Darren Sharper Learning Age Eliminates His Safety Net
Yes, the Chicago Bears correctly spent $91.5 million with $20 million guaranteed on a dominating player who is age 30 and entering his ninth pro season.
But four other big-name unrestricted free agents who have grabbed top, guaranteed dollars with new teams fit this profile:
-- An age of 27 or 28.
-- Entering his sixth through eighth NFL season.
Teams are thinking big upswing with this kind of player.
Textured just enough. Green just enough. Seed planted by other franchises. His new club collects the bloom.
Cornerback Dunta Robinson (from Houston to Atlanta, $22.5 million guaranteed), linebacker Karlos Dansby (from Arizona to Miami, $22 million guaranteed), safety Antrel Rolle (from Arizona to the Giants, $15 million guaranteed) and receiver Nate Burleson (from Seattle to Detroit, $11 million guaranteed) fit this model. Robinson and Rolle are 27. Dansby and Burleson are 28. Rolle enters his sixth season. Robinson and Dansby enter their seventh and Burleson his eighth.
Teams would have spent more on younger prospects if the new, uncapped system for 2010 had not pushed free agency/player service requirements from four years of play to six. Those requirements reduced and aged the unrestricted free agent pool. Of this top-dollar quartet moving to new clubs, Rolle gives the Giants the freshest player in terms of fewest seasons.
Safety Darren Sharper thought he had a real shot with the Giants.
He just won Super Bowl XLIV with the New Orleans Saints. He just earned his fifth all-pro season with nine interceptions last season. He is tied for sixth with Ronnie Lott in career interceptions (63). No player has ever returned interceptions for more yards than Sharper did last season.
But here was his challenge with the Giants: Sharper is age 34 entering his 14th season compared with Rolle being seven years younger and eight seasons fewer of wear.
Sharper right now is a better safety than Rolle. But over the next few seasons, Rolle will clearly overtake him.
When does a player find that experience is no longer as much of an asset as being, simply, too old, too much of a risk?
The older player wants every ounce of long-term security. The team wants every protection from an older player instantly deteriorating. Teams say the clock for that day begins to tick faster at age 30, Peppers an apparent gigantic exception. And teams are always leery of older, talented players simply angling for that final, huge career payday.
Every NFL team mulls these kinds of questions when considering age 30-or-older free agents. Several players in that group -- accomplished and talented players like Sharper -- deal with the fallout.
"We were hoping some talks we were having with the Giants would work out, but they chose the younger guy," Sharper said. "Now it's just a matter of finding a place where the dollars make sense. An all-pro safety nowadays makes $6 million a year. I think I can play three more years. So, there you go."
The Saints paid Sharper $1.7 million last season.
Had they placed a franchise tag on him, Sharper would have earned $6.455 million this season.
Age and price.
For Sharper and other free agent players in the 30-plus-age club, those two words might as well be one as they seek new homes or find their way back to their old ones.
If Sharper returns to the Saints this season, it will be for dollars somewhere closer to his salary from a year ago rather than those safety franchise numbers. The possibility of larger dollars and a longer-term deal in a new place remains his hope.
On last Wednesday, he had surgery on his left knee.
"I had a little cleanup to be done," Sharper said. "I was dealing with that knee a lot at the end of the season. I expect to be moving around pretty good by the weekend and getting out to visit some teams. The ones that are interested, they knew about the surgery. It has delayed things some, but there is no rush."
Is the knee a distinctive issue?
Is it now age, price and knee that are flags for Sharper?
Sharper says no. Doctors for any teams interested will have the final say. It is not as if Sharper needs extra deal breakers.
Being 34 and a 13-season veteran is plenty enough in some circles, despite his ability.
"It's kind of a myth around the league that guys in their 30s can't play this game at a high level," Sharper said. "I'm kind of surprised how the myth has lingered. Brian Dawkins, John Lynch, Rod Woodson, those are guys in their 30s who have played NFL safety at a high level. Ed Reed right now is 31. I'm kind of confused and baffled by why teams would be leery of that with me. I think we saw with the Saints that you need a mixture of youth and experience to win a championship in this league."
Two teams that fit for Sharper:
New York Jets: They moved Kerry Rhodes to Arizona and in Sharper could add a safety who fits their attacking, physical system well. "I'd love to play for Rex Ryan," Sharper said. "I know I fit the scheme."
Chicago Bears: Now that Peppers is added up front, Sharper on the back line would be a good thing. He knows the NFC Central, having spent eight seasons with Green Bay and four with Minnesota. "And they are right on the cusp," Sharper said of the Bears. "They have the ability to get to the next level."
Of course, the Saints still fit. They know what Sharper brings, but they let him test the market. He is doing that testing. He is finding that age in the NFL often creates its own limits.
"Wherever I land, they're going to get a proven leader," Sharper said. "I'm a guy that has proven he can help take a defense and a team to the next level. A playmaker, still, who makes game-changing plays. I think there's a fit for that somewhere."