Much as in, you know, real life, there is a cyclical progression in the NFL. Young players come in, old players go out. Along the way, the young players get better and better until they plateau. They then become the old players and at some point they begin to regress, usually to the point where they’re deemed liabilities and are cut.
It is at this time of the year that we spend a ton of time talking about all the hope and optimism about the progress of the young players. This is a critical season for Bud Dupree to step up and become the elite pass rusher that the Steelers need. We are finally going to see Senquez Golson. Martavis Bryant is going to set the league on fire in his return.
But we don’t spend nearly as much time focusing on the other side of the coin, and it’s not as though the Steelers don’t have aging players playing in important positions. Just going by the starting lineup from the end of last season, the team has no fewer than five players who are at least 30 years old.
How much longer might they have before their play begins to decline? Or in the cases of those who feel their skills are already diminishing, where do we reach the tipping point after which he needs to be replaced by somebody else?
Of course, that is not going to happen with Ben Roethlisberger, who is 35 years old. It would take a truly shocking string of terrible games in order to get him benched. But for the others? It may not be as far behind as it might seem.
Now, there is James Harrison, who will be 39 by the time the season starts. He was still playing at a pretty high level as recently as last season. No matter how hard he works, however, repeat results are never guaranteed.
Everybody knows he is near the end of the road, though, which is why the Steelers drafted T.J. Watt. That isn’t necessarily the case for others such as Ramon Foster at 31 and Mike Mitchell, who is now 30 years old.
Foster definitely played at a high level last season, but could it be his body that turns on him before anything else? He may feel the pressure from behind in B.J. Finney if the second-year player picks up where he left off last year.
There are many who would like to give Mitchell the boot, but even if we granted that he is a liability as a starter—which he is not—it’s not like they have anybody near his equal among their backups. Of course, this is why so many wanted them to draft a safety, I suppose.
And then there is William Gay, whom many have already written off, and yet he still keeps plugging away. People love to point to the Patriots game as his exit letter while ignoring the fact that everybody looked bad there.
But he is 32, and obviously not getting any faster. The Steelers have some young options, but Gay is still the man, for now. Still, he may have the shortest leash among the over-30 club, so he had better be sure to keep on top of his game.