, the Seahawks yielded 30-plus points three times in their last 29 games with Thomas on the field.
For his part, Sherman’s ability to be a dynamic shutdown guy surely took a hit. We saw how a watered-down Brandon Marshall took him to school during a Week 4 game against a bad Jets team. That came with Thomas on the field helping out on the back end. We also saw Sherman brutalized to an extent in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against the Atlanta Falcons.
Overall, Sherman’s performance throughout the 2016 season was nowhere near up to snuff with most expected from a 28-year-old corner who was seemingly entering his prime.
While Thomas seems to be on track to return next season, there’s no telling whether his leg injury will impact him initially. Remember, he’s a true center-fielder in the secondary. Even a minimal amount of regression in terms of coverage speed will impact Seattle’s Legion of Boom in a big way.
The soon-to-be 29-year-old Sherman has yet to have to work through dominating opposing receivers without elite-level help in the back end. When he was tasked with this last year, the five-time Pro Bowler simply wasn’t his normal self. All this is magnified even further should the Seahawks trade Sherman to a lesser team, as has been bandied about recently (more on that here).
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers
Proof has been in the pudding for some time regarding Big Ben. Heck, the future Hall of Famer has contemplated hanging them up completely.
At 35 years old and with myriad of injury issues in the recent past, Roethlisberger simply isn’t the same quarterback that led his Steelers to two Super Bowl appearances earlier in his career. It’s nature. It’s Father Time.
Interestingly enough, Pittsburgh is no longer asking Big Ben to be the primary force on offense. Instead, that role goes to all-everything running back Le’Veon Bell. Here’s a dude that put up 1,884 total yards on 336 touches in just 12 games last season.
To put this into perspective, Bell accounted for 31 percent of Pittsburgh’s total yards and touched the ball 33 percent of the time. Did we mention he sat out four games? It goes without saying that Pittsburgh’s offense now runs through Bell (quite literally).
This in and of itself will lead to Big Ben’s numbers and importance fading as time moves on. Now add in the fact that he’s accounted for 29 interceptions over the past two seasons after putting up 31 in the three years prior to that and there’s surely reason to believe continued regression will be the name of the game.