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How many years does Derrick Johnson have left?

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John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

There is no denying that Derrick Johnson is a great linebacker. He is one of only 13 linebackers since 1970 to have 95 tackles or more at the age of 33. But what does it say for DJ's future? With DJ's contract situation and free agency looming, would it be a good idea to sign DJ to a multi-year deal? Should the Chiefs pass and hope a younger player can step up? How well does the average linebacker age in terms of production? How well do elite linebackers age?

We'll take a look at the past and see if we can't make any reasonable predictions about DJ's future. Maybe we can come to a verdict about whether or not the Chiefs should give him a contract, and if so, how many years a reasonable DJ contract would last.

Looking at All ILBs

Let's start by looking at all inside linebackers since 1970 and how age has affected their productivity on average. This information was gained using Pro Football Reference's play index tool. (Thanks to reader John Dixon for making me aware of this awesome tool.) The data used in the following graphs was taken from every inside linebacker who played after 1970 at or after the age of 33.

ILB Average Games Started by Age

The spike in the graph is due to three LBs that defied age and really raised the bar. We'll consider these three LBs as outliers. The spike at the age of 38 doesn't mean that production goes up at the age of 38, it simply means three great LBs were able to play at the age of 38.

As far as Derrick Johnson is concerned, it bodes well for him the average games started doesn't fluctuate. That could mean that as long as DJ plays, his games started per season may not change. It should also be noted that good players play longer, which is probably what is preventing the downward trend. This graph doesn't suggest how long DJ will play, but that as long as he plays he is likely to continue to be a regular starter.

ILB Average Tackles by Age

There is another jump in production for 38 year olds for the same reason. Other than the 38 year olds, the tackle production remains fairly constant for ILBs as they age. So maybe it's reasonable to think DJ can continue relatively near his average production going by this data alone. However, DJ is not an average player and these numbers come from all ILBs after the age of 30. We'll touch on this point later.

Number of ILBs Who Have Played by Age

As players age, they are no longer able to play in the NFL. This graph does give insight as to the reason why player production and games played remained fairly steady. Since poor players quit playing it forces the production of the ILBs to remain steady. Let's look at a table that shows the retirement percentages for each age group.

Retirement Percentages for ILBs
Age Retirement Percentage
30 0.22
31 0.31
32 0.36
33 0.41
34 0.33
35 0.46
36 0.33
37 0.79
38 0.67
39 0.00
40 1.00

From this table we can see that 41 percent of 33 year old ILBs have retired. None of us here believe that DJ will retire after having a great season. 35 and 37 are spikes. Perhaps this gives some insight into how much longer the Chiefs can expect DJ to play since 35 and 37 are retirement spikes. Perhaps its wise to offer him either a two or three year contract.

Looking at Above Average ILBs

All of the numbers above are good and well, but there is one major flaw: DJ is not an average ILB and probably shouldn't fall within the realm of 'All' ILBs. So let's look at the same numbers but for ILBs who have had 75 tackles or more at or after the age of 33.

Name Team
Darryl Talley BUF
Gary Plummer SD, SF
Karl Mecklenburg DEN
Ken Norton SF
Marvcus Patton KC
Michael Barrow NYG
Sam Mills NOR, CAR

DJ keeps some excellent company. Looking at the above average ILB numbers should give us a more approximate idea of what to expect from DJ in the future.

Above Average ILB Games Started by Age

The 38-year old spike is attributed to Clay Matthews II, Sam Mills, and London Fletcher. We'll discuss those three later, but keep in mind Clay Matthews II played for the Browns and his son is Clay Matthews III who plays for the Packers.

The above average ILBs started a lot of games with a large drop off at 36. If these numbers are applied to DJ, it would be fair to expect him to play two more full seasons as a regular starter.

Above Average ILB Tackles by Age

Once again there is a drop in production at the age of 36 if you do not include the three linebackers above that defied age. From this graph it might be fair to expect 75 or more tackles from DJ at ages of 34 and 35, and then roughly 55 tackles at the age of 36. DJ will be turning 34 next season.

Above Average ILB Retirement Rates
Age Retirement Percentage
33 0.11
34 0.19
35 0.23
36 0.50
37 0.40
38 0.67

Notice the spike in retirements at the age of 36? This coincides with the production drop-off on the graph above.

So What Should We Expect From DJ?

I believe DJ can go in two different directions, and I believe the key relies heavily in his success next season.  As could be seen in the graph for the above average players, there is a statistical drop off for players who turn 34.  If DJ can avoid this drop off and have another big season, I would expect DJ to retire at 37 or older.

A non-slump DJ may have 90 tackles at 34, 80 tackles at 35, 60 tackles at 36, and 40 tackles at 37.

If DJ does fall suspect to the dreaded 34 year old ILB slump, it does not bode well for him.  He may follow the path of many other above average ILBs and retire at 36.  A slumping DJ may have 75 tackles at 34, 60 tackles at 35, and 40 tackles at 36.

Like I said above, next season is key to see where DJ stands as far as his longevity is concerned.  The ultimate and obvious goal for DJ is to remain productive and fight father time as much as possible.

What is a Reasonable Contract for Such Production?

I went and looked at a few players who had similar stats to what Derrick Johnson may project in the future.  I also looked at their pay.

Name Pay Per Year
Karlos Dansby 6M
D'Qwell Jackson 5.5M

So it looks like DJ should be making somewhere in the $5-6 million dollar range. A team friendly contract would look something like $4 million per year with a $3-5 million dollar signing bonus for three years. A bad contract would look like $7 million per year for three or more years. It may also be a good idea for Dorsey to try and work out a two year deal with a third year team option or a three year deal with a fourth year team option.

If I were the Chiefs brass I would bank on DJ having a good year at the age of 34.  Why you ask?  Because I'm an optimist.  So I would offer him a three year deal with a 4th year option at roughly 5M a year.