Everything that goes up, must come down, and all stars eventually fade.
Every year, some of the most recognizable NFL stars end up succumbing to the laws of nature in this way. So, who’s going to see his star begin to (or in some cases continue to) fade in 2018?
We’ve got some ideas.
Joe Flacco, quarterback, Baltimore Ravens
Flacco has steadily been losing energy as a star in this league since he inked his massive contract following his incredible run up to and through Super Bowl XLVII. At the time, it was understandable that Baltimore had to pay him, because his postseason run was truly legendary. Since then, however, he’s averaged just under 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions per year, and the Ravens have made it to the playoffs just once.
Now the Ravens have a young stud quarterback in Lamar Jackson waiting in the wings. And based on all that’s been written about how incredible he’s been already as a rookie, John Harbaugh and Co. are going to need to see a lot out of Flacco to keep him in the starting lineup. This could certainly be the year that Flacco is supplanted, and after that, it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever be viewed as anything more than a backup.
LeSean McCoy, running back, Buffalo Bills
McCoy turns 30 in July. That number tends to be a death knell for many elite NFL running backs who’ve made it that far, and McCoy has a ton of mileage on his body already. During his nine-year NFL career, McCoy has carried the ball 2,185 times and has caught another 441 passes. Though he’s a shifty back who tends to avoid big hits, he’s still been hit a ton.
So, there’s just the inevitable wear and tear that playing running back in the NFL puts on a body to consider. Then there’s the sad truth that McCoy won’t have much help with a passing game in 2018, and that the Bills are sporting a shaky offensive line right now. It could be a very long season for Shady.
Rob Gronkowski, tight end, New England Patriots
When healthy, there’s nobody in the NFL who can do what Gronk does on a consistent basis. He’s a juggernaut who has caught 76 touchdowns in eight seasons, despite missing significant time due to injury in four of them.
However, part of what makes Gronkowski so special is that, when he’s been on the field in the past, he’s played with a sense of wild abandon, sacrificing his body for the cause in a huge way. Given the way he seriously contemplated retirement this past year after a concussion scare last season, it’s safe to wonder if we’ll ever see Gronk at his juggernaut best again.
Antoine Bethea, safety, Arizona Cardinals
This former sixth-round pick out of Howard has sure come a long way since entering the NFL way back in 2006. He earned a starting role as a rookie and has been a mainstay in the NFL ever since, racking up 168 starts playing for the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers and then last year for the Arizona Cardinals.
An intelligent player who has a nose for the ball, Bethea really had a resurgent 2017 campaign, coming up with five interceptions for Arizona. However, we’re talking about a player who will turn 34 in July, and he’s suffered season-ending torn pectoral injuries two of the past three seasons. As good as he’s been, his body can only take so much abuse, and the Cardinals are getting younger all over the place.
Michael Crabtree, wide receiver, Baltimore Ravens
It’s really difficult to predict how this next chapter will play out for Crabtree now that he’s in Baltimore. He’s a savvy veteran who’s gotten by more due to his ability to out-physical his opponents on the perimeter, and because he’s a crafty route runner.
The thing is, Crabtree is objectively the “best” receiver that Baltimore has right now. There’s no real No. 1 guy on the roster, and the team doesn’t feature a dynamic running back, either. It’s really looking like the Ravens will be going back to a tight end-heavy approach with rookies Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews as the key cogs. Throw in an aging Joe Flacco and/or a rookie quarterback in Lamar Jackson and Crabtree could certainly be looking at decline in production in his age-31 season.
Julius Peppers, defensive end, Carolina Panthers
One of the league’s ageless wonders and true iron men, Peppers, at the age of 38, has appeared in a stunning 250 games over the course of his 16-year NFL career. Last year, even in a reserve role, he managed to come up with 11 sacks, which is just remarkable.
It’s hardly surprising that Peppers seriously contemplated retiring after last season. Ultimately he decided to come back for one more campaign, and we hope he’ll continue to defy Father Time. That being said, nobody should be surprised if Peppers finally starts to look his age as he edges closer to 40.
Mark Ingram, running back, New Orleans Saints
The four-game suspension to open the season certainly won’t help Ingram’s cause here.
He’s had a fantastic four-year run since 2014, averaging 1,296 yards and nine touchdowns from scrimmage per season. That being said, reports emerged following the announcement of his suspension that Ingram was already being pushed aside in New Orleans for a certainly younger, sexier player who burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2017.
The emergence of Alvin Kamara as the lead back in New Orleans, combined with the fact that Ingram is entering the final year of his current contract, likely portends his doom with the Saints.
Brent Grimes, cornerback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Since entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie out of Shippensburg back in 2006, Grimes has quietly gone about his business while eventually becoming one of the most underrated star cornerbacks in the league.
