The longest-tenured starters in the NFL

The longest-tenured starters in the NFL

This offseason saw several veterans depart teams after lengthy stays, with Julio Jones being the latest to see a 10-year run end. With teams’ rosters nearly set ahead of training camp, here are the NFL’s longest-tenured starters — sorted by their durations as first-stringers with their respective teams, rather than total games started — going into the 2021 season. (No specialists are included.)

 

The longest-tenured starters in the NFL

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A handful of players from a strong 2014 draft remain in their respective posts since the start of that season. The Jaguars have one of those talents. They chose Linder in the third round and turned to him to start the 2014 season at guard. He moved to center soon after and will be asked to stay in that role to start the Trevor Lawrence era. Linder, however, has only started 79 games. Injuries have limited him often. Shoulder (2015), knee (2018) and ankle (2020) maladies left him well shy of 16 games in three seasons. He has only played one 16-game season (2019), but this will be Year 8 for him as a Jacksonville starter.

 

Anthony Barr

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One of several talented defenders to arrive in the 2014 first round, Barr joined an ascending Vikings defense. Then-first-year head coach Mike Zimmer plugged Barr into his team’s starting lineup at outside linebacker in Week 1 that season. Barr converted from a primary UCLA edge rusher to an off-ball cog in Minnesota but transitioned quickly. He will enter the 2021 season as a four-time Pro Bowler, having formed a long-term partnership with college teammate-turned-Vikes middle linebacker Eric Kendricks. They are entering their 10th season as teammates. 

 

Joel Bitonio

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The Browns found Joe Thomas a reliable linemate in 2014, choosing Bitonio in the second round and starting him in Week 1 of his rookie season. While injuries dogged Bitonio during his three-plus years with Thomas, he has grown into one of the league’s best guards. In the offseason between their 1-15 and 0-16 campaigns, the Browns gave Bitonio a long-term extension. He remains attached to that $10 million-per-year deal. The 29-year-old blocker has made the past three Pro Bowls and was part of a stacked 2020 Cleveland O-line that paved the way for the Browns’ first playoff win since they rebooted.

 

Zack Martin

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Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick were in place by the time Martin arrived. Smartly dodging a Johnny Manziel debacle, the Cowboys chose Martin in the 2014 first round. He has been arguably the NFL’s best guard over the past seven years. Deployed alongside Smith and Frederick in Week 1 of the ’14 season, Martin was a first-team All-Pro that year — when DeMarco Murray began the Cowboys’ run of three rushing titles in five years — and has since added three more such honors. After a 2020 injury, the six-time Pro Bowler will be counted on to return as a dominant interior blocker this season.

 

Mike Evans

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The only player in NFL history with seven straight 1,000-yard seasons to start his career, Evans has more than delivered on the Buccaneers’ investment at No. 7 overall seven years ago. Lovie Smith‘s staff turned to Evans in Week 1 that year, when Josh McCown primarily played quarterback for the Bucs. The 6-foot-5 wideout became Jameis Winston‘s top target and a central figure in the team’s Tom Brady-directed Super Bowl run. Evans’ 13 TD catches last season were a career-high. The Texas A&M alum will only be 28 come Week 1.

 

Derek Carr

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The Raiders traded Carson Palmer after the 2012 season and used Terrelle Pryor as their primary 2013 starter. Carr provided the stability the franchise had lacked here since Rich Gannon, coming in and starting in Week 1 of his 2014 rookie slate. The ’14 second-round pick may frequently land in trade rumors, but his starting spot has not been in question under any of his four head coaches. Carr has missed just two regular-season starts in his career and enters his age-30 season coming off back-to-back top-11 QBR finishes under Jon Gruden.

 

Jake Matthews

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Matthews suffered an injury in his first NFL game and missed Week 2 of the 2014 season. That is the only game the Falcons’ left tackle starter has missed as a pro. Atlanta selected Matthews sixth overall in 2014 and, as should be expected, named him a starter in Week 1 of that year. Upon return in Week 3, Matthews has given the Falcons reliability. The latest member of the Matthews clan to make a Pro Bowl, Jake helped Matt Ryan to the 2016 MVP award and stands to aid a team in transition this coming season.

