When we last looked at the 30 best NFL players over 30, we settled on an order we felt pretty good about heading into the 2020 season. Roughly a year later, we again feel pretty good about our new order -- which is dramatically different from what it was.
Not only did every player move at least one spot up or down, but some traveled significant distances, while others fell off completely. Others made the list for the first time, either because they were not eligible heading into 2020 (those players are marked NE) or just were not ranked (NR). In fact, nearly half of the players listed below (13) are completely new.
That amount of volatility in a list like this is to be expected, thanks to the unforgiving march of time, which is constantly pushing younger talent into the window of consideration, even as it suddenly robs some older players of their football powers. (It also leads to some idiosyncrasies toward the fringes, but what fun is a ranking that turns out exactly how most people would want it to?)
Before we dive in, a few notes:
- To qualify, a player will have to be 30 or older as of Sept. 9, when the 2021 season is scheduled to kick off. The age next to each player's name is the age he will be on Sept. 9.
- Only players on an NFL roster were considered.
- Players are ranked primarily according to their standing in the league hierarchy heading into the 2021 season -- in other words, who is the best right now.
TB: Lists are weird, and age-related lists add an extra dimension of subjectivity. A number of players -- including Harrison Smith, Dont'a Hightower, Matt Ryan, Duane Brown -- could have easily qualified over Rhodes, but I wanted to make room for Rhodes for one reason. Here are his stats over the last two years:
- Age 29 season (2019): 0 INT | 6 PD | 44.7 PFF coverage grade | 46.4 PFF defensive grade
- Age 30 season (2020): 2 INT | 12 PD | 77.5 PFF coverage grade | 76.3 PFF defensive grade
Rhodes had one of his worst pro seasons as a 29-year-old, was released by the Vikings, signed with the Colts, turned 30 (on June 19) -- and got better. Yes, at age 30, the age that is supposed to mark the end of one's prime, he reversed a decline that began in his 20s. One more time: He was MORE EFFECTIVE AT 30 than he was at 29. Anyone reading this who happens to be in their 30s -- maybe even anyone writing this or whatever -- might find Rhodes easy to root for, is what I'm saying.
AB: Arguably the greatest tight end of all time comes out of retirement to re-team with his beloved quarterback in a new town for another run at a ring. Sounds like a Peter Berg one-pager. With an embarrassment of riches that would make a real Buccaneer cry, Tampa's offense was able to use Gronk judiciously, keeping him fresh for when he'd be needed most. And when that call came, boy did No. 87 deliver: Six catches for 67 yards and two tuddies on Super Bowl Sunday. The year off certainly seems to have done his body some good, as the 32-year-old played in all 16 games for the first time since his sophomore campaign in 2011.
TB: Last season, Linsley received the best offensive grade of any center in the NFL by Pro Football Focus and earned first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career. Then, this offseason, he became the highest-paid player at his position (in total value), courtesy of a sparkling new deal from the Chargers. Finally, he celebrated his 30th birthday in July. Like Rhodes, Linsley seems extra appropriate to include here: He's not just a good 30-year-old -- he's a 30-year-old who is living through one of the best moments, in terms of recognition and compensation, of his life.
AB: One of my greatest regrets from last year's exercise was not including Tucker. Mistake rectified. Don't let the taste from Tucker's last outing sour his rock-solid 2020 campaign and historic nine-year career. The two missed field goals in the Ravens' Divisional Round loss to the Bills (in windy conditions) were a true aberration … as in, Tucker had literally never missed two kicks within 50 yards in the same game before. That blemish aside, the four-time All-Pro connected on a whopping 54 of 55 extra points last year, bringing his career total to 377 of 381, including the postseason. That's a 98.9 percent success rate, folks. I can't even type "success" that successfully. And even with those two playoff misfires, he's still a respectable 231 of 242 (95.5%) from within 50 yards since entering the league.
TB: The assignment shifted significantly in the first season since Johnson turned 30 (in May of 2020), with the Eagles moving into rebuild mode after a three-year run as NFC East contenders. Johnson began 2020 trying to help squeeze more life out of the Carson Wentz-Doug Pederson competitive window; he enters 2021 trying to smooth the transition to the Nick Sirianni era. One of Sirianni's main tasks is to decide if Jalen Hurts is the quarterback he wants to roll with in the future, but that will only really be possible if Johnson, who was limited by injuries to seven games last season, can help recharge the offensive line and keep Hurts clean. A strong campaign would also do wonders for Johnson personally, either by cementing his status as a cornerstone of Philly's future or boosting his attractiveness to potential future employers down the road.
