By Steve Silverman
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The Jets certainly struck a huge blow when they brought Darrelle Revis back into the fold on the opening day of free agency, and it’s certainly a move that makes them better and the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots worse.
In many ways, the decision by Revis to come back “home” to the Jets trumped every other move made in the NFL, including the New Orleans Saints trade of tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle and the Philadelphia Eagles’ decision to send quarterback Nick Foles to St. Louis for the perpetually injured Sam Bradford.
However, the most noteworthy announcements at the start of the league year may have been the early retirements of San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis, Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker and Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds.
All three players appear to have plenty left in the tank, and while Locker was frustrated by injuries during his four years in the league, Willis and Worilds were still in their prime earning years and could have brought home millions in the next four or five seasons.
Willis’ incredible credentials are impeccable as made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven years, but that streak ended last season after injuries limited him to just six games.
Though plagued by chronic toe problems, Willis had just turned 30 and had the potential to be a dominant defensive players for years to come.
If Willis’ decision to leave the NFL was a surprise, Worilds’ was a complete shocker. He just turned 27 and would have been coming into his peak years. However, Worilds gave a cryptic statement indicating his decision to step away from the game was a private matter and that he doesn’t want to make any more public statements.
Worilds was in a position to hit the mother lode this offseason because he was a free agent and in a position to sign a contract with a new employer that would have set him up for life.
Locker was the eighth pick in the 2011 draft, but hit a myriad of roadblocks throughout his first four seasons. While he was clearly frustrated by his injuries and lack of career traction, a decision to leave the game despite his arm strength, quick release and instincts is hard to explain.
Except that today’s players are no longer just living for today. With the onset of CTE and other long-term football-related debilitating illnesses, players are rightfully concerned.
The same way parents of young athletes are hesitant to allow them to play organized football – Pop Warner and other youth leagues have significantly lower participation numbers than they did just a decade ago – today’s professional players have serious concerns about their own health.
When they see a former All-Pro like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson commit suicide when they should be in the prime of their post-football lives, it is cause for significant concern.
I don’t know that Willis, Worlds or Locker decided to leave the NFL because of that issue, but I am sure the thought has crossed the minds of nearly every current player.
Football has always been a dangerous sport, but the players who compete have always had a type of Superman persona because other, weaker players get hurt. But today’s evidence demonstrates that even the biggest, strongest and toughest players are vulnerable, and there is no getting around that fact.
This is very likely the start of a trend that could see more players who have not yet even reached their prime decide to leave the most popular sport in the country prematurely.
The NFL would like to prevent this from happening, but there is nothing that can guarantee the players’ safety. Eyes have been opened, and early player retirements are likely here to stay.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy