Why Are NFL Player Careers So Short? 

The average NFL player’s career is just 3 to 3.5 years long! This is thanks to injuries, the sport prioritizing youth, cutthroat nature and the burnout factor.

How Long Is The Average NFL Player’s Career?

The average NFL career is less than 4 years. The length depends a lot on your position. Kickers’ careers last for almost 5 years while the average running back doesn’t finish their 3rd season.

Player Position Career Length In Years
Running Backs 2.57
Wide Receivers 2.81
Cornerbacks 2.94
Quarterbacks 4.44
Kickers 4.87

NFL kickers and quarterbacks have the longest careers which is not surprising as these positions take the least physical damage and are much more skill dependent than other positions which rely more on athleticism.

If a kicker or quarterback loses a bit of power in their leg or arm as they age it is not a big deal as long as they retain their vision and throwing mechanics. However, if a running back loses a bit of speed or explosiveness it is the end of their career.

NFL kickers take zero physical damage when playing whereas running backs are constantly being smashed by defensive tackles and linebackers. One single tackle can end a NFL running back’s career.

Why Do NFL Players Retire Early? 

NFL players retire early because of injuries, burnout, limited roster spots, preference for youth and lack of lower leagues.

Injuries are the biggest killers of NFL careers. Every single NFL player has suffered a serious injury and unfortunately, many players have never been the same after coming back from a nasty blow. Knee, back, ankle and shoulder injuries are common problems that can quickly end even the most brilliant NFL career.

  1. Injuries

If injuries didn’t exist then the average NFL career would probably be 7 years at a minimum and might even be 10 years! Unfortunately for players the NFL is packed with intense, high pace and super violent collisions over and over again. These collisions result in traumatic injuries as well as general wear and tear on the body. 

NFL players regularly suffer serious head, neck, back, ankle, foot and knee injuries. Some of the most common NFL injuries include concussions, strains, contusions, fractures and dislocations.

2. Limited Roster Spots

An NFL team can have a maximum of 53 players + a 16 man practice squad. As there are 32 NFL teams there are only 2208 professional American football players in the whole of America.

Every year thousands and thousands of college footballers graduate and try to win one of these coveted NFL roster spots. The intense competitiveness is extremely difficult to deal with as every year there are new players who are faster, bigger, stronger, younger and have received better coaching.

Eventually old veteran NFL players can no longer hold on to their spot and a new rookie takes it. Once this happens players are often left with limited opportunities because other teams are hesitant to sign players who have been cut.

3. Salary Cap

The 2022 NFL salary cap is just over $200 million. This means NFL teams can spend a cent over the salary cap when constructing their rosters. 

As star players cost so much money NFL teams often opt for a strategy where they spend most of their cap on a star quarterback, big time receiver and some big defensive and offensive linemen. Then the rest of the players try to get cheap and replace them with younger and cheaper players when they get old. 

The highest paid fullback is just over $5 million while the top quarterback in the NFL is pulling in $50.3 million. Lowly paid positions tend not to have long careers and NFL teams try to replace them with rookies who are paid peanuts compared to veteran players.

4. Wage Scale

The NFL is unique compared to other sport’s leagues in that NFL teams are able to pay rookies and young players significantly less than veteran players. 

In soccer a team can pay a veteran or rookie player whatever they want but in the NFL there is a minimum that experienced players can be paid. This incentivizes NFL teams to cut veteran plays and sign rookies to ensure they stay under the salary cap and can spend more on star players.

In 2022 an NFL team can pay a rookie a minimum of $660,000 per season while a 3 year pro must be paid a minimum of $920,000 and a 7 year pro must be paid a minimum of $1.075 million. This is a massive difference, so teams will often cut solid players who are good enough to make a roster but are veterans in a bid to save money.

5. Mental Burnout

While many kids dream of playing in the NFL the reality is that despite being paid megabucks playing in the NFL is very stressful. NFL players have to complete grueling training and games and every aspect of their performance is constantly analyzed. They have coaches continually hounding them and monitoring their every step. And if a player doesn’t perform or has a few bad games they can be immediately cut and their career can be over forever. 

Competing at the highest of levels week after week and year after year is something only a tiny percentage of NFL players can handle. Many highly talented players can not deal with the cutthroat environment and often go through periods of poor performance and before they know it they are cut.

In quite a few cases some NFL players are secretly relieved to be cut because the stress can become overwhelming. A large percentage of NFL players no longer actually enjoy playing football because of all of the stress and rigorous routines.

There is a reason that so many NFL players quickly get out of shape when they retire. They are so burnt out on exercising and training that they just want to sit on the couch and eat!

6. Lack of Other American Football Leagues

A big reason why NFL careers are so short is because unlike other sports American football does not have less competitive professional leagues where players can develop and keep playing. Once you are cut from the NFL your only choices are to play in Canada but there are limited spots because the league has rules restricting foreigners and the level of competition is so much lower.

If you take a look at a sport like soccer, if you get cut from an EPL team you can play in 3 or 4 leagues in Europe which are of similar level to the EPL such as La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga. Or you could play in the second level of English football known as the Championship which is extremely competitive and top players are earning millions.

This system just does not exist in the NFL. If an NFL player gets cut it is extremely hard for them to maintain their skills and improving is basically impossible because they can’t train with high level players, can’t receive high level coaching and can’t get gametime. The result is their skills quickly atrophy and if they don’t find an NFL team quickly their career is over forever.

If the NFL had a professional 2nd and 3rd tier league system which was fully professional then I would expect an NFL player’s career to last longer because players could drop down a level work on their skills, heal from injuries and then make a successful NFL comeback.


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