NFL Career Length and Average Age versus Average Life Expectancy


Here is the data provided by the NFLPA, which is based on the average number of accrued seasons for all players on an active roster on opening day of the 2010 season:


The NFLPA number represents the average experience level at a particular point in time; the NFL number represents the average career length. Both numbers are derived from actual player data. I know that they are using different periods, but that’s not the issue. I’m fairly confident that you would get similar numbers if you measured each way for the same period. So how is it possible that we have a difference of over 2 years?

It’s because of decaying populations, and because average age isn’t the same as average life expectancy.

Let’s draw an analogy to the U.S. Population data. Per the 2000 Census, the median age in the United States was 35.3 (and it looks to be up to 36.9 in 2011, yea! I’ll hit median age next week). The average life expectancy reported in the same census was 76.8.

Let’s assume, in arguendo, that life expectancy rates stay the same whether you were born in 2006 or 1946 (Obviously, we know this isn’t true as life expectancy continues to increase, but play along). If we took a snapshot in 2011, we would find a whole lot more 5 year olds than 65 year olds. This is true even if the 5 year olds, many of whom will be future 65 year olds, will experience mortality rates at the same rate as those born in 1946 did.

That’s how a population where the median person is expected to live to 77 can have a median age that is half that number at any particular point in time. In our analogy, the NFLPA number is average age; the NFL number is life expectancy. So I feel it is inaccurate to say that the average NFL career is 3.5 years. That would be like saying that the average life in the United States is 37 years.

The proper way to cite the two numbers is to say that the average NFL player at any point in time has 3.5 years of experience, and that the average career lasts about 6 years. The NFLPA numbers, by the way, are nearly identical (and calculated by roughly the same method) as the number I had at the bottom of that previous post where I looked at when draft classes peak. I said:

"The highest value comes in years three and four. (so in this sense, the median contributor in an NFL season has about 3.5 years of service time). Roughly 62% of the contributors in a given NFL season will be in their first five years in the league."

The fact that I got a roughly similar number as the NFLPA’s 2010 number using data from 1970-1994 draft classes, using an admittedly much cruder method (they have very specific data on who was on a roster to start the season, and accrued season data, I’m just using final year compared to draft year for players recording enough statistics to be counted), shows that the experience level has remained pretty constant over time.

What the NFLPA’s data (along with mine) does show is that the average player in a given season would be on their so-called “rookie” contract within the first four years in the league. In that light, it’s easy to see that even though the sides may be able to agree in principle on reducing some high end contracts, the fact that the NFL will not budge on career lengths while making across the board cuts is a sticking point. While the media talking point is JaMarcus Russell, the truth is it would reduce salary for over half the labor force in a given season.

I got an email from a reader who didn’t think I adequately explained my statement that “[t]he truth is that the average NFL player good enough to make a roster will barely get to that second contract.” If I wasn’t clear, I was referencing the NFL proposal of four year deals for every non-first rounder that I discussed earlier in the piece, and not the current status of late rounders, who can be on shorter deals depending on individual negotiations. Using that 1993-2002 data, here are the percentage of players in each round who would have gotten to a 2nd deal, if we use the NFL rookie wage scale proposal of mandatory 5 year deals for first round picks, and 4 year deals for all other draftees.


If the NFL’s position on contract lengths does not change before the parties reach agreement, then almost 40% of all players will not get to second contracts after working at a greatly reduced salary (relative to market value), and that number is 50% once you get to round 4 and beyond. I expect we would see more players not get to that second deal if the wage scale was instituted also, since young talent would be even more of a discount. When you view it in that light, rather then just complain about JaMarcus Russell, you can see why maybe the rank and file of the players need to stand their ground against major features of the NFL’s rookie wage scale proposal.

[photo via Getty]