TB: After earning All-Pro honors and the No. 20 spot on this list a year ago, Davis took a slight step back, given worse grades by PFF in overall defense, against the run and in coverage. His production also dipped in some areas -- but that's relative, because he still remained the consummate stat-sheet-stuffer. In fact, the best way to capture what he means to the Saints is to see what kind of absurd category filters he can clear. For example, if you search for players who finished 2020 with 100-plus tackles AND 10-plus tackles for loss AND four-plus sacks AND 10-plus QB hits AND five-plus passes defensed, you will get one name back: Demario Davis. Along with another teammate you'll see later on here, Davis is key to maintaining continuity on D while the offense sorts out its post-Drew Brees business.
AB: Despite seeing a decline in his snap totals, Graham's per-play impact remains extremely high. Last season, the veteran was one of just two players (T.J. Watt) to have a stuff percentage over 4 percent and a disruption rate of at least 12 percent, per Next Gen Stats (min. 300 pass rushes and 300 run snaps). His efficiency and effectiveness against both the run and pass helped him earn the first Pro Bowl nod of his 12-year career. While Graham has embraced taking on a mentorship role in Philly this offseason, don't think that means he's planning to hang 'em up just yet. Folks tried to write him off after his first few seasons, and look how that turned out.
AB: Gilmore is a soon-to-be 31-year-old cornerback seeking a raise after an injury-plagued campaign (knee, torn quad) in which he was outshined at times by an undrafted player earning a fraction of his salary. What's the opposite of leverage? Admittedly, that's an oversimplification of Gilmore's current status. The veteran remains one of the few CBs in the league who can operate on an island, providing Bill Belichick with the flexibility he needs to craft unique game plans each week. Gilmore might not be the same Defensive Player of the Year-caliber corner he was back in 2019, but when healthy, he's capable of playing at a level closer to his 2021 cap number ($16.2 million) than his 2021 base salary ($7 million). Strong possibility the four-time Pro Bowler makes us look foolish for ranking him in the 20s.
TB: If this were a 30-and-over edition of the QB Index, Cousins' level is where you'd really start to notice the absence of some of the younger, more exciting names barred by our age cutoff. In other words, Cousins is here as much for his ability to play quarterback after turning 30 as he is for his overall capabilities. That's not to say he's not good. Cousins does rank in the top 10 in passer rating (103.6), completion percentage (69), yards (12,166) and TD passes (91) in the three seasons since he joined the Vikings. I could easily have seen the 36-year-old Matt Ryan edging out Cousins for the last QB spot on this list, just as I could easily see Ryan outplaying Cousins in 2021 -- but the two are close, in my view, and Cousins should have more of his theoretical prime in front of him. He should also be able to enjoy his stay here for some time -- the closest rising threat to displace Cousins at the moment appears to be Dak Prescott (28).
TB: It's tough to gauge a player like Smith, who likely would have been a no-brainer in his first year of eligibility if he hadn't missed all but two games of 2020 with a neck injury. Then again, maybe it's not such a bad thing he was spared from having to participate in a lost season. The seven-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro and member of the Hall of Fame's All-2010s Team will theoretically be fresh and ready to help power a return to prominence for the Cowboys in 2021. If nothing else, we honor his ability to be officially in his 30s and still inspiring headlines that include the words "shirtless photo" and "goes viral."
AB: Watt is now six years removed from, in my opinion, the most dominant four-year stretch by any defender in NFL history. Although he's no longer at the apex of his powers, the five-time All-Pro is still a plus player off the edge who commands constant attention. Coming off an injury-marred 2019 campaign, No. 99 hit his highest snap count since 2014 (1,013) and earned PFF's ninth-best grade among edge rushers. However, durability issues appear to have followed the 32-year-old to Arizona, where a tweaked hamstring has already landed him on the PUP list. If Watt can stay healthy and Chandler Jones remains a Cardinal, Watt will have in Jones something he lacked consistently during his 10 years in Houston: an elite pass rusher on the other side. If these 30-something former sack champs can reign all day (you know, confetti) in the desert, the Cardinals could put an end to their half-decade playoff drought.