 

Jerry Hughes

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Hughes preceded the lot of fellow Week 1 2014 debuting starters by four years, having been a Colts 2010 first-rounder. Behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis for three years, Hughes was dealt to Buffalo for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard in 2013. After a season as a Bills reserve, Hughes broke through in 2014. He registered 10 sacks in his first season as a starter, and the Sean McDermott regime has relied on the veteran to hold down a defensive end slot as the team rebuilt its operation. The 32-year-old pass rusher has signed extensions to stay in Buffalo.

 

Terron Armstead

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The Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV left tackle, Jermon Bushrod, signed with the Bears in 2013. New Orleans selected Armstead in the third round a month later but eased him into action. Armstead’s tenure protecting Drew Brees‘ blindside did not begin until Week 16 in 2013, but he has rewarded the Saints on their Division I-FCS scouting. The Arkansas-Pine Bluff alum has made the past three Pro Bowls and helped the Saints stay afloat amid Brees’ recent injuries. Armstead has battled maladies himself, missing extensive time from 2016-18, but he remains a high-end tackle. He will be vital for the post-Brees Saints.

 

T.Y. Hilton

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It took Hilton a bit to break into the Colts’ lineup. The 2012 third-round pick arrived when Reggie Wayne remained Indianapolis’ No. 1 receiver, and Donnie Avery was Andrew Luck’s initial NFL WR2. By 2013, however, Avery left for Kansas City in free agency. Hilton moved into the lineup in Week 9, shortly after Wayne suffered an ACL tear. Hilton produced the first of his five 1,000-yard seasons that year and topped it off with the game-winning touchdown in the Colts’ 28-point wild-card comeback over the Chiefs. Hilton has started 112 career games and remains the team’s top wideout entering its Carson Wentz period.

 

Cam Heyward

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A fixture on Pittsburgh’s defensive line for years, Heyward spent the first two seasons of his career on the bench. The Steelers did not use their 2011 first-round defensive end as a starter until Week 5 of the 2013 season. Heyward has since started 114 games and has become one of the better defenders in the Steelers’ defense-rich history. The two-time All-Pro has anchored a defense that has led the NFL in sacks in each of the past four seasons. Now on his third contract, the 3-4 end is the connective tissue between the Troy Polamalu-Brett Keisel nucleus and the T.J. Watt-Devin Bush crew.

 

Keenan Allen

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The Chargers knew quickly they found a hidden gem in the 2013 third round. Allen started in Week 2 of his rookie season and has never given up his spot. Although injuries stalled the route-running technician’s path in 2015 and ’16, Allen has logged 95 starts and is now the Bolts’ longest-tenured starter. No Charger wide receiver has been a full-timer in nine straight seasons since Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner in the 1980s. A four-time Pro Bowler, Allen now has three of the Bolts’ four 100-catch seasons and resides as Justin Herbert‘s go-to target.

 

Lane Johnson

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The 2013 draft was a bloodbath for many teams picking early. In the top 10 alone, the Jaguars (Luke Joeckel), Dolphins (Dion Jordan), Browns (Barkevious Mingo), Cardinals (Jonathan Cooper), Rams ( Tavon Austin), Jets (Dee Milliner), and Titans (Pork Chop Womack) made major missteps. The Eagles evaded these torpedoes and landed a mainstay at No. 4. Viewed as a Jason Peters left tackle successor, Johnson instead stayed at right tackle. The rare Pro Bowl right tackle, Johnson started in Week 1 of 2013. PED bans aside, Johnson helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl and remains a top-tier player at the underappreciated position.

 

David Bakhtiari

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Had Bakhtiari not suffered an ACL tear on New Year’s Eve, Super Bowl LV is probably a Super Bowl I rematch. The Buccaneers preyed on his replacement in January, but the Packers are counting on the ninth-year veteran to reprise his pre-injury form and help Aaron Rodgers (or Jordan Love) in 2021. Despite Bakhtiari being a 2013 fourth-round pick, Green Bay installed him at left tackle in Week 1 of the ’13 season. The quick study out of Colorado anchors the Packers’ front and is now the league’s second-highest-paid O-lineman. The two-time All-Pro has started all 118 games he has played.

 

David DeCastro

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With Maurkice Pouncey retired, DeCastro is the last one left from the Steelers’ veteran-fueled offensive line that unleashed “The Killer B’s” in the 2010s. He has manned Pittsburgh’s right guard spot since Week 14 of the 2012 season. The Steelers took the Wisconsin lineman in the 2012 first round and turned to him immediately. DeCastro suffered a major knee injury during his first NFL preseason but returned for Pittsburgh’s December slate. He enters his 10th season with 124 starts and six Pro Bowls. An otherwise suspect-looking Steelers O-line will depend on DeCastro remaining an elite guard.

 

Fletcher Cox

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The 2010s’ best interior D-lineman not named Aaron Donald, Cox remains Philadelphia’s premier player. The Eagles drafted the imposing defender in the 2012 first round and began his first-string tenure in Week 7 of that year. Donald has overshadowed Cox, but no one else has surpassed him over the course of his career. The Patriots’ double-teaming Cox opened the door for Brandon Graham‘s sack-strip late in Super Bowl LII, and the 10th-year vet has now made the past six Pro Bowls. It will be interesting to see how the rebuilding Eagles proceed with the 30-year-old standout.

 

Bobby Wagner

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Day 2 of the 2012 draft changed the Seahawks’ fortunes, but before they chose Russell Wilson 75th overall, they nabbed Wagner 47th out of Utah State. Pete Carroll gave Wagner the keys to Seattle’s defense in Week 5 of the second-rounder’s rookie season, stationing him at middle linebacker. As the Legion of Boom splintered, Wagner became rightfully recognized as the leader of this defense. The Seahawks value him as such, giving him two extensions — including an off-ball ‘backer-record $18 million-per-year deal. Wagner is now a six-time All-Pro and a Hall of Fame lock.

 

Harrison Smith

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The one Vikings starter left who predates Mike Zimmer‘s tenure, Smith earned a first-string safety job in Week 1 of his rookie season and has been one of the NFL’s most consistent defensive backs throughout his career. Minnesota fielded top-10 scoring defenses from 2015-19, making three playoff berths in that span. Smith made five straight Pro Bowls during that stretch, which involved the Vikings making three postseason fields with three different quarterbacks. With breakout safety Anthony Harris gone, the Vikes will again rely on Smith to spearhead their secondary.

 

Lavonte David

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The Pro Bowl’s outdated setup affects right tackles and 4-3 outside linebackers most. David’s resume would look much different if the selection system better reflected modern defensive football. The Buccaneer dynamo has one Pro Bowl nod in nine seasons, but the 2012 second-round pick has been one of the NFL’s best off-ball linebackers throughout his career. Then-Bucs coach Greg Schiano slotted David as a first-string 4-3 outside ‘backer in Week 1 of the 2012 season. David has started 137 games and recently signed a third contract. Now in a 3-4 inside ‘backer role, David will be essential to the Bucs’ title defense.

 

Russell Wilson

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Wilson’s current franchise-QB peers have at some point needed their backups to step in. Seattle’s third-round find has not. Wilson beat out 2012 free-agent signing Matt Flynn as a rookie, resulting in a Flynn trade the following year, and has tallied 144 regular-season starts. The Seahawks have shifted from a defense-centric roster to assembling their team around Wilson, and the future Hall of Famer now has seven Pro Bowl nods. Wilson’s rocky offseason injects uncertainty into this setup for the first time in the do-it-all passer’s career, however. It is not a lock this relationship makes it to Year 11.

 

Tyron Smith

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No active player has been attached to a contract longer than Smith, who signed a 10-year extension to stay on as Dallas’ left tackle in 2014. The Cowboys took the ultra-athletic edge protector in a deep 2011 first round. He opened the 2011 season as the Cowboys’ left tackle starter and was the first piece in an All-Pro-laden O-line that helped DeMarco Murray and Ezekiel Elliott to rushing titles and Tony Romo and Dak Prescott to Pro Bowls. Despite going into his 11th season, Smith is just 30. He missed 15 games in 2020; the Cowboys are counting on him to stay upright this season. 

