Typically as NFL players age, their skills diminish and their battered bodies fail, leading many to retire or find another line of work before they hit 30. But a few are able to stand the test of time and excel in a league full of 20-somethings. Here are the 10 best old-timers in the NFL.
1. Tom Brady, New England, QB (Age: 35)
Brady likely had a Hall of Fame career before the last two seasons, but has now taken his game to perhaps a higher level, averaging nine yards per attempt the last two years and completing over 65 percent of his passes in both. Last year, the numbers were insane: 5,235 yards, 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions. Brady may not just be the best player over 35, he may be the best player, period.
2. Peyton Manning, Denver, QB (Age: 36)
So we don’t know what kind of player Manning will be after a neck injury cost him the 2011 season, but the Broncos were willing to pay $18 million (and jettison Tim Tebow) to find out. Suffice to say they’re counting on something like the numbers he posted in 2010, when he threw for 4,700 yards, 33 scores, and 17 picks. Until we know he can’t produce like he used to, it’s hard to justify ranking anyone other than Brady ahead of him.
3. London Fletcher, Washington, LB (Age: 37)
Fletcher is like a bottle of fine wine – the older he gets, the better he is. Last season may have been his best yet: he led the league with 166 total tackles, had a pair of interceptions, and forced two fumbles.
4. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta, TE (Age: 36)
The 12-time Pro Bowler made another last year with 80 catches, 875 yards and seven scores.
5. Ray Lewis, Baltimore, LB (Age: 37)
Some say Lewis has lost a step, but he keeps getting voted to Pro Bowls anyway: last year was his sixth straight. He led the stout Ravens defense with 107 total tackles last year, forced a pair of fumbles, and also had an interception.
6. Brian Waters, New England, G (Age: 35)
It’s hard to assign value to offensive linemen, but Pro-FootballReference.com gives it a shot with a number it calls “approximate value.” Waters’ number was 11 last season. By comparison, Fletcher had a 12, Gonzalez, an 11, and Lewis, a 9. His comrades also recognized his value by selecting him to the Pro Bowl, his second-straight and sixth overall for the Patriots’ guard.
7. Charles Woodson, Green Bay, CB (Age: 35)
Woodson was a first team All-Pro selection after leading the NFL with seven interceptions last season, just two years removed from doing the same thing in 2009. They're already preparing a plaque for Woodson at the Hall of Fame; every passing season just adds another line of text.
8. Ronde Barber, Tampa, CB (Age: 37)
Barber’s definitely on the downside of his career, but it might be a Hall of Fame career, and last year, Barber did something that not many NFL corners do: start 16 games at age 37. He finished with three interceptions and 78 tackles, 66 of them solo.
9. Antoine Winfield, Minnesota, CB (Age: 35)
Like Fletcher, he’s gotten better as he’s gotten older until he missed 11 games with a broken collarbone last year. The Vikings’ corner had always been great against the run, but had also developed into a guy you didn’t want to throw against. Last year’s injury won’t sideline him this time around, and he’d made three-straight Pro Bowls coming into last season.
10. Jeff Saturday, Green Bay, C (Age: 37)
Almost as strange as seeing Manning in a Broncos’ uniform will be someone other than Saturday snapping him the ball. Saturday signed a 2-year deal with the Packers, and is just one year removed from a Pro Bowl appearance.