AB: Ranking the tackles after Trent Williams proved to be one of the toughest challenges in this entire exercise. Armstead is still one of the best blind-side protectors in the game, finishing tied for first in hurries (5) and third in pressures (15) allowed among tackles who played at least 800 snaps last year, per PFF. The main knock on the three-time Pro Bowler has been his lack of availability, as he's played at least 15 games only once during his eight-year career. Fortunately for his ranking here, the 30-year-old's health issues in 2020 weren't season-ending like they were for Tyron Smith and Lane Johnson. With the Saints recently committing a ton of cash to 2017 first-rounder Ryan Ramczyk, all but ensuring Armstead hits free agency in March, the veteran could find himself a very rich man tasked with safeguarding his third different Week 1 starting QB in as many seasons.
AB: One of the most polarizing players in the NFL, Carr's ranking here likely won't satisfy his fans or his haters. Isn't that the goal of all good content, to antagonize everybody equally? The three-time Pro Bowler is an above-average quarterback, teetering on the brink of top-10 status. Unfortunately, he too regularly gets in his own way (SEE: 17 turnovers in 2020). It's hard to square how methodical and accurate he can look for sustained periods, as well as the improvements in his deep-ball passing, with the inevitable back-breaking overthrow or fumble that ends up killing drives or worse. Of course, those miscues wouldn't be so pronounced if the Raiders' porous defense allowed for more than a minuscule margin for error.
TB: Ceding the pass-rushing baton to Trey Hendrickson last year, Jordan finished with 7.5 sacks, marking the first time he failed to hit at least 12 since 2016. His pressure total also fell, from a team-high 50 in 2019 to 37, per Next Gen Stats. But Hendrickson is in Cincinnati, and David Onyemata (6.5 sacks in 2020) is going to miss the start of the season with a PED suspension. So while the Saints would no doubt like Marcus Davenport (who's averaged 4.0 sacks over his three pro seasons) or rookie first-rounder Payton Turner to step up, the path seems clear for Jordan to become the second player in franchise history to reach 100 career sacks by the end of November.
AB: Jones tumbled down the list from last year's No. 3 ranking because of the season-ending biceps injury he sustained in Week 5 and the paltry numbers he produced leading up to it (1 sack, 11 tackles, 6.9% pressure rate). Is the 31-year-old hitting a wall? Has he lost the juice that fueled five straight double-digit sack seasons, including 19 in his 2019 All-Pro campaign? Maybe. But we're cautiously optimistic. With fellow 30 over 30 member J.J. Watt joining the Cardinals' defense this offseason, along with a conclave of veteran cornerbacks, Jones could get back to punishing QBs in no time ... assuming he stays put.
TB: It almost feels like Miller disappeared when he turned 30 two years ago, following that March 2019 birthday with an uncharacteristically pedestrian eight-sack campaign, then losing all of 2020 to an ankle injury. In that light, his recently stated desire to "play five to seven more years" seems optimistic. And yet, before he turned 30, Miller was one of the best pass rushers around, putting up 10-plus sacks in each of the seven seasons in which he played in 10 or more games. It's not hard to imagine him rediscovering that form and making this fence-straddling blurb look laughable to the historians of 2028. (Or, maybe, 2033?)
TB: Stafford is only 33, but in ex-Lions-quarterback-years, he's 55. He's thrown the ball 6,224 times in his career, more than any other player in NFL history through his age-32 season (Stafford's birthday is in February) -- and yet, he's won just 74 games, or the same number as fellow 33-year-old Andy Dalton, who's attempted 1,142 fewer passes. If anyone deserves to be dropped into one of the most quarterback-friendly situations in the league, it's Stafford. And unlike, say, Philip Rivers, Stafford was given his ring-chasing change of scenery early enough to really enjoy his mid-to-late 30s, especially if he clicks with Sean McVay and sticks around for the long term.
