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Looking at the longevity of tackles and Duane Brown

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Washington Redskins vÊSeattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

On Monday I took a look at the aging curve for tackles at a very high level, looking at nothing more than the number of players who have started 12 or more games for an NFL team at tackle at different ages in order to attempt to gauge how long Duane Brown might be able to play. A great question was brought up in the comments about survivorship bias and whether higher level players play longer than lower level players, so I did some digging and here’s the data.

The way I collected the data was to go through the tackles who have started at least 12 games in their age 28, 31, 33 and 35 seasons, and from there to break down the age groups into players based on accolades earned during their careers. The first group includes any player who made an All Pro team at any point during their career. For those players who were never selected to the All Pro team, I grouped in in one of three categories:

  • Three or more Pro Bowl selections during their career,
  • One or two Pro Bowl selections during their career and
  • Zero Pro Bowl selections during their career.

With those groups laid out, it was then a matter of simply looking at whether players who made an All Pro team or more Pro Bowls played longer than those tackles who did not. The data, quite simply, speaks for itself.

It’s pretty readily apparent that tackles that don’t make the Pro Bowl or All Pro team during their NFL career fall off quicker than those that do, as the percentage of tackles in the NFL that never made a Pro Bowl or All Pro team during their career drops by nearly a third from age 28 to age 33. From there it drops even more, as it is nearly cut in half in the seven years from age 28 to age 35. For those who prefer a more visual representation, here is that data in a line chart.

So, with that in mind, I wanted to know what kind of age someone with Duane Brown’s accolades could be expected to play until. So, using the Pro Football Reference player season finder, I looked into the tackles that have played in the NFL since 1978 who have earned four or more Pro Bowl selections and made at least one All Pro team. The sample size of 22 players was certainly small, but given the shape of the distribution, I’d venture to guess that it’s pretty accurate.

Age of final game started for NFL T with 4+ Pro Bowls and at least 1 All Pro selection

Age of final start Number of Players
Age of final start Number of Players
29 1
30 1
31 1
32 2
33 4
34 6
35 3
36 1
37 1
38 2

That table is a lot of numbers, and at least for me it’s a lot easier to understand visually, so here it is in chart form.

So, even with a small sample of just 22 such players, the results are pretty much normally distributed around the age of 34. For this sample, I did look at only retired players, so players like Andrew Whitworth would be an extra data point on the right side of the chart depending on how much longer he plays, but I excluded guys like Tyron Smith because it would only skew the data. Since I’m sure multiple commenters are wondering, the 29 year old was Tony Boselli and the 30 year old was Ryan Clady. Both of those were dominant players who saw injuries derail their careers.

In addition, I also excluded players like Bruce Matthews, Will Shields and Larry Allen, because while they did play some tackle early in their careers, their longevity largely was due to the fact that they played on the interior of the line. For example, while Bruce Matthews played until he was 40, he never played tackle after age 25 and never made a Pro Bowl or All Pro team as a tackle, only as a guard or center.

Thus, basing a prediction on Brown’s longevity on this data, the odds would be somewhere in the 65-70% range that he would not play past 2019, and somewhere around 80% that 2020 would be his last year in the league. Obviously those are nothing more than rough ballpark estimates based on a small sample, but the data is pretty evenly distributed. Perhaps Brown is the exception to the rule and he will age as gracefully as Whitworth has, but the odds of that seem low.

In any case, it will certainly be interesting to see how things develop, and hopefully Brown turns in several more years of high level performance. The numbers put the odds against that happening, but it’s certainly not impossible.