Rating moves that sent stars packing
May 17, 2004
By Pete Prisco
Fans absolutely loathe it when veteran players, popular ones even, are let go in the NFL for either cap reasons or slippage in play.
It's usually a denial thing with fans when it comes to the level of play of that favorite player, which is why they steam up trying to figure out what the replacement will do, usually tearing that player down as they do so.
But seven out of 10 times the replacement player usually plays better than the aging veteran who is now getting his check from another team.
Timing is key to these moves, but most teams are smart enough to let the young kids take over at the right time.
Overspending for the sake of loyalty is a way to get to franchise hell.
That's why when players like Jeff Garcia, Warren Sapp and John Lynch change teams during the offseason, the concern about who will take over shouldn't be so great.
Knowing the right time to let veterans go is a key to success for all NFL teams.
Tampa Bay could have held on to Lynch, the team's golden-boy safety, but made the decision to let him go. The Bucs said it was time for young player Jermaine Phillips to play. It was a move met with disdain in Tampa, causing columnists to lash out at the Bucs and fans to cry that their beloved John Boy was gone.
It was the right move. This replacement was made at the proper time.
That move is one of 10 replacement moves we will examine here, all key moves for teams as they move into the 2004 season. Many of the replacements are young players on the way up, which doesn't exactly win over fans.
In a year or two, they will. Many of these replacements will do just fine.
All you gripers cool down. A name does not make a player, and sometimes no matter how much a player is associated with the team -- like Sapp and Lynch -- it's the right time to make the move.
Here are 10 replacements to watch in 2004:
Jermaine Phillips, S, Buccaneers
When the Bucs let Lynch walk, the mood in Tampa was dark. Lynch was a very good player for the Bucs for much of his career, and is a class act off the field. But the truth is his skills have started to erode. Always a big hitter, he shied away from contact last year in large part because of a neck injury that required surgery. Neck injuries can be tricky. Tampa Bay made the right move letting him go. Phillips, who will get the first crack at his spot, is a rangy player who runs better than Lynch. That will show up more in pass coverage, although he might not be as sound against the run. But with teams using more spread formations, especially on early downs, having a safety with range is key. Phillips is a third-year player from Georgia who came into the league as a fifth-round pick. He started eight games last year at strong safety when Lynch was hurt, finishing with 49 tackles and one interception. It's time for Phillips to play.
Replacement meter: We like the move.
Chartric Darby, Darrell Russell or Ellis Wyms defensive tackles, Buccaneers
Warren Sapp is gone to Oakland, which might not be a bad thing. Sapp is still a quality player, but he's not nearly as good as he thinks he is at this point in his career. The Bucs will move Anthony McFarland into Sapp's under-tackle spot, which is something McFarland and a lot of scouts think will be a positive move for his career. That will put a lot of pressure on one of three men above to fill the nose-tackle spot. There are some questions as to whether Darby and Wyms, both weighing in the 280 range, are big enough to handle that role. Wyms also plays end. Russell, who weighs 325 pounds, would seem like the favored choice but he is trying to rebound from a career that was sidetracked by laziness and off-field troubles. He was a major disappointment for the Redskins last year, but Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden thinks he is capable of turning his career around. He is only 27. If Russell can show he still has the skills, the Bucs might actually be better inside than they were a year ago. That's a big if, and so is the issue of size when it comes to the other two.
Replacement meter: Warren who? OK, it's not that bad. But McFarland will play Sapp's old position better than he did the past two years and the other three will fill in nicely.
Tim Rattay or Ken Dorsey, 49ers quarterbacks
The 49ers allowed Jeff Garcia to leave when they couldn't work out a restructured contract, and he signed with the Browns. That left the high-profile 49ers quarterback position in the hands of Rattay. He showed well playing for Garcia last year, but there have been plenty of fill-ins who have looked good short term and then busted out when given the chance to start. Rattay didn't help his cause when he suffered a serious tear of his groin this month, an injury that will keep him out four months following surgery. The 49ers expect him back in August, but his absence could give Dorsey the chance to show he deserves to play. Dorsey came out of Miami with major questions about his arm, but he has surprised with his ability to make all the throws. Are either of these guys Joe Montana or Steve Young? No. But they both have the minds to be effective in the 49ers system, where arm strength has never been a major prerequisite.
Replacement meter: If Ratty is healthy enough by the start of preseason, he should be the starter. If not, and Dorsey plays as well as expected, Rattay might want to look up Wally Pipp in the baseball encyclopedia.
Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard, Eagles corners
The Eagles decided not to re-sign veteran corners Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, and both are now penciled in as starters for other teams. That's the Eagles way. They wisely don't give big-money deals to players on the down side of their careers. But for that strategy to work, young players have to step up and fill the void. That's where Brown and Sheppard come in. Two years ago, they were drafted with the idea of eventually becoming the starting corners. Sheppard, a first-round pick, has been somewhat of a disappointment in the minds of Eagles fans, but the coaching staff still thinks he can be a quality corner. He started nine games last year and had one interception. As for Brown, he has played well at times, but the question about him is whether he is starting quality or more suited to being a nickel player. With the addition of Jevon Kearse to help the pass rush, it should make it a bit easier on these two corners. But having two young corners starting might be risky to some teams, just not the Eagles.
Replacement meter: Risky. Letting one go would be the wise move, but losing both veteran corners the same year is chancy since neither Brown nor Sheppard has displayed big-time skills.