TB: Of the players who started for Pittsburgh in the Steelers' last playoff win, back in the 2016 postseason, just three remain on the roster: Ben Roethlisberger, Stephon Tuitt and Heyward. And while Roethlisberger appeared to hit a wall last season, Heyward remains, a decade into his NFL career, one of the most important pieces on a defense that ranked third in yards and points allowed in 2020. Heyward produced just four sacks all year, but he racked up 46 pressures, per Next Gen Stats, tied for 13th-most in the NFL, and earned Pro Football Focus' 13th-best defensive grade among all players (minimum of 100 snaps).
AB: Fitting that one of the league's most overlooked players of the last decade now finds himself overshadowed by his own teammate. But as special as Devin White has been in his short career, the youngster still has a ways to go before he matches David's ridiculous production. The durable, do-it-all Bucs lifer ranks second among all defenders in snaps played since entering the league in 2013, while amassing the most solo tackles (804, 80 more than Bobby Wagner) and the fourth-most forced fumbles (24). The 31-year-old's superb 2020 campaign again ended without first-team All-Pro or Pro Bowl honors, but I suspect some new jewelry and stacks on stacks will remedy any hurt feelings.
AB: Martin's streak of consecutive Pro Bowls to start his career ended at six in 2020, after a calf injury limited the Cowboys lineman to just 10 games. Had he not ended up on season-ending IR, however, the 30-year-old very well could've extended his run to seven straight. Martin graded out as the second-best offensive lineman in the NFL, per PFF, allowing just one sack and two QB hits en route to a 98.2 efficiency score. He was the lone bright spot on an O-line decimated by injuries and an offense reeling without Dak Prescott. Depth became such an issue in Dallas that Martin, channeling his Notre Dame days, slid out to tackle for 117 snaps over four games. One hit, one pressure, zero sacks. Like riding a bike.
TB: The Legion of Boom is long gone, but Wagner is still lacing 'em up in Seattle as one of the best defensive players in franchise history. The six-time first-team All-Pro is the only Seahawk to record 1,000-plus career tackles, a category in which he led the NFL just two seasons ago. With two years remaining on his current contract, Seahawks fans should savor the incredibly consistent presence of someone who feels like a sure bet to represent the team in Canton at some point down the line.
TB: Ryan Tannehill is one of the 10 best 30-and-over players in the NFL. Is there any statement or idea that feels more perfect than that in this world right now? OK, so he's probably never going to be the kind of solitary quarterbacking hero they write songs about, not given how dependent he is on surrounding talent and coaching. Some seem to hold this against him, but I will never. The further we get into Tannehill's Tennessee rebirth, the easier it will be to forget that he spent his age-30 season throwing for less than 180 yards per game on a seven-win Dolphins team, but put in the proper context, his transformation into a top-seven-or-so QB is downright jaw-dropping. I'm not sure how time will ultimately judge Tannehill, but if there were a 30-and-over Hall of Fame, he'd be ... well, maybe not a first-ballot lock yet, but he'd be on track to get in, and that's something!
AB: Julio's ranking here is not a lifetime achievement award; the future Hall of Famer is still one of the most feared offensive players in the game. Although the 32-year-old has been a little touch-and-go during much of his prolific career, last season was the first since 2013 (missed 11 games) when his availability became a major issue. Still, in just nine starts, he racked up 771 yards at 15.1 yards per clip. He also posted the best catch percentage above expected (+13.5%) of any receiver while facing the highest double-team percentage (4.4%) in the league (min. 60 targets, per NGS). With Julio teaming with Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, opposing defensive coordinators find themselves in the ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario. Good luck!
AB: Look beyond the sack total (9) and you'll find the eighth-year pro is still doing things few others can do. The Bears rely heavily on Mack to be an every-down fixer, covering up imperfections and attracting attention so guys like Robert Quinn, Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith can see favorable matchups. Mack played 83.9 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season -- nearly 64 percent more than the Bears' next closest edge rusher (Quinn) -- putting on a weekly clinic against the run and pass. In fact, he was one of just three defensive players to earn 90-plus grades from PFF in both categories (along with T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald). Justin Fields is the future of the Chicago Bears, but at least for 2021, Mack remains the franchise's most important player.