He burst onto the scene in 2008 with the Atlanta Falcons, earning six starts that year. Since then, all Grimes has done is rack up 33 interceptions, 134 passes defended and three defensive touchdowns.
The thing is, Grimes will turn 35 in July, and he’s coming off a season in which he dealt with an aggravating shoulder injury. So, it shouldn’t be a huge shock if Grimes starts to fade a bit in his age-35 season.
Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver, Arizona Cardinals
Don’t throw rotten fruit at me for suggesting Fitzgerald could finally begin to fade. I really don’t want to see it happen. And, quite honestly, nothing about the past few years indicates he’s going to suddenly fall apart physically — 325 catches for 3,394 yards and 21 touchdowns since 2015.
That being said, Fitzgerald will turn 35 this season, and the Cardinals could be rolling with a rookie quarterback in Josh Rosen if Sam Bradford can’t stay healthy or if Rosen just wows his coaches in training camp. Fitzgerald is the ultimate pro, and he won’t complain if he’s not getting targeted like he has in the past. But that could absolutely happen this coming year, especially as Rosen develops chemistry with his younger teammates that he’ll be growing with for years to come.
Terrell Suggs, defensive end, Baltimore Ravens
What Suggs has done the past half-decade or so is almost miraculous. Since 2012, he’s tore his Achilles tendon twice. Both times, he came back with a vengeance, the most recent occasion racking up 19 combined sacks in his two post-injury seasons.
So, it would be foolish to sit here and say that Suggs will definitively begin to decline in 2018. However, it would also be foolish to say it absolutely won’t happen, either. He’s going to turn 36 this coming NFL season (in October), and the Ravens are hoping former Alabama star Tim Williams begins to emerge as a big-time player in his second year.
A hierarchical shift will happen at some point on the depth chart. When it happens, Suggs will need to get used to being a role player.
Frank Gore, running back, Miami Dolphins
Of all the players on this list, it would break my heart the most to see Gore suffer through a miserable campaign in which his production significantly declines. The Inconvenient Truth has been my favorite player since his college days at Miami, and he’ll be a shoo-in Hall of Famer when he’s finished.
But we have to be realistic here and expect that Gore will continue to decline, either slowly as he has been in recent years, or perhaps in a sudden way as he closes out his career in Miami this coming season. He’s 35 years old, which in running back age is ancient. It’s going to happen, and I just hope that Gore can at least enjoy his final run without having to deal with an injury.
Eli Manning, quarterback, New York Giants
The Giants sure hope Manning doesn’t (continue to) fade in 2018. In fact, everything the team has done this past offseason went toward bolstering Manning, rather than planning for life after the 37-year-old quarterback.
Manning, even at his best, has never really been an elite NFL quarterback. Yet in the past two seasons we’ve really seen his production take a nose dive compared to his peak in 2014-15. Last year, playing without Odell Beckham and other receivers who were injured, he managed just 19 touchdowns, which was only the second time in his career (barring his rookie season) in which he was under 20.
Hopefully Pat Shurmur can fix all this, but we’re not convinced it’ll happen.
Josh Norman, cornerback, Washington Redskins
It’s pretty stunning how quickly Norman went from being one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks to just a guy. Last year, he had a very uninspiring season, coming up with just nine passes defended and a big fat zero interceptions. He also earned a mediocre grade from the folks at Pro Football Focus.
Norman is 30, and he seems to have more interest in his post-football career than his actual football career these days. He’s playing out a tremendously lucrative contract right now, which might be the only reason he hasn’t called it quits already. With all that being said, nobody should expect him to be a dynamo on the field for Washington in 2018.
Cameron Wake, defensive end, Miami Dolphins
Wake, like Terrell Suggs, has made a tremendous recovery from an Achilles tear in 2015, piling up 22 sacks since that season-ending injury. Like Suggs, he’s a graybeard, entering the season at the age of 36.
Miami has already begun to prepare for the eventuality that Wake will decline. It recently traded for Robert Quinn, who’s reportedly been dominating during offseason practices. The Dolphins also drafted Charles Harris in the first round in 2017. A changing of the guard is going to happen, likely sooner rather than later. Don’t be surprised if Wake ends up in a rotational role at some point this season.
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England Patriots
Of course we had to include the GOAT.
Sure, Tom Brady is coming off an MVP season in which he led the NFL in passing and nearly won another Super Bowl. Sure, he’s been insanely productive every season he’s been the starter in New England going back to the turn of the century.
But let’s not discount just how much things have changed for Brady and the Pats this offseason. For the first time ever, he’s intentionally missed out on offseason workouts while simultaneously engaging in other high-profile adventures. He’s also hinted that not all is right between himself and the Patriots’ organization.
It’s also worth pointing out that Peyton Manning’s ultimate decline was sudden. So with all that being said, don’t be surprised if the same thing happens to Brady, who’s now about to enter his age-41 season.