The iconic signal-callers are rightly getting tons of attention as they near the end of their playing days. But there are some other longtime big-time NFL vets who should be cherished now -- before it's too late.
Think of what's happening with Derek Jeter. The New York Yankees shortstop is my favorite baseball player, but frankly, it's been painful watching his final MLB season. He looks old. He doesn't have range. He can't drive the ball. One of baseball's biggest all-time winners is making mental gaffes.
I refuse to remember him this way.
So let's make sure to give the following nine NFL players some love this year, and appreciate them while we still can:
Yes, Wayne is 35 years old, and yes, he's coming off a torn ACL. But he's an amazing worker and an amazing talent, and I wouldn't bet against him putting together yet another strong season in this, his 14th go-around in the NFL.
Before he went down in Week 7 last year, he was having his second consecutive dynamite campaign with Andrew Luck -- compiling 503 yards, 17th-best in the league at that point -- after thriving for years at receiver for Manning in Indy. Without Wayne, the Colts went, in a flash, from being a Super Bowl contender to a playoff squad that couldn't get past the divisional round. He's that special.
Wayne has been incredible to watch through the years, between his hands, his heart, his knack for making big plays, his leadership and his reliability. He's put up dominant numbers -- since entering the league in 2001, he's racked up 13,566 yards, the most in the NFL over that span -- and is a true star at the position.
He says he's "champing at the bit" to get back in the action, and I think he can squeeze out another season or two at an elite level. Enjoy it.
I love Justin Smith, an underrated true great on the Niners' defensive line who can play everywhere. He's the energizer bunny for this San Francisco defense.
The way he sacrifices his body, stops the run and gets to the quarterback (6.5 sacks in 2013), I'm not sure how much longer he can play at this level; after all, this will be the 34-year-old's 14th NFL season. But for now, he'll continue to greatly boost the Niners' quest for the Super Bowl.
Boldin has put together an excellent career, compiling 11,344 yards and 65 touchdowns while making his mark as a physical, clutch weapon for the Arizona Cardinals, the Baltimore Ravens -- serving as a key cog for Joe Flacco in the 2012 Super Bowl-winning campaign -- and now the 49ers. The 33-year-old is coming off a season in which he caught 85 passes for 1,179 from Colin Kaepernick, both team highs. He's the epitome of toughness.
Tillman has been a rock, a playmaker and a fan favorite in Chicago for the past 11 years. Following a great 2012 in which he broke up 16 passes, had three pick-sixes and registered 10 forced fumbles -- Tillman endured a shortened 2013, as a triceps injury limited him to eight games. In March, after saying he'd like to eventually finish his career in Chicago, Tillman re-signed with the only team he's ever played for, returning for at least one more season.
What a story. What a ride. What a life!
Coming out of little Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Jackson tenaciously pounded on the door of opportunity, toiling in the United Indoor Football League and NFL Europa before landing on the Bills' practice squad in 2006 and cracking the roster in 2007 -- whereupon he showed himself to be a very talented, reliable and diverse back. In 2009 he topped 1,000 yards rushing for the first time, and proceeded to collect 1,000 yards or more from scrimmage in three of the next four seasons, including last year, when he totaled 1,277 yards (890 on the ground, 387 in the air).
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Can you believe 11 years have passed since a Kent State basketball player arrived on the NFL stage to wow us with his athleticism and prowess as a football star? I don't remotely believe it's over for Gates, who was still highly productive in 2013, catching 77 passes from Philip Rivers in the quarterback's revival campaign.
But he is 34, and Ladarius Green, a young, sensational talent, is waiting in the wings. We could see a changing of the guard at tight end for San Diego this season.
I love Miller's game. The two-time Super Bowl champion and lifelong Steeler is one of my favorites, representing Pittsburgh well with his work ethic. He's always had an ability to come through in the red zone, on third down and in big games. The well-rounded tight end doesn't just catch passes, either; he's been a boon to the Steelers' ground attack for years.
Of course, Miller tore his ACL in 2012 and didn't seem quite right last year, scoring just one touchdown after averaging nearly five per season. I don't need to tell Pittsburgh's fans to appreciate him; I know how much they do.
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Mankins was the last pick of the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft, and 130 career starts later, he's still trucking along, protecting Tom Brady from the left guard position. He's also earned six Pro Bowl nods -- the second-highest total of anyone in his draft class. The 32-year-old Mankins enters his 10th season among the most experienced players on the Patriots' roster.