Together they are 69 years of age and have combined for 27 seasons of NFL experience, 93 interceptions, 360 regular-season starts and 11 Pro Bowl appearances. Those numbers suggest that free safeties Brian Dawkins of Denver and Darren Sharper of New Orleans might be better suited to pursuing their secondary careers rather than playing in the once-maligned secondaries of their respective NFL teams.
On the other hand, the veteran safeties are an aggregate 11-0 in 2009, defensive anchors of two of the NFL's four remaining undefeated franchises, and they are much more into detonating pass patterns than dozing off in a rocking chair.
That the two men are playing so well should not be all that surprising, given their résumés. Sharper, 33, is the NFL's active leader in interceptions, and is ninth all-time with 59 pickoffs. Dawkins, 36, has played in five NFC championships, started in Super Bowl XXXIX and has collected 34 interceptions during a career that includes seven Pro Bowl nods.
Still, it's stunning to some league observers that Dawkins and Sharper, both acquired by their current teams as unrestricted free agents this spring, are such standout players at an age typically considered to be football dotage.
The twin success of Sharper and Dawkins remarkably comes six months after the two were all but abandoned by their former franchises because of their age.
Minnesota made essentially no attempt to keep Sharper off the free-agent market following a 2008 campaign in which he notched a career-low one interception and only five passes defensed. To their credit, the Philadelphia Eagles, with whom Dawkins had played the first 13 seasons of his career, offered him a two-year contract, but would not go beyond that because his age didn't fit well into the actuarial-type tables team officials use to predict future production. The Broncos signed Dawkins to a five-year, $17 million contract with $10 million in guarantees.
In re-establishing themselves as Pro Bowl-caliber players, Sharper and Dawkins have beaten the odds. The average age of the 64 current starting safeties in the NFL is 26.8 years. Dawkins is the oldest starting safety and Sharper is the second-oldest.
There are only eight other 30-something starting safeties. Lawyer Milloy of Seattle is 35, but he's a backup. Dawkins' partner in Denver, strong safety Renaldo Hill, is 30. The two represent the lone starting tandem in the NFL in which both players are 30 or older.
The player many regard as the NFL's premier safety, Ed Reed of Baltimore, is 31.
It's not as if teams across the league are rewriting the job description for the interior secondary spot, but 30 isn't viewed as a retirement age anymore. Because of Dawkins and Sharper, teams realize there are age exceptions at many key positions.
"You can't beat experience, at least if a guy can still play, and these two definitely can still play," said Broncos secondary coach Ed Donatell.
The veteran safety pair is getting considerable attention not only for playing so well in their 30s, but because they have helped transform historically weak defenses.
Dawkins and, to a lesser extent, Hill (signed as a veteran free agent from Miami as the Broncos reinvented their defense this spring) have been standouts in Denver's defensive metamorphosis. Playing their new 3-4 front, the 6-0 Broncos are second in the league in overall defense and have surrendered the fewest points per game (11.0). This a year after Denver finished 29th in the former category and 30th in the latter (28.0 ppg). Dawkins doesn't yet have an interception, but he has 38 tackles and six passes defensed, and has made solid tackling (an unfortunately overlooked art in the NFL) a staple of the reshaped Denver secondary.
New Orleans, which finished No. 26 in overall defense and average points allowed (24.6) in 2008, is currently ninth and ninth (18.6), respectively.
Not since Mark Carrier of the Chicago Bears posted 10 interceptions in 1990 has a safety registered double-digit pickoffs in a season. Sharper, who led the league in 2000 with nine interceptions, is already halfway there, with a league-best five.
"I think I'm playing smarter now than at any other point in my career," said Sharper, who signed a one-year, $1.8 million deal with the Saints this spring. "And I'm definitely using that knowledge a lot better."