Jared Allen signed with the Chicago Bears, ostensibly replacing Julius Peppers on the roster. Peppers earlier signed with division rival Green Bay, so the choice between the two veterans, both whom rate in the top 20 all-time in sacks along with fellow offseason mover DeMarcus Ware, will play out on the frozen tundra of the NFC North. Allen will turn 32 in a few days, while Peppers is two years older. The Bears, then, seem to have swapped out one veteran for another but gained two years in age.
While NFL contracts are a funny thing and amounts are almost invariably over-reported, Allen is getting $15.5 million guaranteed in the first two years, while Peppers is getting $8.5 million in his first year , and with no further word on the guaranteed money, may not have anymore long term guarantees. Their compensation appears similar on a per year basis, though the Packers may be able to walk away sooner with less overall commitment.
Age may be a factor in that. Age, when it comes to projecting, is a funny thing. Teams often make mistakes by not accounting for it: in player evaluation, in drafting, in projecting the future, and in comparing players. Ignoring it entirely is folly. It’s also not simple and straight forward, where player X is the better bet to last longer just because he is younger. We can point to numerous counter-examples to every general trend in aging in sports.
What I was interested in, when it came to the Packers vs. Bears, is whether Allen’s outlook should be much different than Peppers based on the age difference. Intuition would say yes. I looked at the best players at defensive end from ages 26 to 31 (for Allen), and ages 28 to 33 (for Peppers). As you might imagine, there was a fair amount of crossover, since it involved some of the same ages. I then found, for each, guys that were (a) active at the same age that each is this year, and (b) either did not make a pro bowl or changed teams at that age.
Allen and Peppers both missed the pro bowl last season after several pro bowl seasons in the years prior. Both were seen as in decline, thus making them expendable. Here is the list of most similar players for each:
Here is the comparison of the outcomes for the two groups, in the years that followed, starting with age 32 and 34 respectively.
Age 32 comps (Allen): 3.1 seasons remaining in league, 2.0 seasons as main starter at DE, 0.3 pro bowl seasons.
Age 34 comps (Peppers): 3.4 seasons remaining in league, 2.4 seasons as main starter at DE, 0.4 pro bowl seasons.
What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here? Despite sharing two names (Dent and O’Neal) who necessarily had more years left at age 32 than age 34, the Peppers group does just as well. I don’t know that I can explain it, other than the fact that Peppers was still in the league at age 34 is a positive survivorship indicator. The herd thins out, even among the elite defensive ends, between age 31 and 34, but those that survived continued to play in the league at a rate similar to slightly younger counterparts.
Age matters, but both groups are past the peak age. The decline can happen at any time, and is highly subject to individual variables in such a small, elite group.
NFL Free Agency is rife with danger, and I wrote in the past how only 8% of the big free agent long term signings get to the end of the originally reported contract length. However, I don’t think older players are any more risky (because most older players were really good players). They often don’t get the same length or guaranteed money. Allen and Peppers may be in decline, though history points to plenty of other top defensive ends who appeared to be declining only to have a revival with a new team. You probably are not getting a pro bowler anymore, but you might get a few years of an above average starter.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]