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The Relentless March of Time: NFL Franchise Cornerstones Changing Sides

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We're hitting a point where generational greats are on their final legs and they're leaving their homes behind.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The shift probably started in 2012, once Peyton Manning was pushed to Denver as the Colts opted to take Andrew Luck.

It was definitely in full swing the next offseason when players like Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, Colts edge defender Dwight Freeney, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, Rams running back Steven Jackson, Buccaneers defensive back Ronde Barber, and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed either changed teams or retired.

This past season played with Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, Cowboys edge defender DeMarcus Ware, Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, Giants edge defender Justin Tuck, Bears returnman Devin Hester, Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, and Patriots guard Logan Mankins in different uniforms.

2015 has the feeling of the end of an era. There are still players with their original homes, but it's clear there's a deadline on the horizon.

Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman just signed with the Panthers. 49ers running back Frank Gore, Eagles edge defender Trent Cole, and Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson have joined the Colts. Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett is in San Francisco and Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata is in Detroit. Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is now in Houston.

Bears linebacker Lance Briggs is a free agent, possibly heading to the 49ers. Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne is unsigned. 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and Chargers center Nick Hardwick have retired. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor, and defensive tackle Brett Keisel have all either retired on considered moving on.

Even more minor, but still franchise, players like Giants defender Mathias Kiwanuka, Lions stomper and center Dominic Raiola, and Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk have moved forward.

Outside of the quarterback position, where Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers are still with their franchise for the foreseeable future (and even Manning and Rivers are question marks), and special teamers, there's a short list of long term impact players with their original team.

Player Pos Team From
Roddy White WR ATL 2005
Jonathan Babineaux DE ATL 2005
Larry Fitzgerald WR AZ 2004
Terrell Suggs DE BAL 2003
Thomas Davis LB CAR 2005
Jason Witten TE DAL 2003
Robert Mathis DE IND 2003
Derrick Johnson LB KC 2005
Heath Miller TE PIT 2005
Antonio Gates TE SD 2003
Malcom Floyd WR SD 2004

There are eleven players who have win with their original team since at least 2005. It can be argued that Babineaux, Davis, Miller, and Floyd aren't in the same category as the other seven franchise players.

The Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (started in 2003) is a free agent after this season, as is the Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson (2005). Johnson missed last season due to an injury, while Gates put forth an extremely strong season.

The Colts edge defender Robert Mathis (2003) is a free agent after 2016, but he's coming back from a suspension due to performance enhancing drugs and a torn Achilles (a la Wilfork) after missing the entire 2014 season.

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (2003) is a free agent after 2017, with his contract increasing with each subsequent year, and has been in decline over the past three seasons. He'll go down as one of the best tight ends of all time, but he's clearly more limited now than in recent past.

The Cardinals retained wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (2004) through the 2016 season, with option years for 2017-18, but his contract was such an albatross they couldn't have unloaded him if they tried. Those option years are a play out of the Patriots book in order to lower the receiver's cap hit for the next couple of years.

Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (2005) just signed a hefty 4-year deal prior to the 2014 season, locking him up until the 2018 season, when he'll be 36 years old. It's unknown if he'll finish this contract as he continues to age.

Ravens edge defender Terrell Suggs (2003) inked a very reasonable 5-year deal in February to stick in Baltimore until 2019. He'll play out the rest of his career in purple and black.

And that's the full list. Those are the franchise players that are still with their original team. We'll see this number continue to dwindle ovr the next couple of years and it wouldn't be surprising to see all of them gone in the next two or three years.

Compared to the 11 skill players, there are fifteen special teamers and quarterbacks that have lasted since 2005 or earlier.

Player Pos Team From
Sebastian Janikowski K OAK 2000
Josh Scobee K JAX 2004
Robbie Gould K CHI 2005
Don Muhlbach LS DET 2004
Cullen Loeffler LS MIN 2004
Greg Warren LS PIT 2005
Mike Scifres P SD 2003
Andy Lee P SF 2004
Dustin Colquitt P KC 2005
Tom Brady QB NE 2000
Tony Romo QB DAL 2003
Eli Manning QB NYG 2004
Ben Roethlisberger QB PIT 2004
Philip Rivers QB SD 2004
Aaron Rodgers QB GB 2005

The shelf life for these players is far more extended than at other positions, but even these players will soon retire. If Brady is on his last couple of seasons, then Romo, Eli, Ben, and Rivers aren't too far behind.

The idea of a player lasting their entire career with one team is romanticized, even if it doesn't play out on the field. There are seven current free agents who could retire this off-season with their whole career with one team:

WR Reggie Wayne, Colts, 2001; C Dominic Raiola, Lions, 2001; DT Brett Keisel, Steelers, 2002; CB Ike Taylor, Steelers, 2003; LB Lance Briggs, Bears, 2003; DT Robert Geathers, Bengals, 2004; OT Michael Roos, Titans, 2005.

Roos has announced his retirement, while Taylor and Keisel have one foot out of the door, unless the Steelers bring them back. Of the other four players, Wayne and Briggs are likely to find jobs in a reserve role with a different team, while Raiola and Geathers won't draw much interest.

Think of the implications. Of the 2,027 players drafted between 1998 and 2005, only 31 players have retired after spending at least 128 games in the NFL (equivalent of eight seasons) all with one team. There are a further 23 players still active, or not yet declared as retired.

Of these 54 potential or completed one-team lifers, eight of them have been with the Steelers, far and away the most in the league. With Taylor and Keisel possibly retiring, and with Roethlisberger signing his long term contract, that's seven of those eight nearly locked in.

Jaguars center Brad Meester holds the title with 209 games started, the most of any lifer from this range of time.

The Patriots actually tie with eight teams in second place with three players (yes, less than half of the league leading Steelers). New England has Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, and potentially Tom Brady as their lifers. It will be interesting to see if and how the Patriots can lock in Brady as their third.