It's Graybeards season.
For the seventh year, I've navigated the depths of our NFL.com database of unattached free agents to build a starting roster of players who remain available to all 32 teams.
The goal of the Graybeards is the same as it ever was: Just win (sometimes), baby.
In past years, I've populated my squad with the best of what's left in the latter waves of free agency. But, after deep and solemn introspection, I realized this was kind of cheating. These are the Graybeards, after all -- this is supposed to be a collection of grizzled, salt-and-pepper grinders considered long in the tooth by NFL standards. Having some 25-year-old former first-round pick playing wide receiver just doesn't feel right.
Therefore, effective immediately, you must be at least 30 years old -- either now or by the end of the 2021 regular season -- to be Graybeard-eligible. Even with these strict new standards, I've built a roster I believe can compete.
But don't take my word for it ... you be the judge.
A year ago in this same exercise, I was thrilled to have Cam Newton leading my huddle. That's obviously no longer an option, so we turn to Smith, the reigning Comeback Player of the Year and a success story from which we can all draw inspiration. Of course, Smith was showing signs of slippage before his grisly leg injury, and it's fair to say the 36-year-old's best suited as a backup at this stage of his career. Well ... unless the next best option is RGIII or Geno Smith. We're off to a rough start.
Offensive coordinators have been trying to make Patterson a thing for a decade. Now it's our turn. Patterson still possesses the elite athleticism that's made him the most dynamic special teams return man of all time, so let's give him 200 carries and see what happens. (Note: Establish The Run's Evan Silva stumped for Patterson's inclusion here on Thursday's edition of the Around The NFL Podcast.) Peterson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer whom we can work in for a series here and there. He's a good face to slap on the front of the media guide, too.
I have nothing else to add here other than to express well wishes to the entire Olawale family.
Some big names here! Brown is the Graybeards' No. 1 receiver for the second straight season. Yes, we also wonder why Bucs GM Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians have brought back literally everyone besides Brown for their title defense. Players, coaches, ball boys, seat ushers, hot dog vendors, the girl who runs the giant pirate flag across the end zone after scores -- they're all returning ... but not AB. Hmmm. Goodwin is on hand to open up defenses and run fly routes until he passes out from exhaustion. Jeffery has reached the "reclamation project" stage of his career -- and that's what the Graybeards are here for. As for Larry Fitz? Our unruly den now has its Papa Bear.
Fun fact: Reed and Eifert have missed a combined 3,764 games due to injuries in their careers. Durability is obviously a mondo concern, but I also ... kind of like the ceiling here? Reed flashed in moments for San Francisco before his body went into its annual hibernation, while Eifert has actually appeared in 31 of 32 games since 2019. We'll keep Jason Witten on speed dial when reinforcements become absolutely necessary. He has to grow back his fascinating Monday Night Football hair, though. I loved that stuff.
It's pretty wild that we had the option to bring in both starting tackles for the Super Bowl LIV champion Chiefs. Schwartz has been one of the best right tackles in the game for years ... we just need to talk him out of retirement. (Fisher profiles as a fallback plan if Schwartz walks off into the sunset.) Okung has been a steady blind-side protector for years, Taylor and Fluker are OK options at guard, and Reiter is a rock-solid man in the pivot. You know this is a Serious Football Article because I just referred to the center position as THE PIVOT.
The Graybeards won't score many points, but our pass rush is going to keep us in football games. This is a fine crop of 30-something talent, and we'll put them all in a rotation to maximize the juice they have left. Even if his sack total doesn't show it, Ingram was still regularly getting to the quarterback in his final season with the Chargers. Smith returned to football after a four-year absence and made a real impact in his lone season with Dallas. Houston doesn't have another 22-sack season in the offing, but he remains a productive pass rusher and a solid rush defender. Vernon was playing at a high level before an Achilles tear ended his Browns career. I expect 30 sacks from this unit. I demand it!
The interior features more warhorses who have something to give if deployed effectively. Atkins is the marquee name, a potential Hall of Famer who gets a fresh start after seeing his prime mostly squandered by the Bengals. Injuries have slowed Short in recent years, but he can do some heavy damage against the run, especially when we pair him with "Snacks" Harrison. Jones was a rock in seven years with the Titans -- your classic glue guy.
Wright was a steady presence in Seattle's front seven for years, and he graded out on Pro Football Focus in the top 10 among linebackers in 2020. We're racing to put pen to paper on his contract. Bynes was a captain last season with the Bengals, starting 16 games and setting a career high with 99 tackles. Lee has lost a step (perhaps three or four), but he's an old pro who knows how to play the game.
We're surprised Sherman hasn't reunited with Robert Saleh in New York. That still feels like a great landing spot for the former All-Pro, but for now, we'll plug him in as the fiery and intelligent leader of the Graybeards' secondary. Hayward was one of the most underrated cornerbacks in football for a decade before his game nosedived in his final year with the Chargers. We're betting on a bounceback season with Sherman teaching him how to adapt in your 30s. McCourty is a Belichick darling who brings versatility and A WINNING MENTALITY.
Vaccaro will do most of his business up near the box, allowing Thomas to reclaim a career that has floated into the abyss. It was shocking -- and telling -- that Thomas never found an employer during the 2020 season after his brief run with the Ravens came to an unceremonious conclusion. Thomas is simply too great a talent for his career to end with such a whimper. Let's use the Graybeards as a springboard for Thomas' pro football reboot.
Remember when the Cowboys signed Bailey to a seven-year contract extension? It's hard to fathom how that team hasn't won a Super Bowl in 25 years. Anyway, that version of Bailey -- the Pro Bowl version -- is long gone, but the 33-year-old who remains is still a decent option despite his wipeout of a 2020 in Minnesota. Full disclosure: We plan to kick the tires on Sebastian Janikowski just to see what he's up to. Honestly, we just want to see what hoss looks like these days.
Morstead is a highly respected guy fresh off a forever run with the Saints that ended on amicable terms. Granted, he'd probably still be working for Sean Payton if his game hadn't fallen off, but we're happy to give him a home and the possibility of a bounceback season.
I'm going to need about 11 touchdowns from my man this fall.
At the absolute minimum, these guys will be a blast at the hotel bar.
AND NOW, AN EYES-WIDE-OPEN EVALUATION OF THE FINAL ROSTER
Listen, I ramped up the degree of difficulty through the roof by eliminating 20-something talent from the mix. It shows in the final product. This team will struggle to produce chunk plays in the passing game or establish an effective running game. My brittle tight ends are in more danger than teens in a Final Destination sequel. Frankly, I'm concerned.
On the plus side, I have a stacked defensive line that should get to the quarterback and stifle the opposition's running game. I have two former "Legion of Boom" superstars with something to prove. Did I mention Wayne Fontes is pulling the levers?
Still, I can't sugarcoat this. We're gonna get waxed. Book us for 3-14. Man, that looks weird.