Average NFL Career Length

In researching average NFL career length for a future article, I found there were two very different schools of though which were discussed back in 2011 during the lockout.

The NFL argued that “the average career length for a player who makes a club’s opening-day roster (active/inactive roster or injured reserve) in his rookie season is 6.0 years.” but went on to throw out statistics about average length for pro-bowlers at 11.7 years, and this was deemed a joke by many in the media.  In addition, the NFL used 1993-2002 as the measuring stick.  But that was in an era when teams may have been more patient, less cutthroat.  Its more relevant to use recent years.

Meanwhile, the NFLPA argued that the average career length for a NFL player is 3.2 years, although according to their own numbers, they are basing it on average “accrued seasons” and their number is 3.54 accrued seasons (definition is that a player must be on the roster at least 6 games in a season).

However, the NFLPA used VERY tricky math.  They ran their report PRIOR to the first game of the 2010 season, and included (as zero accrued seasons) players drafted in 2010 who didn’t have a chance to play in any game (since it was measured pre-week 1).  See their chart:

Obviously that data is tainted.  They should have run the numbers immediately AFTER the 2009 season, rather than pre-week 1 in 2010, after all the new draft picks of 2010 were part of the pool.  Note that if you remove all the “Zero Year” players from that analysis, the NFLPA average “accrued” seasons is 4.4 per player.  At any rate, we know their numbers are suspicious, but where is the truth?

I looked back at all the drafts since 2002.  I determined how many years each player played in the NFL (regardless if they “accrued” a year or not). Obviously we don’t want to include 2013 as a year, for instance, as a player who was drafted then could have only played 1 season, which would have screwed up the numbers.  But we don’t want to go back to 1993 like the NFL did in their study.

What I did (as you can see below) is looked back to 2002 and found that in the earlier years (when players who were drafted in 2002 would have 12 full years up to 2013 to factor into the average) players played an average of between 5 and 6 seasons.  Clearly, as you move forward in time, you give newer players less time to contribute and the numbers decrease.

As such, I decided to NOT include the 6 seasons from 2008-2013 as they would unfairly decrease the average, and I only used 2002-2007 for the study.

If you count players who were drafted but never made the team as the NFL getting 0 years out of that player, I conclude that on average

  • each DRAFTED PLAYER averages exactly 5.0 NFL seasons

If you exclude players who were drafted but never made the team, I conclude that on average

  • each DRAFTED PLAYER WHO MADE THE TEAM averages 5.7 NFL seasons

These numbers are closer to the NFL’s calculations than the NFLPA, but not surprisingly they are in the middle.

Depending on the point you want to prove, you could use either 5.0 or 5.7 as the average career length of a NFL player.