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It's hardly the same old in the NFL anymore

It's hardly the same old in the NFL anymore
San Diego Chargers linebacker Dwight Freeney, right, closes in on Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer during a game on Sept. 8. Freeney is the oldest player on the Chargers. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Before he even laces up his cleats, Baltimore receiver Steve Smith has achieved separation.

So has San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. And Buffalo running back Fred Jackson. And Chargers linebacker Dwight Freeney.

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They are among the rarest of rare — NFL players in their 30s who are still playing.

The separation they've achieved? They stand on one side of a locker room generational divide, high-achieving antiques in a league that's getting younger by the year.

"There's definitely a generation gap," said Freeney, 34, the oldest San Diego player, 120 days older than Gates. "You get surprised when you're sitting there talking to [younger teammates], and you mention Eric Dickerson and they don't know who that is. 'What do you mean you don't know who Eric Dickerson is?' "

Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri knows the feeling. At 41, he's the NFL's oldest current player and the only one in his 40s. He entered the league in 1996, when some of his teammates were toddlers. If he mentions how he once tackled Herschel Walker on a kick return, he's met with blank stares.

"It's a badge of honor knowing I've been able to stick around that long," Vinatieri said by phone this week. "You do the right things for a long time, you get to play for a long time."

There are several reasons why the league continues to get younger. Among them:

Younger players tend to be cheaper, especially under the new collective bargaining agreement. If you want to squeeze a Peyton Manning under your salary cap, you'd better stock up on "middle-class" youngsters who are being paid closer to $3 million to $4 million per year. At 38, Manning is older than every quarterback but Colts backup Matt Hasselbeck, 39.

Speed has always been coveted, but especially now with the popularity of offenses that spread the field and look to get lightning-quick players into open spaces. As players age, speed tends to be the first attribute that goes.

Younger players buy time for coaches. If a coach brings in a bunch of seasoned veterans, there's usually an expectation that those experienced players can push the team over the top. In a sense, that starts the coaching clock, so it's, "You've got a two-year window" But if a team is loaded with younger players, it sends the we're-building-for-the-future message.

More and more, NFL teams are embracing college concepts. So scheme-wise, the transition from college to the pros is less dramatic. Theoretically, the younger players of today are more ready to play than those of 10 to 20 years ago, when rookies learned at the elbow of a veteran. That patience is gone.

Some teams are more youth-oriented than others. St. Louis, for instance, has had the league's youngest team for the last three seasons (average age this season: 25.09 years), and the veteran-stocked Oakland Raiders are the oldest (27.0).

On 12 of the 32 teams, the oldest player is a kicker, punter or long snapper. On five, it's a quarterback. But when the Colts play host to the Ravens on Sunday, two of the oldest players will be 35-year-old receivers — Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne and Baltimore's Smith. Those two are leading their teams in catches and receiving yards.

"They must have both visited the fountain of youth down in Ponce de Leon, or whatever you want to call it," Colts Coach Chuck Pagano said in a conference call this week. "They're both playing at a high level, and Steve is a game-wrecker. He's a competitive, competitive guy, and he's playing at a high level. He loves to play the game."

Smith faced his former Carolina Panthers last Sunday and torched them for two touchdowns. He leads all active NFL players with 125 career catches of 25 yards or more.

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"I think it's a compliment when there's a generational gap," Smith, the oldest Ravens player, said by phone. "We were playing Kansas City one year, and their DB coach [Otis Smith] I actually played against when he was in New England.

"I remember [Panthers linebacker] Luke Kuechly coming up to me and saying the year I got drafted he was 10 years old."

Another age crack? That's the oldest one in the book.

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