 

Von Miller

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Picking second in 2011, the Broncos entered a historic draft in perfect position. Carolina’s Cam Newton pick left then-defensively deficient Denver with a Miller/Patrick Peterson/ Marcell Dareus choice. Peterson joined Miller on the 2010s’ All-Decade team, but John Elway made the right move to start his GM tenure. Miller started opposite Elvis Dumervil in Week 1 of his rookie season and has become the league’s most accomplished edge rusher over the course of his nine active slates. The future Hall of Famer missed all of 2020, but the Broncos picked up his ’21 option. Miller is entering the final season of a six-year contract.

 

Jason Kelce

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Chosen five rounds after Miller in 2011, Kelce made the less orthodox trip to his team’s starting lineup in Week 1 of that season. The Eagles made the sixth-round center their starter in 2011, the “Dream Team” season that quickly combusted. Kelce is not Philly’s longest-tenured player; Brandon Graham is. But the All-Pro center has kept his starting job longer than any active Eagle. The elder of the NFL’s Kelces now has three first-team All-Pro selections and has started all 142 regular-season games he’s played. 

 

Cameron Jordan

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Of the 2011 first round’s three Cams (along with Newton and Heyward), the Saints’ has been doing his job the longest. New Orleans turned to Jordan as a first-string defensive end immediately, and since Week 1 of the ’11 season, the veteran pass rusher has 159 starts. Jordan’s 94.5 sacks are second only to Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson in Saints history, and the second-generation NFLer remains his team’s top rusher going into his 11th season. Now a six-time Pro Bowler, Jordan was essential to helping New Orleans’ defense rebound to open a late-2010s Super Bowl window.

 

Devin McCourty

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The NFL’s longest-tenured non-quarterback or specialist starter is going into his 12th season as one of New England’s first-string safeties. Entering the draft one year after twin brother Jason, Devin landed in a better spot. After the Titans took Jason in the 2009 sixth round, the Pats picked Devin in Round 1. Devin McCourty has been a Pats starter since 2010’s opening week, and he snared seven INTs as a rookie on a 14-2 team. The Pats have sported a top-10 scoring defense in 10 of McCourty’s 11 seasons; the Rutgers alum has been a key part of the unit’s historic consistency that helped extend New England’s dynasty.

 

Matt Ryan

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The rebuilding Falcons are picking up the pieces from the Julio Jones trade, but the situation Ryan walked into 13 years ago was incomparably worse. Michael Vick went to prison months ahead of Bobby Petrino bailing on the team. The franchise’s disastrous 2007 provided a new regime with the 2008 No. 3 overall pick. Ryan did the most to revitalize the franchise, leading the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons and leading them to a Super Bowl in 2016. The 36-year-old QB has missed just three starts, making 205 since taking the reins to start 2008. He is set to tack on more in 2021.

 

Aaron Rodgers

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Rodgers began his QB1 tenure the same weekend Ryan did, Week 1 of the 2008 season, but he famously arrived in Green Bay three years earlier. Brett Favre made the 2005 first-round pick wait longer than any Round 1 quarterback this century, resigning Rodgers to a three-year apprenticeship. After an ugly Favre divorce — one Rodgers may well top soon — Rodgers restored the Packers onto a consistent winning track after they slipped during Favre’s later years. The three-time MVP has made 190 starts. As of now, he is tied as the league’s second-longest-tenured starter. Will this be the case come Week 1?

 

Ben Roethlisberger

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With the Steelers still yet to acquire a true heir apparent, their 39-year-old quarterback will go into Year 18 unchallenged atop their depth chart. Several QBs have made it to an 18th season, but only one — Tom Brady — has started for one team that long. Roethlisberger (231 starts) will join his longtime rival in September. Seventeen Septembers ago, a Tommy Maddox injury called the 2004 first-round pick to action. The job has not changed hands since, though nagging injuries and a suspension have intervened. The Steelers went 15-1 in 2004 and won the Super Bowl a year later. Last season’s playoff berth was Pittsburgh’s 11th in the Big Ben era. 

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