His age and all-time sack ranking got me thinking and asking some questions:
- How productive had the top-39 sack artists been into their 30s?
- Was there a steep, post-prime drop off?
- If Williams recorded the average sack total for each year and plays until he's 35, how many sacks will he have when he finishes his career?
- How will Terrell Suggs, Jared Allen, Robert Mathis, Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware and Dwight Freeney, other established sack specialists in the top 40, fare as their illustrious NFL tenures continue into 2015 and, for some, beyond?
In the chart below, you'll see the seasonal sack figures for the top 39 sack leaders starting with the season they were age 30 until their retirement. At the bottom of each column, I've included the average sack total for that age season.
*Note: I didn't include the 14 total sacks Bruce Smith had during his Age 39 (9 sacks ) and Age 40 (5 sacks ) seasons, because he was not of this planet, and it's preposterous to assume any of these guys will play when they hit 39 or 40.
|NFL's all-time sack leaders (totals from age 30-38)|
|Jared Allen (32)||12||11.5||5.5|
|DeMarcus Ware (32)||11.5||6||10|
|Julius Peppers (35)||8||11||11.5||7||7|
|Dwight Freeney (35)||10||8.5||5||0||3.5|
|Robert Mathis (34)||9.5||8||19.5|
|Terrell Suggs (32)||2||10||12|
|*Bold = active player (Freeney is a free agent), + = Hall of Famer|
Some noteworthy findings:
- The late, great Dennis Hopper was spot on about Bruce Smith doing bad things, man. The all-time sack leader amassed 29 sacks after his age 36 season.
- Reggie White had 16 sacks at age 37, which is downright unfair and nearly unfathomable.
- How about Chris Doleman -- to me, the most under-appreciated pass-rusher ever. The guy had 55 sacks after he turned 34 years old. For some perspective on that -- the Seahawks' dynamic edge-rusher Cliff Avril, who's been darn good for a while now, is 28 years old and has 52.5 career sacks.
- Who saw Trace Armstrong setting a career-high (16.5 sacks) at age 35?
- Turning 30 clearly meant nothing to Michael Strahan. He set the single-season sack record (22.5) as a 30 year old and went on to have 29.5 sacks in his next two seasons combined.
- Kevin Greene had 37.5 sacks after he turned 35. No big deal.
- Rickey Jackson recorded 9.5 sacks as a 37 year old. Nutso.
What can we expect from current active players?
If each of the aforementioned active players hit the seasonal averages at each age, here's how many sacks they'd ultimately have on their pro football resumes.
|Projecting sack totals for active players|
Adhering to the exact sack averages for each year, here's how many quarterback takedowns each of those same active defenders will rack up with their respective teams in 2015:
- Mario Williams -- 10
- Terrell Suggs -- 8
- DeMarcus Ware -- 8
- Robert Mathis -- 7.5
- Julius Peppers -- 7. 5
- Dwight Freeney -- 7.5
- Jared Allen -- 7
Some other factors to consider:
•NFL players aren't playing nearly as long as they did, say 10-20 years ago. Most -- especially the top pass-rushers -- make considerably more money now and don't necessarily need to play into their late 30s. Also, the NFL in general seems to be more of youth-driven league than it used to be for an assortment of reasons. (Hint: the rookie wage scale is crucial to the last point.)
•Despite all that, today's sack-accumulators are able to rush the passer much more than ever due to the league being overtly pass happy. For context, in 2014, a 17,879 passes were attempted. In 2004, that number was 16,354. Ten years earlier, only 15,056 passes were thrown (the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers did not exist). The point still remains. I'll throw in 1985 too, which just so happened to be the rookie seasons of the Top 4 on the all-time sack list -- Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene and Chris Doleman -- that year, a mere 14,423 passes were attempted.
•From those two points, it's pretty safe to assume and easy to comprehend that with shorter careers yet more sack opportunities in a given year, someone like Mario Williams playing until 35 is relatively close to Jason Taylor, Rickey Jackson or Trace Armstrong playing until 37. In essence, everything kinda sorta evens out.
Conclusion: Age 30-plus pass rushers can be very effective
Well, beyond how long a good chunk of the NFL's legendary pass-rushers played, I was surprised at the way most of them were able to maintain effectiveness at 30-plus years old.
Before crunching these numbers, I was expecting somewhat of a sharp drop in production at around age 30, 31 or maybe 32. But edge-rushers -- especially the finest ones -- have rare powers of longevity because so much of how they get to the quarterback is dependent upon refined fundamentals like footwork and, probably most importantly, hand usage.
Even if an elite pass-rusher doesn't explode off the snap with thunderous force at 34 like he did when he was 24, chances are he's a wily, master craftsman with his hands when it comes to creating leverage and countering the opposing offensive lineman. Also, strength likely isn't an issue, and he almost assuredly knows how to properly handle the rigors of a grueling 16-game regular season.
For Mario Williams and the rest of the NFL's active sack leaders now into their 30s, as long as they can stay healthy, their signal-caller sacking contemporaries tell us they can and likely will produce at a reasonable-to-ridiculous rate.