At a time when most players nearing the age of 30 are being run out of the NFL, a handful of wily veterans will continue playing at a high level beyond their 35th birthday.
NFL.com colleague Daniel Jeremiah looked at the top 10 NFL players under the age of 25 yesterday. Today, I'm addressing the other end of the spectrum: the top five over 35. Although Father Time has certainly robbed them of some speed and athleticism, their experience and guile allows them to play faster and more effective than their younger counterparts. With performance and production still valued at a premium, here are my fab five graybeards (only players who turn 35 before the 2012 season considered):
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It is safe to say that Brady remains the standard by which other quarterbacks are measured in the NFL. He is the quintessential winner at the position with three Super Bowl victories in an illustrious, 12-year career. While he could rest on his laurels at this point, Brady has shown no signs of slowing down, fresh off a 5,235-yard, 39-touchdown season.
As a pinpoint passer with exceptional accuracy, anticipation and timing, Brady defeats opponents with a surgeon's precision. He relentlessly attacks the middle of the field with a host of short and intermediate throws between the hashes and occasionally drops a bomb outside the numbers to keep defenders honest.
Brady's superb passing skills are only surpassed by his remarkable poise under pressure. With 35 game-winning drives and 25 fourth-quarter comebacks, including two late-game, come-from-behind wins in 2011, it is hard to find a better quarterback in the NFL than Brady, regardless of age.
It is not often that a player performs better during the twilight of his career, but that is the case with Woodson. He has amassed 37 of his 54 career interceptions over the past six seasons (including seven picks in 2011), cementing his status as one of the premier defenders in the NFL. Woodson's rare ball skills and awareness are also reflected in his ability to force fumbles with timely strips and punch outs on the perimeter. He simply attacks the football with a passion, and the Packers have become one of the league's top takeaway teams due to his presence in the back end.
Woodson's all-around excellence is quite remarkable, considering his deteriorating speed and athleticism. He is no longer the superior athlete capable of blanketing elite receivers on the edge, but his wisdom and exceptional football IQ allow him to thrive as a hybrid safety/nickel back capable of blitzing off the edge or dropping into coverage. Given his versatility and overall impact, Woodson deserves to be ranked as one of the top veteran players in the league.
Lewis is no longer the sideline-to-sideline terror that he once was in the middle, but he is still an impact player within the box. His superb instincts, awareness and anticipation allow him to shoot gaps before blockers can engage contact, leading to disruptive plays in the backfield. Although a loss of speed and lateral quickness has resulted in more missed tackles from Lewis recently, he remains a punishing hitter capable of stopping runners in their tracks.
As a pass defender, Lewis shows superior route recognition, which leads to quicker breaks and bang-bang hits on receivers roaming between the hashes. Consequently, he finished 2011 with one interception and seven pass breakups, certainly respectable numbers for an interior second-level defender.
After spending a large portion of his career toiling in relative anonymity, Fletcher has become a household name due to his outstanding production over the past three seasons. He has consistently ranked among the league's top defenders in tackles and is regarded as one of the best run stuffers in the NFL.
Fletcher not only controls the box against the run, but he has become one of the better interior pass defenders. Last season, he finished with two interceptions and eight breakups, while also adding two sacks and three forced fumbles. Fletcher's ability to impact the game as an all-around defender is astounding, considering his age and diminutive stature.
It will certainly take some time to adjust to the ex-Colt donning a Packer uniform, but Saturday's play on the field will remain at the all-star level he consistently displayed in Indianapolis. As a cerebral interior blocker with a gritty demeanor, he shows a keen understanding for using angles to defeat monstrous defensive tackles. His combination of footwork, hand placement and body control is textbook, and few have been able to play at such a high level at the position for over a decade.
In moving to Green Bay, he provides the Packers with a veteran presence capable of alleviating some of the pressure on Aaron Rodgers to set the protections prior to the snap, which could lead to even better play from the league MVP. If that happens in 2012, the Packers' offensive juggernaut will ascend to a level few opponents will be able to match in the regular season.
If not for the uncertainty surrounding Manning's health following his neck injury, the perennial Pro Bowler would battle Brady for the top spot. He has been a model of consistency at the quarterback position and his arrival in Denver could produce another run at the title.
No longer the deep threat that once terrorized the middle of the field, Gonzalez now makes his living as Matt Ryan's favorite red-zone target. With 95 career touchdown receptions, including 19 in three seasons with the Falcons, it is hard to dismiss Gonzalez's production and value as a veteran contributor.
Say what you want about kickers, but it is hard to find a better one at putting the ball between the uprights from all distances. At 42, he remains one of the better kickers in the league and is certainly worth a mention as one of the top players in the 35-plus category.