Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea during offseason work.
Antoine Bethea has put together an impressive 11-year NFL career.
The veteran safety has made three Pro Bowls, started every game he's played and pocketed nearly $45 million in earnings.
So why was it considered a downgrade when the Cardinals signed him to help absorb the free agent losses of Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger? Because unlike them, there is now a forbidden word associated with his name.
"I think a lot of times, people get lost in that," Bethea said. "Oh, he's 30."
Of the 90 players on the Cardinals roster, 11 are 30 or older, including Bethea, who will turn 33 in July. It is an age so fraught with negative connotation that players will try to time their free agency to hit at 28 or 29, hoping for one more lucrative payday.
The age concern has merit, as countless players have rapidly declined after leaving their physical peak. This offseason, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Darrelle Revis were the latest batch of former superstars forced to face a new reality.
All three were released by the teams for which they rose to prominence, and then languished on the open market. Peterson eventually signed with the Saints and Charles with the Broncos for a fraction of their former salaries. Revis remains a free agent.
"Me being at that point in my career once, no, it doesn't surprise me," said Jets coach and former Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who was an NFL starter at age 28 and retired at 30. "It can go fast. It's a build-up. You fight to get in shape every year, and sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. There's turnover every year. There are going to be guys that go out of the league. From the legendary guys to the good players, eventually they're going to be replaced."
The Cardinals pushed against conventional wisdom in free agency, signing Bethea and 35-year-old linebacker Karlos Dansby to play significant roles on the defense. One factor was money, as they were cheaper than their younger counterparts, but coach Bruce Arians saw more than discounted pieces.
"Everyone has the opinion we stop-gapped with Antoine and Karlos, but these guys have a lot left," Arians said. "You have to look at the tape. 'Toine is still a 100-tackle safety, can cover, blitzes. Karlos, like I said, he just never ages. I was shocked, turned on the tape, he looked younger this year than he did last year. The tape doesn't lie."
The Cardinals were also willing to re-sign star defensive tackle Calais Campbell, but at a price that echoed the reality of his advancing age. The Jaguars swooped in and offered him a much stronger deal, so Campbell left.
Even so, the Cardinals could have three players 33 or older play significant roles on defense, as they also re-upped veteran defensive tackle Frostee Rucker this offseason,
Minicamp concludes on Thursday, and it's these summer practices which may be the most taxing on veterans. While they get a few more days off than their young teammates, most of the time they are all toiling under the hot sun together with the season months away.
"You've got to love what you do," Rucker said. "This is way too dangerous not to. The downside effects of it, they'll linger for a long time. I always say, you're put here for a purpose, and for this portion of my life, this is the purpose. I'm going to give it all I have and empty the tank until I can't do it anymore. And then I'll give it to the next guy."
Some players retire because they don't want to prepare both mentally and physically for the grind of the NFL season. Others are forced out, as NFL teams are always looking for younger and cheaper alternatives.
Truth be told, Bethea likes the challenge of his advancing age. He is a former sixth-round pick from Howard who worked hard to become an elite safety in his prime. He received contracts and accolades which recognized his talent, but now, a few years later, he's back to being an underdog.
"I'm the type of guy who is always going to play with a chip on his shoulder," Bethea said. "When I first came into the league, it was coming from a small black college and I couldn't play at the level. And then it was, 'I was a small safety.' So it was always something. Now it's to show people guys can play well into their 30s and play at a high level."
Images from the first practice of 2017 minicamp