In the Bryce Fisher retro I pointed out how defensive ends tend to peak in their mid to late twenties, and that only the best of the best retain effectiveness after thirty. In that article I was only talking about the top ten sack leaders, let's expand that to the top thirty. That will include not just the top pass rushers, but the still valuable second class. The first thing that stands out is that only nine times in ninety seasons did a player older than Kerney record a top thirty sack total. Jason Taylor and Simeon Rice account for four of those, Michael Strahan and Warren Sapp account for two more. You could make a pretty good argument that Kerney couldn't hold those guys' jock straps, but, hey, he's a Hawk now so let's give him the benefit of the doubt.
Only two of these players had experienced a serious injury in any season, five or more years before their latest top 30 performance. The first, Philip Daniels played only five games in 2004 after suffering multiple injuries. Foremost, a groin injury and a dislocated wrist that forced him onto the IR. In 2005 he recorded eight sacks, but four of those were against tackling-dummy Drew Bledsoe. That's not quite on par with Craig Terrill's three against Oakland in week 9, but it's not that far off, either. In 2006 Daniels collapsed, recording only three sacks. The other is Michael Strahan. Strahan missed eight games in 2004 due to a pectoral injury before returning with a 11.5 sacks in 2005. In 2006, Strahan started slowly before missing the final seven games of the season. Incidentally, two of his three sacks in 2006 were of, you guessed it, Drew Bledsoe.
Kerney suffered the same injury that sidelined Strahan in 2004, a torn pectoral muscle. The injury not only cost Strahan eight games, but forced him to reinvent himself. He slimmed down, becoming more of a speed rusher. For Strahan the transition worked, but then Strahan is one of the best pass rushers of our generation. Kerney is almost certain to stick with the punishing, high-motor style that made him a star. The problem for Kerney is that after sustaining a tear, the muscle is often less flexible, strong and resilient.
So, what do we have for $19.5 million guaranteed? A player entering the decline phase of his career, an age group where the vast majority of defensive ends see a large drop in performance. Oh but that's not all, to compound that he is fresh off a surgery that will decrease his effectiveness, aid his decline and make him more susceptible to reinjury in the future. Mix that while adding a generous portion of career ineffectiveness at defending the run and, voila! you have a recipe for disaster. It's not a sure thing. Muscle tears are not chronic and some players return with almost no ill effects. If you believe Kerney to be an elite pass rusher, he may defy the age curve and be able to sustain a high level of performance a la Rice and Taylor for the next few years. But the Hawks are wagering a hefty chunk of change against the odds, and betting the team's future on a player who can't be expected to produce.
Tim Ruskell is quickly chipping away at a reputation built on an excellent 2005 draft. After an awesome title run, Seattle has lost talent (Hutchinson, presumably Hamlin) added onerous contracts (Kerney, possibly Burleson) traded away a first round pick for a position of depth (Branch) and been unwilling to pay for a potential franchise left guard (Dielman). I've been a big backer of Ruskell, but lest we see fireworks in this year's draft, the 2007 season may decide his fate for him.