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.

NFL Cornerstones: 3-4 Outside 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: Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
Honorable mentions: Clay Matthews, Ryan Kerrigan, Connor Barwin, Jason Worilds, Aldon Smith

After looking at all of the run stoppers and pass defenders at the linebacker position, it is not time to focus on the pass-rushing specialists. It is difficult to find an elite pass rusher in the NFL, so when you find one, you better keep him. That is exactly what Kansas City should do this offseason with its budding starlet Justin Houston. Houston is coming off a year where he racked up 22 sacks and finished second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year, only behind J.J. Watt. At the age of 26, Houston is entering his prime and showing the league why he is truly an elite player.

Plenty of players have big seasons after having no production the year before. Houston has racked up at least ten sacks in each of the last three seasons. His 22-sack performance this past year was beyond impressive, but consistency over the past three seasons is even more so. Houston has played 43 games over the past 3 years. Over the course of those 43 games, he has recorded 43 sacks. Houston did not drag down the quarterback in every game in that span but to have an average of one sack per game is pretty impressive. For some reference, Ryan Kerrigan has averaged 0.64 sacks per game over the past three seasons and Clay Matthews has averaged 0.81.

Houston’s tackling abilities are off the charts as well. In his four-year career, Houston has tallied 234 tackles. That total is nothing too impressive for an edge rusher but of the 234 tackles, Houston was assisted on only 36 of them. Again, for some reference, Connor Barwin was assisted on 59 of his 232 tackles in his career and Kerrigan was assisted on 66 of his 247 tackles. Houston’s ability to wrap up the ball carrier on his own is a huge asset as more often than not, these linebackers are responsible for making crucial open field tackles. Being able to take the ball carrier down without assistance saves coaches a lot of worrying.

Pass rushers in addition to simply bringing the quarterback down are often relied on to generate impact plays. Houston has shown some improvement in that department this year. He has forced at least one turnover in every year he has been in the NFL. This past season though, Houston knocked four fumbles loose, tied for second most in the league. If Houston continues to be a source of turnovers as an elite pass rusher, he could become one of the most valuable defensive players in the league.

Outside of his pass rushing skills, Houston’s talents as a run stopper and coverage linebacker are more than passable. Over the past four seasons, he has averaged 4.75 pass deflections and 4.5 run stuffs. Those are more solid numbers for a player who is usually sent after the quarterback rather than dropped in coverage or relies on shutting down the ground game. Houston definitely could improve as a run defender, which would mold him into a more complete player.

The injury history that Houston carries is of little concern. He has only missed five games in entire career. The only major concerns will be centered on him being able to maintain his level of production in the coming seasons. After putting together such a stellar campaign, it is difficult to turn around and put up those same kinds of numbers again. Watt just became the first player in NFL history to ever record 20 sacks in multiple seasons. Odds are we will never see Houston his the 20 sack mark again but if he is consistently piling on 15 quarterback takedowns per year, he will be one of the greatest pass rushers in recent league history.