Adam Levitan

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Veterans on Decline

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The start of a new NFL always brings optimism and excitement. But for a few NFL veterans, it also signals the start of something else -- an inevitable decline.

We've highlighted 10 big-name players whose skills are starting to fade and might be in for rougher seasons than expected:

Michael Turner, RB, Falcons
Here’s a fact that should strike fear into any running back: Michael Turner will turn 30 in February. The Falcons know he’s on the wrong side of his career arc, re-signing top backup Jason Snelling and giving up the farm to draft Julio Jones. Wisely, they will rely more on Matt Ryan’s arm in 2011 than the artist formerly known as “Turner the Burner.” Last season, Turner averaged just 3.58 yards per carry over the final six games and has racked up 330 or more carries in two of the last three years.

Marques Colston, WR, Saints
For a wide receiver, one knee surgery is bad. Two is a major red flag. But five knee procedures in one career? That’s downright frightening. To make matters worse, when Colston went under the knife this offseason, it was for microfracture surgery. That’s a major procedure that is tough to overcome because it counts on your body regenerating cartilage -- which can often take longer than expected. Colston’s ability to separate, leap and explode over the course of the season are all in doubt.

Editor's Note: For more busts, sleepers, updated rankings and much more, get the 2011 Draft Guide!

Ryan Grant, RB, Packers
Word out of Packers camp is that Grant has been slow to bounce back to his old form after tearing an ankle ligament and fracturing his leg in Week 1 of last season. He has accepted a $1 million paycut and playoff hero James Starks is breathing down his neck. So even though we haven’t really seen Grant since 2009, the signs of a decline are here. Grant was never an elite talent in the first place, going undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2005 and proving to be a liability in the passing game.

Tony Gonzalez, TE, Falcons
One of the greatest tight ends in the history of the game keeps himself in tremendous physical condition, but Father Time catches up to everyone. Gonzalez will be 36 in February and is coming off a season with his fewest receptions (70) since 2003 and yards (656) since 1998. Perhaps the most telling stat is Gonzalez’s meager 9.4 yards per catch in 2010, a career-low mark. He has lost the ability to do anything with the ball after the catch and can no longer run by linebackers at will.

Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts
As careers move along, explosive deep threats often become possession receivers. Wayne is in the middle of that transition as we speak. His yards per reception has dropped in five straight years as he struggles to beat corners deep and therefore settles for underneath routes. Now entering his 11th NFL season, Wayne is a threat to average less than 12 yards per catch. And as Peyton Manning’s neck injury lingers, the decline will happen faster than anyone can predict.

Cedric Benson, RB, Bengals
Benson hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent this offseason expecting to cash in on his back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Nope. Benson attracted virtually no known interest from other teams and ended up settling for a one-year, $3 million contract with the Bengals. Teams see that Benson is not the powerful, tackle-shedding runner he was at Texas. Now 28, he gets what is blocked and very little more. CedBen is a poor bet to top the brutal 3.5 yards per carry he posted a year ago.

David Garrard, QB, Jaguars
Garrard has had plenty of chances to establish himself as a top-tier quarterback. It’s not happening. Now 33, Garrard has gone just 20-26 as a starter over the last three seasons. The Jaguars have admitted that he is not the answer, using the No. 10 overall pick on Blaine Gabbert in April. To make matters worse, the Jags have put together one of the worst receiving corps in the league, headed by Mike Thomas and Jason Hill. There is little chance of Garrard reversing his career trend.

Donovan McNabb, QB, Vikings
Was McNabb mistreated in Washington last season? Probably. Is he a shell of his former self? Certainly. Now lacking his trademark mobility and elusiveness at age 34, McNabb is in for trouble behind the Vikings’ league-worst offensive line. The Vikes didn’t do him any favors with his weapons either, allowing Sidney Rice to walk in free agency and replacing the deep threat with blocking specialist Michael Jenkins. McNabb will have to be more accurate than ever, something he has always struggled with.

Donald Driver, WR, Packers
Driver will set the franchise record for career receiving yards soon, but he is no longer among the best three wideouts on the 2011 Packers. In fact, Randall Cobb’s raw explosiveness could make Driver the fifth-best receiver on the club. That’s what happens when you’re 36 and can no longer separate. Aaron Rodgers has moved on, as Driver caught a total of three passes in the NFC Title Game and the Super Bowl last season. Retirement is the next step for the lifelong Packer.

Chris Gamble, CB, Panthers
Gamble wound up in coach John Fox’s doghouse last season, benched for ineffectiveness and discipline issues. His willingness to tackle was at an all-time low and he wasn’t covering at anywhere near the level he did when he signed a $53.5 million contract in 2008. Now there is a new regime in town, one that was supposed to snap Gamble back into shape. So far, so bad for the 28-year-old Gamble, who was abused by rookie A.J. Green in the third preseason game. These are signs he’s washed up already. 

Adam Levitan is in his sixth season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
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