When does the risk outweigh the reward?

When you have fame, glory, all of the money you can imagine, admirers and thousands upon thousands of fans cheering your name on a weekly basis, why would you ever give it all up? When the risk outweighs the reward. But the real question is how much risk could you possibly have to overshadow all that the NFL can offer. Chris Borland demonstrated that maybe all of the lavish rewards that come along with being a football player in the U.S. are not all they are cracked up to be. Borland announced on Monday that he would be walking away from football after just one year in the league, citing concern over suffering from extensive head trauma.

What makes Borland’s retirement so surprising is that he was one of the best, young, promising linebackers in the NFL. The 24-year old from the University of Wisconsin-Madison played incredibly well this season, better than just about any linebacker in the league for the second half of the year. Then, just like that, he walked away. I commend Borland in his decision to choose his health over the sport he loves. That had to be a tough decision but it is one that I am not surprised to see him make.

Borland’s concern of injury is a reasonable one, especially with all of the turmoil surrounding the NFL regarding the rising injury toll and residual effects from playing extended years in the league. Hundreds of former players are suing the league for improper care following their playing days while dozens of others have died or committed suicide from adverse health effects linked to the NFL. Borland is not the first to pass up on his prime playing years in order to protect his health; he isn’t even the first this offseason.

Jason Worilds finished up the 2014 season in Pittsburgh with his contract set to expire. Many expected Worilds to be paid handsomely based on his previous two seasons of production in which he had racked up 122 tackles and 15.5 sacks from his outside linebacker position. Then, in a shocking turn of events, Worilds announced his retirement from football, at the age of 27. He would only have been entering his sixth season in the NFL had he stayed and likely had a couple good years left in him. Instead, Worilds chose to cash in on his five great years in Pittsburgh and hang up his cleats.

While Worilds decision was unexpected, I do not think anyone saw Jake Locker’s announcement coming. In 2011, the Tennessee Titans invested their first round selection in a fleet-footed kid out of the University of Washington named Jake Locker. Locker showed flashes of potential with his slow improvement over his first three seasons in the league. Following his rookie season, Locker was named the starter in Tennessee and that’s where the problems began. Locker missed 23 games over the next three years in the NFL, with notable injuries to his shoulder, hip and foot. Locker was still expected to come back and fight for the starting job this year for the Titans before, at the age of 26, he decided to retire.

All of these players, Borland, Worilds and Locker, represent a growing problem in the NFL: players are beginning to feel that the cons outweigh the pros. These three players were in, or were entering, the prime of their careers. And instead of cashing in on their athletic abilities, they decided to step away in order to protect themselves. The NFL has been making strides in lowering the injury risk for NFL players, but unfortunately, the league is far from eliminating or even reducing the risk by a considerable margin. Football is an extremely dangerous sport to play and for the first time, the NFL is beginning to see some of its talented young players walk away from the money on the table. For so long, the league has simply been able to count on top athletes having an ever-burning desire to play football. Now we are beginning to see that the allure is fading.

I think these three have sent a powerful and important message to the league and its fans. Borland, Worilds and Locker are essentially saying there is more to life than football. To be honest, I think this could be a rising trend in the NFL in the coming years as medical research on former and current players becomes more and more revealing. The risk of playing football is reaching a point where there is no reward to outweigh it. Sure, it will be nice to be a multimillionaire more fame than is conceivable for most people. But if you are unable to comfortably live due to the injuries sustained from your time in the NFL, then what good does all of that do? The league has stressed player safety as being a top priority but clearly not enough to reassure its players that the problem is under control. The players are everything in this league and if they begin to walk away, the consequences could be scary.

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NFL Cornerstones: Middle Linebacker

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: Luke Kuechley, Carolina Panthers Honorable mentions: Paul Worrilow, C.J. Mosley, Chris Borland, Curtis Lofton, Bobby Wagner

Hard to argue with probably the most productive linebacker over the last three years. Luke Kuechley since entering the NFL in 2012 has been a stalwart on a very good Carolina defense. He began his blossoming career with a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and he continues to impress. Kuechley has set himself apart from his peers by simply dominating the position. The most talented middle linebacker the league has seen since Ray Lewis is rolling through his career. There are a number of young up and coming linebackers in the NFL but Kuechley is the cream of the crop.

For starters, the Panthers defensive mainstay has never missed a game in his three years; he also started every single one of them. He has youth, at the ripe age of 23, potential, as a former first round draft pick, and talent, based on his incredible production. Kuechley is also an all-around stud. He has the ability to play the run or the pass better than just about any linebacker does in the league. It all starts with his tackling. Kuechley has led the league in tackling in two of his three seasons; he finished fourth in 2013. He has registered at least 150 tackles in every season. He also demonstrates an ability to make both open field and gang tackles on the field. He is one of the best tacklers in the league and at middle linebacker, fundamental tackling is the backbone of success.

To his ability as a run stuffer, Kuechley has proven to be an asset over a liability. Kuechley has 29 run stuffs in his career, with some solid consistency in recording them. He has tallied at least eight in each of his three seasons. For a comparison, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner only has 16 in his three-year career. Kuechley’s totals have marginally declined each year, which is mildly concerning but assuming her continues to produces with consistency, he will be a piece of a great rush defense.

Kuechley is even more prolific as a cover man. His numbers in pass coverage are impressive in general. The former Boston College All-American has 26 pass deflections since 2012. Again, Kuechley has never tallied any fewer than 8 in a season. His 26 total disrupted throws is only one less than Curtis Lofton has in his entire 7-year career. Wagner only 14 pass deflections over the same span as Kuechley. The Panthers’ defensive quarterback was only one of three linebackers to record 10 or more pass deflections in 2014, and the only middle linebacker. That coupled with his tackling ability makes him ideal to drag down players down in open space as is usually required of coverage linebackers.

Linebackers often thrive on big plays and Kuechley has also been an elite source of turnovers and impact plays in career. In his 3 years, Kuechley has accounted for four forced fumbles, seven interceptions and a forced fumble as well. He has proven that he can force turnovers in multiple ways. He is a dynamic player that makes plays all over the field. Winning the turnover battle is the most crucial part a football game. Having a game changer like Kuechley makes a huge difference.

Kuechley is playing at a Pro Bowl level already as a 23-year old. If that is indication of how talented he is, he will likely be a Hall of Famer one day. He is the unparalleled best middle linebacker in the NFL, at any age. He is an elite tackler, top pass defender and excellent run defender. No one is capable of putting up the same numbers with any form of consistency. The one thing that would likely put Kuechley into the category as one of the best defensive players of all-time would be if he was a more prolific pass rusher. However, Kuechley is still an iconic player who will dominant the league for the next dozen years. He is easily the best to make as a cornerstone linebacker in the NFL.