He is a free agent. His career accomplishments already have him in the Pantheon of the NFL. Few pass rushers have terrorized quarterbacks at the rate he has, but he is going to be 32 next season. Free agents get paid for past performance as much as future, and committing big dollars to defensive end on the wrong side of 30 often leads to a new general manager shortly thereafter. But the lure of supreme pass rushers is like a siren’s song. All are drawn to them, but only some avoid the craggy shores. One brave man steered his team through the dangerous waters. His name was Ron Wolf. Another man named Reggie White had 124.0 career sacks when he became a 31-year-old free agent in 1993. Wolf was committed to building through the draft, but went out of character to sign White to a 4 year $17M contract, which was unprecedented for a defensive player at the time. White made Wolf look like a genius by helping the Packers to a Super Bowl title in 1996. John Schneider, a Wolf protege, faces a similar decision this off-season with not one, but two thirty-something decorated pass rushers on the free agent market. History may have more lessons to offer Schneider as he attempts to guide his team past the rocky shores to a championship of his own.
The season preceding White’s arrival in Green Bay, the Packers welcomed a precocious 23-year-old quarterback by the name of Brett Favre. He helped turn a 4-12 team into a 9-7 winner. The addition of White helped lift the franchise to six straight playoff appearances after only two in the previous twenty-five seasons. They did not sniff a losing record for more than a decade. White retired after the 1998 season, but not before collecting 68.5 sacks after the age of 32.
Schneider, too, has a superstar young quarterback ready to lead his team, and knows a more consistent pass rush could be the missing ingredient for a string of Super Bowl wins. Dwight Freeney, he of 107.5 career sacks, turns 33 this month. Osi Umenyiora has 75 sacks of his own, and will turn 32 in November. Both are unrestricted free agents, and neither will re-sign with their current teams. There are younger choices, but the appeal of older players like Freeney and Umenyiora is the commitment can be for fewer years, and the cost should be significantly less.
The question is whether it is realistic to expect a pass rusher to produce into their mid-30s. Maybe White was just a freak of nature. Maybe not. These are the Top 50 most productive pass rushers after the age of 32:
Two of the most recent veteran pass rushers to appear on that list are Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor. Neither player showed any real signs of slowing down when they hit 31. Taylor ended up having the 3rd-best sack total of his career at the age of 32, and Strahan had a record 22.5 sacks at 30, and followed that with 18.5 sacks at 32. Julius Peppers just turned 32 and had 11.5 sacks to celebrate. John Abraham has 32.5 sacks in the last three seasons since turning 32.
Freeney posted double-digit sacks in seven of his first nine seasons, but has failed to do so in the last two seasons. There is growing talk that an ankle injury and a 3-4 defensive scheme installed last season had more to do with his dropoff in production than Freeney’s age. Yet, he had only 8.5 sacks the year before.
Umenyiora has only three double-digit sack seasons to his credit. Although, he did post 9.0 sacks in 9 games in 2011 before dropping to 6.0 sacks last year. He has been locked in a contract dispute for at least two seasons, and one has to wonder how much that has effected his play.
Freeney is probably the purer pass rusher of the two, but Umenyiora may have more to prove. Toss a coin. There may never have been a better year to be looking for veteran pass rush help.
Schneider will almost certainly have to spend more than he is comfortable with to sign either player. This front office has only signed one sizable free agent contract for a player over 30, Robert Gallery, and he was released a year later. The team may only need one or two great years from this player before Bruce Irvin develops or the draft brings new options. It will be among Schneider’s most challenging evaluations to make this off-season, and it would not be surprising if his first call is not to an agent, but to an old mentor from Green Bay.