Brandon Lloyd, WR, 49ers
From Jerry Rice to Terrell Owens to Brandon Lloyd? Who? With the departure of Terrell Owens to the Eagles in a trade, Lloyd is now the go-to receiver in San Francisco. A second-year player out of Illinois, Lloyd has decent size at 6-feet, 184 pounds and he caught 14 passes for 212 yards last year as a rookie. In his only start, coming in the final game after Owens was hurt, Lloyd caught three passes for 63 yards. He also had a touchdown on two catches for 33 yards the week before. The 49ers did draft Rashaun Woods in the first round, and he will likely push for a starting job, but Lloyd is the guy they are counting on for big things.
Replacement meter: You don't lose a player like T.O. and not feel it. But for a rebuilding team like the 49ers, the time was probably right. Lloyd, though, isn't a No. 1 receiver.
William Joseph, DT, Giants
Although departed Giants defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin wasn't a Pro Bowl player, he was a productive player when he was on the field. Losing him to the Redskins in free agency was not something the Giants wanted. But it is time for Joseph to play. The Giants used a first-round pick on the former University of Miami player last year, but he played little as a rookie. At 6-5, 315 pounds, he has the size and speed teams love in players at that position. Joseph suffered a setback last month when he tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights. That will hurt in terms of conditioning, but he is expected back for the start of the season. If Joseph isn't effective, the Giants will be forced to go with veterans Norman Hand and Martin Chase, players who have struggled with weight issues and offer little in terms of pass rush.
Replacement meter: If Joseph doesn't come back from the injury, the Giants will be hurt in a big way by the loss of Griffin. But Joseph has the ability to be an effective run player and rush the passer. Griffin did little in terms of a pass rush.
Keith Traylor, DT, Patriots
Keith Traylor is a big man at 340 pounds. But he is small compared to the man he is replacing, Ted Washington. When the Patriots signed Washington last year, they did so with the idea that the veteran would play a major role in their run defense. He did. Just take a peak at the Super Bowl tape. Washington was a big reason the Panthers could not run in the middle. But Washington bolted for Oakland, where he will team with Sapp, leaving a hole in the middle of the New England defense. The Pats then went out and signed Traylor, who played with Washington in Chicago two years ago. Traylor isn't as powerful or wide as Washington -- nobody is -- but he is plenty capable against the run and is a better pass rusher. At 34, he has another good year left if he can stay healthy. Rookie first-round pick Vince Wilfork, a 330-pounder himself, also might get a look here. Washington is a force against the run, but Traylor is capable of a year of solid run defense.
Replacement meter: Size does not simply put Traylor in Washington's category. But who is in terms of occupying blockers? Wilfork should help ease this transition.
Shawn Springs, CB, Redskins
Champ Bailey is one of the two or three best corners in the game, a player who can shut down the opponent's top receiver, allowing zone to be played opposite him. Trading away premier corners in the prime of their careers is usually not a wise move. But the Redskins sent Bailey to the Broncos for running back Clinton Portis, meaning they had a big hole at one corner spot. To fill that hole they went out and got Springs, a former high first-round pick who has not played well the past couple of years. Springs has Pro Bowl ability when healthy, but injuries have slowed him and his play has deteriorated with it. But the new surroundings will help get his career back on track, especially if he can stay on the field. Springs has the ability. Is he as good as Bailey? Not quite. But he is more than capable of filling his shoes.
Replacement meter: Giving up shutdown corners is not a wise move. Springs better play like his early years or the Redskins will regret the trade.
Quentin Griffin, Garrison Hearst, Tatum Bell, running backs, Broncos
When the Broncos traded Portis for Champ Bailey, it meant they had a big hole at running back. Or did they? While Portis is a great player, the Broncos are big believers that their system makes the backs. History says maybe that is so. Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and Portis have all had big years in the past five playing behind that line in their system. Griffin is the guy most people expect to win the starting job in his second season. In his only start last year, he rushed for 136 yards against the Colts. At 5-7, 195 pounds, there are questions about his ability to handle the pounding on a continual basis, carrying the ball 20 times a game. Hearst might get the chance to beat him out in the preseason, but the guess here is that Griffin wins the job. Hearst is getting up in the years and he has some injury concerns. Bell might be the long-term answer with his blazing speed. Portis is a favorite of this space, but these three will be able to handle the load for the Denver running game.
Replacement meter: Don't you get the idea Floyd Little could get 1,000 yards right now behind the Denver line? Griffin and this group will do well in replacing Portis. It's the system, man.
Justin Fargas, Tyrone Wheatley, Troy Hambrick, running backs, Raiders
When Charlie Garner left to sign with the Bucs, opting out of his contract, the Raiders were left without a premier back. Wheatley, the veteran of the group, has never lived up to his college billing, although he has played better with the Raiders the past couple of years. But can he handle a 20-carry load? That's debatable now. That's why Fargas is so intriguing. He was the leading rusher in the NFL last year during the preseason and showed some juice in his play during the regular season as a backup. He is a hard-nosed runner who gets the vote here as the opening-day starter. Hambrick was signed Monday, but is he any more than just a 3.5-per rush guy? The Cowboys gave him every chance to succeed, but he didn't give them the pop they needed in the run game. He was too slow through the hole. Fargas isn't, and that's why he might be the best bet to replace Garner.
Replacement meter: At 32, the time was right to let Garner go. He didn't have a great year last season and is slowing down. Fargas has the power and speed to be an effective runner for the Raiders. We like the guy, in case you can't tell