Kuechly, who announced his decision in an emotional video posted on social media, is the latest NFL star to hang up his cleats sooner than expected — he had not suffered any known major injuries recently and had at least two more years remaining on a multimillion-dollar contract with the Carolina Panthers.
Starting in 2012, Kuechly earned more than $63.8 million in total from his NFL contracts with the Panthers, according to Spotrac. In 2015, he signed a five-year, $62 million contract extension with the team that made him the highest-paid player in the NFL at his position and would have run through 2021. Forbes also reported in 2016 that Kuechly had made $1 million that year from endorsement deals with brands such as Nike and Pepsi.
By retiring early, Kuechly is leaving on the table nearly $22 million that he could have received by playing in the next two seasons with the Panthers, according to Spotrac.
In addition to that, Kuechly could have made tens of millions of dollars from future contracts, given that he's fairly young (he'll be 30 at the end of 2021) and has had a celebrated career, including seven Pro Bowls, playing in one Super Bowl and being voted 2013's NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
If Kuechly kept playing and signed another five-year contract, he could reasonably have earned anywhere from an additional $50 million to $75 million from that deal, based on the average salaries for top players at his position.
Of course, that is just speculation in a sport where the average NFL career lasts just a few seasons. Kuechly has suffered three reported concussions that could have easily caught up with him, or he could have suffered other serious injuries or seen his level of play decline to the point that he couldn't reasonably play in the NFL into his mid-30s.
"There's only one way to play this game since I was a little kid — play fast, play physical and play strong," Kuechly in the video announcing his retirement. "And at this point I don't know if I am able to do that anymore. That's the part that is the most difficult."
Before the 2019 NFL season, both Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Andrew Luck and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski decided to end their careers prematurely, citing the long-term effects of multiple injuries they had both suffered on the football field. Luck and Gronkowski were just 29 and 30, respectively, at the time of their announcements — and both athletes were still considered among the best players in the NFL when they decided to walk away.
Some thought Luck could have earned up to $450 million in future salary if he'd kept playing.
Pro Bowl players such as the San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis and the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson also retired from the NFL at the age of 30 in recent years.
While Gronkowski has already transitioned into an entrepreneurial post-NFL career, partnering with a company to make CBD products in 2019, and other players retire to pursue opportunities in coaching or as television commentators, Kuechly has not yet specified any plans for his retirement.
"In my heart, I know it's the right thing to do," Kuechly said on social media.
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