Aging Gracefully on the Edge

It's Khalil Mack's birthday and he turned 30 on Monday and here's how the best pass rushers have performed once they've hit this age in a league where youth is king.
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Khalil Mack celebrates a birthday on Monday, Feb. 22.

It's not quite a birthday most pro football players enjoy.

It's his 30th birthday. 

For his birthday, he could be getting a contract restructuring bonus, although that's yet to be determined.

It's a sign the Bears have taken what can usually be the three most productive years from a player, from ages 27 through 29, and in this case failed to do anything with it beyond winning one division title.

The 30-year mark for a running back has traditionally been a death knell, but in today's NFL running backs get tossed on the proverbial pile out back often before the age of 30.

In the case of edge rushers, both father time and standard National Football League wear and tear are a little more lenient.

The key for Mack will likely be retaining his health, which hasn't been easy the last two years. He had 8 1/2 sacks and nine the last two season as he fought through nagging injuries. 

Last year it was a shoulder injury. Even in 2018 when he exploded on the scene after being traded to the Bears, Mack had a nagging ankle injury which might have affected his play half the season.

If Mack is slowing down, it's news to anyone who plays against him. Even with some injuries, Pro Football Focus last year gave him the highest grade for any edge player at 92.3. That was where he was graded when he won defensive MVP in 2016 with the Raiders.

There are numerous cases of pass rushers who hit 30 and continue to flourish for years and years. In fact, three players in their 30s were among PFF's top 10 graded edge rushers last year: J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan and Brandon Graham.

Mack's contemporary, and a player he's most often compared to, is Denver's Von Miller. He isn't one of these who enjoyed success in his 30s so far.

It hasn't exactly been a fun time after 30 for Miller. He hit 30 in 2019 and had his worst career sack production for what was essentially a full season with eight. The only time he had been below double figures was in 2013 when he was limited to nine games due to an injury. Then last year he missed the entire season with an Achilles tear.

Now there is talk he'll be cut.

Miller seems the exception among the greatest pass rushers.

  • Fourth on the all-time sack list, Julius Peppers had four double-digit sack totals when he was 30 or older, including two with the Bears.
  • Another former Bear, Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate Jared Allen, had two double-digit sack totals at 30 or older.
  • Bears all-time sack leader Richard Dent reached double figures in sacks three more times once he hit 30.
  • Michael Strahan had three more double-digit sacks seasons at age 30 and later.
  • Terrell Suggs, who is eighth in sacks all time and retired in 2019, had three double-digit sack seasons when he was 30 or older.
  • The minister of defense, Reggie White, had five more sack seasons of double digits once he turned 30. White played both tackle and end in his career, leaving himself even more exposed when he played inside. And this only made his career all the more remarkable.
  • Remarkably, the late Kevin Greene reeled off double-digit sack totals seven times at age 30 or later and in the one season he didn't reach this figure he had nine sacks.
  • All-time sack leader Bruce Smith did the same thing Greene did, but then kept playing and added one more nine-sack season among several before retiring at the age of 40.

Mack last year held a Zoom press conference with media from his stationary bicycle as he conditioned at his house at night. He's a total freak about conditioning.

It can only be of benefit if he hopes to have the kind of longevity plenty of other great pass rushers have had.

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven

Source: Profootballreference.com, Pro Football Focus