More than ever, wide receivers are expendable
The plethora of WR trades over the past year shows that some in the NFL think receivers have become disposable.
It all began on March 5, when the present and future salary cap squeeze of one team combined with the on-field needs of another, and the Tennessee Titans dealt Justin McCareins to the New York Jets for a second-round draft choice.
Neither franchise likely realized the big-picture significance of the trade at the time. But precisely 228 days later, when the NFL trade deadline passed Tuesday after an uncharacteristic flurry of activity, the McCareins deal nearly seven months earlier was the starting point and catalyst of sorts for the most remarkable wholesale wide receiver sell-off in league history.
It was as if wide receivers had suddenly become junk bonds. Heck, weren't there even rumors in the offseason that Randy Moss could be had for the right price?
Beginning with the McCareins trade, and up through a deal that sent the disgruntled and AWOL Keenan McCardell to the San Diego Chargers, a dozen veteran wide receivers changed teams via trades. There were an additional four trades involving rookie wide receivers during the draft in April.
In some of the trades, there were mitigating circumstances. The relationship between McCardell and Tampa Bay management had become so bilious and fraught with spite that a divorce was inevitable. Granted his outright freedom by an arbiter who chose to ignore the lack of diligence by an agent, Owens wasn't going to hang out in the Bay Area any longer. The Keyshawn-Galloway swap, and then Tuesday's Morgan-Bryant switch, were trades of convenience involving a quartet of malcontents. Miami got Boston to upgrade its passing game and then, when he blew out his knee in camp, was forced to snatch Booker out of desperation.
Despite some of those circumstances, and a few other ancillary factors, the sheer quantity of wide-receiver trades this season signals this new mindset: Even with the high-profile nature of the position, wide receivers have become as disposable as cheap pens, plastic cigarette lighters and yesterday's underwear.
"It's too easy to find (wide receivers) and, with the new emphasis on the illegal contact rules, even mediocre wide receivers can go out and catch 50 or 60 balls for you," said one veteran NFC personnel director who watched the recent wideout migration only as an interested spectator. "Slowly but surely, it seems, the position is being devalued. And all the moves over the last seven or eight months pretty much reinforce that. There are a lot of people, me included, who think wide receiver is becoming kind of a 'plug-in' position. You know, you lose one guy, you plug another one in and move on."
The uneven history and lackluster production of first-round receivers, at least during their rookie seasons, would seem a deterrent to that philosophy. But teams keep selecting wide receivers in the early rounds, including seven in the first round of the '04 draft, and quickly moving them into the lineup. Certainly, over the last five years or so, wide receiver has been transformed into a carousel position, and that apparent lack of priority on continuity in that spot evolved into this year's seven-month auction.
The Jets-Patriots matchup will mark only the fourth time in NFL history that two undefeated teams, with at least five victories each, have faced off. Here's the list of the other three such meetings:
Date -- Score
Oct. 28, 1973 -- Minnesota Vikings 10, Los Angeles Rams 9 (a)
Nov. 4, 1923 -- Canton Bulldogs 7, Chicago Cardinals 3 (b)
Nov. 13, 1921 -- Buffalo All-Americans 0, Akron Pros 0 (c)
Notes: (a) Both teams were 6-0 when they met; (b) both teams were 5-0; (c) Buffalo was 6-0 and Akron 7-0.
Stat of the Week
Stat of the Weak|
Wonder why, despite their denials, the Vikings were trying to trade five-year veteran defensive tackle Chris Hovan before this week's Tuesday deadline? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that Hovan, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, has just four sacks in the last 26 games. A first-round choice in the 2000 draft, Hovan had 13½ sacks in the first 43 games of his career.
The Last Word
Keyshawn Johnson, who is playing for his third different team in a nine-year career and who has been traded twice in the past five seasons, suggested a couple of weeks ago that it was ego-gratifying to be so coveted. "Somebody wants you badly enough to trade for you," he said, "that's a good sign. That's flattering."
Perhaps. But there is another view, a flip-side perspective that suggests the recent portability is more than just a one-season aberration, and that doesn't bode well for the position. Franchises simply aren't as inclined to keep big-play receivers around, especially when those players are big-time headaches.
If you've got a unique talent such as Moss, who earns every cent of his fat salary, then you keep him. But there are teams that feel like, for a relatively modest payout, they can find receivers who will snag 60 to 70 balls a year. Never discount the notion, especially at wide receiver, that the system can enhance a player's productivity. Overall itinerancy at the position, magnified by the volume of trades involving veterans over the past seven months, can also be regarded as a sort of validation to the belief that wide receivers are becoming increasingly replaceable. The college game is producing relatively polished young receivers like Roy Williams, Larry Fitzgerald and Mark Clayton, and with the rules changes, it simply might not be a priority for teams to keep veterans around for more than three or four years.
The upshot: In terms of sheer quantity, the league might never again witness the kind of wide-receiver swap-fest that took place between the McCareins deal and the trade deadline. But the position has definitely taken on a kind of commodities quality that isn't apt to change anytime soon.
Around the league
As has been indicated in this space before, most NFL people feel the New Orleans roster is the most talented assemblage in the NFC South. The consensus is that there is "something missing" with the Saints, and whether or not that is reflective of the head coach, he is typically the one implicated. Haslett is a good guy, incredibly candid, a coach for whom players insist they enjoy playing. But the deeds don't match the words and a loss at Oakland, to a Raiders team that is similarly struggling at 2-4, might be all Benson can tolerate.
If the ax falls on Haslett, it will be for football reasons, but there also is a lesser political element involved. Team officials are set to reveal their plans next week for dealing with the stadium issue. The prevailing sentiment Louisiana lawmakers and some of New Orleans' power brokers, has moved away from building a new facility and more toward refurbishing the Superdome. As for who might replace Haslett as an interim coach, defensive coordinator Rick Venturi has previously filled that thankless role on two occasions. But in a 1991 stint with Indianapolis (where he replaced Ron Meyer) and in New Orleans in 1996 (replacing Jim Mora), Venturi posted a combined 2-17 record. And while Benson likes and respects Venturi, it would be hard to elevate a guy who presides over the bottom-rated defense in the league. There are no other assistants on the staff with previous head-coach experience in the NFL, so the job could fall to offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy.
If someone wants to criticize Lewis for the poor play of his defense, a unit peopled by a lot of guys who played for him at various other NFL precincts, well, we won't get in the way. The Bengals rate dead last in the league in defense versus the run and face the red-hot Reuben Droughns of the Denver Broncos on Monday night. The way Cincinnati is playing versus the run, a well-constructed Reuben Sandwich might go for 100 yards. The Bengals are allowing 160.4 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. Since the start of the 2003 season, the Bengals have surrendered individual rushing performances of 196 yards (Curtis Martin), 186 yards (both Jamal Lewis and Lee Suggs), 180 yards (Lewis again), 141 yards (Marcel Shipp), 123 yards (Duce Staley), 120 yards (Clinton Portis), 121 yards (Marshall Faulk), 115 yards (William Green), 104 yards (Domanick Davis) and 101 yards (Lewis for a third time). Those numbers aren't pretty and frankly, neither is the play of the Bengals' interior against the run. Tackles John Thornton and Tony Williams have not been effective, Cincinnati lost middle linebacker Nate Webster to a season-ending knee injury and the safeties haven't always supported very well.
Remember, the Bengals lost out in the free-agency bidding for Warren Sapp and then their efforts to land a big, run-stuffing tackle were further filed when Daryl Gardener, who had agreed to a contract, couldn't pass his physical because of back problems.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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