Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre -- all ended their careers playing in a uniform other than the one in which they began their journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tom Brady became the latest legend to illustrate the point that it has become far less common than it was in the past for elite players to wear just one jersey throughout their careers.
But that doesn't mean teams shouldn't try to make it happen. Below, I've identified 12 players who should never be allowed to leave by the teams that currently employ them. To make it interesting -- to give the list some stakes -- I limited the field to players who will be under 30 by the time the 2020 season is scheduled to start. I also selected one player at 12 key positions, rather than creating a straight ranking, to avoid having a list mostly comprised of quarterbacks.
One more caveat: I did open the field to players who have been traded, even though by definition, they cannot spend their entire careers with one team. However, I thought this was still in keeping with the spirit of the premise, because for a team to try to keep any player under 30 for the rest of his career would be a significant commitment, no matter how he was originally acquired.
How confident were the Chiefs that Mahomes would develop into a superstar? General manager Brett Veach recently told me on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he started thinking about the impact Mahomes' second contract would have on the team's salary cap on the day the quarterback's rookie deal was signed. In just two seasons as a starter, Mahomes has won an MVP award and ended Kansas City's 50-year Super Bowl drought. He's expected to soon receive the richest contract in NFL history -- and it will be money well-spent by Kansas City. His ability to make every type of throw in big-play action makes him a true game-changer.
Kittle is eligible for an extension this offseason, and his camp expects his next contract to look more like one given to a superstar wide receiver than what tight ends are typically offered. Who could blame them? Kittle is both a willing blocker and the kind of pass-caching presence (averaging 87 catches, 1,215 yards and five touchdowns over the past two seasons) that forces opponents to take a run defender out of the box to account for him in coverage. In other words, he's a true dual-threat tight end in the mold of Rob Gronkowski. And Kittle is as important to San Francisco's success as Gronk was to New England's over the past decade.
The Steelers have accumulated the most sacks in the NFL over the past three seasons -- and it's no coincidence that dominant stretch kicked off with the first-round selection of Watt, who owns more than 20 percent of those sacks (34.5 of 162). Watt has formed one of the league's top pass-rushing duos with Bud Dupree. Though the franchise-tagged Dupree is likely to join the list of Steelers linebackers who ultimately move on from the team, Watt, who is in line for a lucrative extension, isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
The Rams should try to keep Donald for the rest of his NFL career not just because his elite production and knack for disrupting defenses has put him on the path for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but also because his physical conditioning and ability to avoid major injuries suggest he'll be able to keep playing at this level well into his 30s. He has a strong chance of collecting every penny of the six-year, $135 million extension he signed in 2018, which will carry him through 2024, when he'll be 33.
Most starting NFL guards aren't drafted in the first round, let alone sixth overall, where Nelson was chosen by the Colts in 2018 -- but then again, few guards are as talented as Nelson. Indianapolis learned the hard way about the importance of fielding a quality offensive line when would-be franchise quarterback Andrew Luck retired suddenly last year in part because of the injuries he'd suffered behind suspect protection. Nelson, who will be eligible for a contract extension after the upcoming season, should be the unit's cornerstone for most (if not all) of the coming decade.
By the time your average top-tier veteran is ready to sign his third NFL contract, his team is often ready to move on to younger, cheaper talent. But that shouldn't be the case with Hunter, who entered the NFL in 2015 at 20 years old and recently became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 sacks, accomplishing the feat at the age of 25 years and 40 days. Hunter also loves being in Minnesota, which is evident in the fact that he didn't try to leverage the team for every penny before signing the five-year, $75 million extension he's currently playing on. He should be cashing in again with the team at some point down the road.
Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden spent his entire career with the Ravens, and the franchise should do its part to ensure the same thing can one day be said about Stanley. The sixth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft has steadily improved, thanks to an unbelievable work ethic, to the point that he's in the conversation about the NFL's best left tackle. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Stanley will be seeking a deal equaling, if not exceeding, the three-year, $66 million extension recently given to Texans tackle Laremy Tunsil.
After a strong rookie season, Barkley took a step back in 2019 because of injuries and the offensive inconsistencies that are part of working with a rookie quarterback. Well, Barkley should be healthy and Daniel Jones is in Year 2 now. With former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett now serving as the Giants' offensive coordinator, it's easy to see Barkley thriving in the focal-point role Ezekiel Elliott played for Garrett in Dallas. Barkley's commitment to training and strengthening his lower body will serve as the foundation for what should be a long NFL career -- and I believe he will, in the end, justify his selection with the second overall pick in 2018.
Larry Fitzgerald has been synonymous with Cardinals football for nearly two decades, and it's not hard to envision Thomas enjoying a Fitzgerald-like career with the Saints -- that's about the highest compliment I can pay a player. Thomas isn't just beloved in New Orleans for being the most productive receiver in NFL history through a player's first four seasons (470 catches, 5,512 receiving yards) -- he's also cemented his standing in the community off the field, like working with a nonprofit to make a donation to help wipe out $2.3 million in medical debt. The good news for Saints fans is that this team has the smarts to never let a player like Thomas leave, which is one reason he was handed a five-year, $100 million extension last year. Thomas is just a really good guy.
Yes, White ultimately lost the battle to then-Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins during Buffalo's playoff loss to Houston last season. But Thomas did shut Hopkins down in the first half. At any rate, such struggles have been few and far between for a cornerback who has produced at a level commensurate with reigning Defensive Player of the Year -- and ex-Bill -- Stephon Gilmore. Buffalo can put White on the opponent's best receiver and not sweat what will happen. Per Pro Football Focus, White was targeted 83 times without giving up a single receiving touchdown in 2019, the best mark among NFL cornerbacks, while quarterbacks posted a measly passer rating of 43.0 when throwing his way.
Many -- including myself -- second-guessed the Steelers' decision to send a first-round pick to Miami in exchange for Fitzpatrick early last season, but nobody is questioning the move now. Fitzpatrick demonstrated great positional flexibility and a nose for the football in 2019, racking up five interceptions and two fumble recoveries with the Steelers. Combined with sound tackling and coverage skills, Fitzpatrick was able to provide the kind of impact play at safety that the team has sorely missed since Troy Polamalu's heyday. It's exciting to think how much better Fitzpatrick can be in his first full season in this defense after being forced to learn on the fly last year.
Leonard set the bar extremely high as a rookie in 2018, leading the NFL in tackles while earning first-team All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. While his production fell off a bit in 2019, failing to force a single turnover through his first five games, he did finish with five picks, two forced fumbles and 121 tackles. My fellow Hall of Fame evaluator Bill Polian has compared Leonard's potential in a Tampa-2 defense to that of Derrick Brooks, who is also enshrined in Canton, and letting a player like that get away would make no sense for the Colts.