Real Time Analytics

Retiring Early: NFL Players Choosing To Cut Their Careers Short

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

With the retirement of Vikings tackle Phil Loadholt (among others), 20 NFL players have retired in 2016 under the age of 30.

Phil Loadholt’s retirement on July 25th sent shock waves through NFL twitter accounts. Loadholt was expected to compete for the Vikings’ right tackle position in training camp this year — after missing nearly a year and a half due to a torn pectoral and a torn Achilles — and proclaimed himself to be healthy earlier in the offseason. According to The Pioneer Press‘s Chris Tomasson, Loadholt had unfortunately suffered a recent setback while working out.

While Loadholt’s retirement does simplify the competition at right tackle, his retirement also continues a growing trend of players retiring earlier in their careers than expected. According to ESPN analyst Adam Schefter, Loadholt’s retirement constitutes a bit of a pattern.

Now, my data disagrees with Schefter slightly, as’s NFL transactions page has 20 players aged 30 and under retiring thus far in 2016, though it should be noted that at the time of Schefter’s tweet, four players 30 or under (defensive tackle Kaleb Ramsey, safety Charles Godfrey, running back Tyler Varga and defensive end Corey Wootton) that I have on my list of 20 had not yet retired. 

This tweet of Schefter’s got me interested because there has been hay made recently in the media about players retiring younger, so I did some digging in the transaction page. Since the beginning of the 2015 calendar year, lists 39 players who retired at age 30 or younger. These 39 players range across the playing field and experience spectrum, with low-level rookies like Varga mixing in with high-visibility veterans such as wide receiver Calvin Johnson and offensive lineman Jonathan Martin.

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Obviously, simple numbers of total players retiring doesn’t mean a whole lot, so I took all the players listed in the transaction page as having retired since 2015 and put them into an Excel document. According to the data, the average age of the players between the two years retiring is 30.41, a number fairly close to the hay-making age of 30. Then I divided the two years up, averaging each year’s average retirement age to determine which year was “younger.” Surprisingly, 2015 was the “younger” of the two years, with an average retirement age of 29.87, and 2016 coming in at 30.93.

After a quick scan of the data, it was pretty clear what had dragged up 2016’s numbers: the 39+ crowd. Of the four players that retired in the last two years that were either 39 or 40 years old, all four of them retired in 2016. If they were to be removed from the chart entirely, the overall average age of retirement would drop all the way to 29.92, with 2016 at 29.97 and 2015 at 29.87.

Players retiring on average before age 30 seemed young to me, so I decided to look back a full decade and see what player retirement averages looked like from 2006-2016.

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Over that 10 year period, the overall player retirement average age was 32.1 years of age. But again, just total numbers of player retirements won’t tell you a lot. So I went to the averages again and created another graph.

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Retirement Age Average33.2933.2134.7231.9433.9233.32
Retirement Age Average31.7932.173029.8730.93

As indicated on the graph, the R^2 value for the graph is .6158. The R^2 value is the value assigned to the trendline that shows the fit of a model with the data utilized, so the data in theory is only just a little bit better than a 50% fit to the data. However, something that R^2 often has issues dealing with is any attempt to predict human behavior; I would consider the idea of trying to predict someone retiring from their job earlier than expected to be a near-perfect definition of exactly that. Therefore, a 60% R^2 value is likely about as accurate as a graph can be in this scenario, and the value would appear to imply that the data is as accurate as it can be.

Even more intriguing is the percentages of players retiring before the age of thirty over this 10-year span.

Percentage20/40 (50%)19/39 (49%)14/31 (45%)17/40 (43%)12/38 (32%)4/22 (18%)
Percentage7/36 (19%)5/17 (29%)5/29 (17%)3/19 (16%)6/17 (35%)

This chart explains that, with the exceptions of jumps in 2006 and 2009, the percentages of players retiring being the age of 30 or younger has been rising quite steadily ever since 2011. Even the jumps in 2006 and 2009 should be looked at with some skepticism as they were the two years where the fewest players were noted as retiring (though obviously the list that I used could have missed a few players, and likely did). The low numbers in these two years of ‘06 and ‘09 further affect the average retirement age from above, as more players retiring could or would mean more under-30 players retiring.

There is obviously still nearly five months left in this year, and even more players could retire, so this data is by no means complete. That being said, this appears to be a fairly compelling argument that there is a trend beginning to form over younger players retiring earlier. Now, because I believe this trend exists, there would need to be a trigger for this to happen. Not only do I think there is a trigger, I think there are two.

The two catalysts that I personally believe are driving the increasing numbers of players, both under 30 and overall (as there has also been a noticeable rise in the number of total players retiring, not just those over 30) to retire are the suicide/medical examination of linebacker Junior Seau and the early retirement of linebacker Chris Borland.

Junior Seau: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Seau was one of the first NFL athletes to be publicly diagnosed with CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, after his brain was donated by his family to a research team. His postmortem diagnosis began the waves of research into the deaths of former NFL players and the findings that many former NFL players have also suffered from CTE, a condition that is caused and exacerbated by repeated violent blows to the head. His family has begun a lawsuit against the NFL on Seau’s behalf and they appear ready to continue the court battle for as long as they want it to go.

Since the retirement of former San Francisco 49ers rookie linebacker Chris Borland nearly a year and a half ago due to multiple concussions suffered while playing football (reportedly as many as 10 in his career), the issue of player safety in the NFL has slowly been creeping to the forefront.

The NFL has released new concussion protocols for the 2016 season and they have put money towards research on concussions and CTE. Despite these positive steps, the 2020 NFL CBA negotiations will likely be a forum for discussions on player safety, especially with regards to the number of padded practices allowed in the offseason and the ability of NFL players to use alternative painkilling methods besides pills—marijuana in particular.

Player safety in a game as violent as football will continue to be discussed until players are somehow made to be immune from suffering injuries during the games or until the NFL ceases to exist. What the NFL decides to do on this topic of player safety, as well as finding ways of making the game safer so players are willing to play in it longer, will almost certainly determine the future of American football as we know it.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Justin Peroff.

What under-30 player retired most recently?
Created 7/26/16
  1. Kaleb Ramsey
  2. Eugene Monroe
  3. Walter Thurmond
  4. Phil Loadholt

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