AB: Williams signed the richest contract for an offensive lineman in league history this offseason, just months after earning his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl nod. Resetting the tackle market seemed inevitable after the 33-year-old's standout first season in San Francisco, when he didn't allow a single sack in his final nine games and kept four clean sheets overall (no sacks, hits, hurries, pressures), per PFF. Although Williams hasn't played a full 16-game slate since he was 25 years old, he doesn't seem overly concerned about his durability, saying he believes he could play out the entirety of his new six-year contract and then some. When you show up to the stadium looking like this guy each Sunday, 40 feels like the floor, not the ceiling.
TB: Per conventional wisdom, pass-catchers are not supposed to age gracefully. While the calculus might be a little different for tight ends than it is for receivers, Kelce is coming off the best season of his pro career, and one of the best campaigns ever by any pass-catcher of his age. Kelce (who turned 31 last October) finished with the fifth-most catches (105) and seventh-most receiving yards (1,416) in NFL history by any player who was 30 as of Sept. 1 in a given year. It's impossible to separate his success from Patrick Mahomes, but it's not like Kelce is just some schlub sleepwalking his way to glory as a cog in the machine. Since Kelce and Mahomes joined forces in 2018, only one other player in the league has logged more receiving yards than Kelce's 3,981 (DeAndre Hopkins, 4,144).
TB: It feels like Wilson is accumulating baggage, between the shaky close to the Year of Letting Russ Cook and the offseason drama that sprang up around his frustration with the Seahawks. But maybe that's just what happens when one creeps closer to one's mid-30s: Life gets messy. (Or, well, maybe not.) Whatever transpires between Wilson and the franchise in the future, he remains one of the most talented individual players in the NFL. Things might not have always been perfectly calibrated in Seattle in recent years, but Wilson's driven their viability as contenders, and he will do so for however long he is wearing a Seahawks jersey. A legacy-advancing MVP campaign -- with, perhaps, postseason success -- still remains squarely within reach.
AB: The only reason I agreed to do this exercise again was so I could take a final victory lap over my writing counterpart for his Tom-on-Tom crime. I argued last August that the 43-year-old Brady, as strong-armed and surgical as ever, would prove he's still one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, and thus, deserved a higher ranking on our list. Tom (Blair) disagreed, and a compromise landed Brady at No. 17. For a minute there last September, my prediction looked more pathetic than prophetic. But Sleepy Tom just needed a little time to get his bearings in Tampa. When the New England haze finally wore off, Brady was as valuable as any player in the league. Over the final eight weeks of the campaign, he had the highest expected points added (84.9) of any QB, per NGS, annihilating the competition (Aaron Rodgers, 66.6; Josh Allen, 63.7). He finished third in yards (4,633), tied for second in TDs (40) and embarrassed the Chiefs' defense during Tampa Bay's Super Bowl win. Entering his age-44 season, it's hard to believe I have more questions about his decision-making than his durability.
TB: Is Rodgers going to follow in the age-defying footsteps of Brady and further redefine the upper limits of QB longevity? The odds are probably against him. But then, they were also against Brady playing to 44 in the first place. (In lieu of making a mea culpa for my stance last year on Brady, which would be the right and honorable thing to do, I will just say Brady's gotta stop someday.) Of any of the contenders to forge well past the 40-year-old threshold, Rodgers seems to have the best shot at the moment. Unlike the younger superstars, who still have too much of that messy, uncertain future stuff ahead of them, Rodgers has a decade-plus of elite production in the books and can see the big 4-0 on the horizon. Unlike most of his fellow grizzled vets, Rodgers is still playing as well as he ever has. Every year is crucial when you're talking about quarterbacking into your fifth decade on Earth, but the next few could be absolutely pivotal for Rodgers, even setting aside the question of where he'll be playing. Consider that, like Rodgers just did, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees put up all-world seasons at age 37 -- but neither ever played quite as well again.
AB: I wasn't truly sure Donald was human until last year's Divisional Round loss, when torn rib cartilage clearly limited his ability to compete. It was like watching a hobbled Maximus labor around the coliseum. I was not entertained. But that's the standard of excellence we've come to expect from PFF's highest-graded defensive player five years running. Despite facing constant double (and triple) teams, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year still produced a league-high 71 pressures (tied with T.J. Watt), the sixth-best disruption rate (15.5%) and hit double-digit sacks for the fifth time in six seasons, per NGS. His highlight-per-snap potential is so great, you feel bad even thinking about watching another Rams defender -- and Jalen Ramsey is on that team!