Commentary

Older WRs on borrowed time

Originally Published: March 23, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Marvin HarrisonPaul Spinelli/Getty ImagesA combination of salary-cap problems, injuries and diminished production led the Colts to release Marvin Harrison, 36.

Only one of the NFL's top 10 wide receivers in total catches last season was 30 or older. Not since 2001, when Rod Smith of Denver caught 113 passes, has a player older than 30 led the league in receptions. The top 10 wide receivers in 2008 averaged 26.1 years old. The average experience was 4.6 seasons.

None of those things, it seems, is by coincidence.

The 30-something wide receiver certainly hasn't disappeared completely from the NFL, but he has gradually become an endangered species.

"Some decisions are made for economics, and others for [deterioration] of physical skills," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie coach Raheem Morris, who recently released 30s wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard as part of a sweeping roster purge. "I don't want to characterize [these] moves."

No matter the reason -- salary cap, eroded skills, injury, philosophical change -- the effect has been the same. If you're a wide receiver 30 or older, you may be on borrowed time in the NFL.

Consider: Of the 64 starting NFL wide receivers last season, only 19 were 30 or older. Over the past month, 12 wide receivers 30 and older were released for a variety of reasons. Not all were starters, but most enjoyed celebrated careers. The average age of the dropped dozen is 32.9 years, the average NFL tenure is 10.5 seasons.

These days, being long in the tooth usually means you're a long shot to make the team.

2008: Best of Marvin Harrison

NFL.com Video

Highlights of the best moments from Marvin Harrison in 2008.

The victims of this year's jettisoning range from a future Hall of Fame member (Marvin Harrison), to a possible Hall of Famer (Torry Holt), to still productive performers (Terrell Owens and Laveranues Coles), to veterans coming off injury-ravaged seasons (Galloway and Joe Jurevicius), to guys who fit well only in certain offensive systems (Mike Furrey) in which they can flourish.

The 30-something receivers cut loose this spring have combined for 6,750 catches, 82,588 yards and 676 touchdowns. Still, as impressive as those figures may be, the individual statistics that increasingly matter the most to many teams are the ones on the players' birth certificates.

Even though three of the veterans have signed with new teams (Owens with the Buffalo Bills, Coles with the Cincinnati Bengals and Galloway with the New England Patriots), their reincarnations hardly diminish the reality that it is a young man's game.

And at wide receiver, it is getting younger all the time.

Over the past several years, the NFL has become the real-life equivalent of "no country for old men."

Generally, a player on the wrong side of 30 is considered to have entered his NFL dotage. Though some wide receivers remain productive after 30 -- Owens is 35, and despite the baggage he brings, he has 10-plus touchdown catches in each of the past three seasons -- for most the age represents a line of demarcation.

And often the end of the line.

"Torry was a great player for the Rams, but we decided to go in a different direction," said St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney, who released Holt recently. "The move wasn't really a reflection of him."

Nonetheless, when a coach or general manager says a club is "going in a different direction," that is NFL code for "see ya later."

Thirty is an age at which some wide receivers have been successful. There were, after all, six such wide receivers among the NFL's top 25 in 2008, and players such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Hines Ward and the Baltimore Ravens' Derrick Mason are still performing at a high level. Still, 30 is a milestone many wide receivers dread reaching.

"It's when you start looking over your shoulder a lot," said David Patten, who was recently released by the New Orleans Saints. "Sometimes, you find that people are gaining on you."

There are all sorts of reasons, and sometimes a combination of variables, for a 30s wide receiver's release. Harrison, who played his entire career for the Indianapolis Colts and formed one of the all-time great batteries with quarterback Peyton Manning, is a good example of many intertwined factors coming together for his release last month at 36.

The Colts were up against the salary cap, already strapped for spending room, and would have been charged more than $13 million for Harrison. And there were these physical factors: In the past two seasons, Harrison has missed a dozen games because of injuries. He caught 60 passes in 2008, a respectable number for sure, but that represented his second-worst season in a year in which he played more than 10 games.

"What we saw [in studying Harrison] was the same quickness, the same great hands," said first-year Colts coach Jim Caldwell. "What we didn't see was a diminishment of [physical] skills."

There are others in the NFL who would respectfully disagree with that assessment. And that's obvious by the sparse number of inquiries Harrison has elicited from other clubs. It might be hard to imagine Harrison without NFL employment in 2009, but that is a real possibility.

Holt almost certainly will have multiple suitors in the coming weeks. Many of the other 30-plus wide receivers, but not all of them, will be in NFL training camps this summer. But there are no guarantees for Harrison, the second-leading receiver in league history.

Perhaps the only saving grace is that Harrison probably won't be alone. He could have a few 30-something buddies keeping him company.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.