10 NFL Starters Who Need to Be Replaced in 2012
Sometimes in the NFL it isn't about how good somebody is, but about how bad. The biggest improvements can often by made by strengthening the weakest link on a team, by bringing in a player who can perform at a higher level, even if he isn't a Pro Bowl talent.
For a variety of reasons, the NFL is full of underachieving players. Sometimes injuries have robbed a player of the ability he once had, sometimes he has just quietly gotten too old and has yet to be replaced, and sometimes teams have just not been able to find somebody better. But in all cases, those players can be the difference between winning and losing.
The NFL is ruthless and smart enough that if your opposition finds a weakness, that is exactly what they are going to attack. Why try to run through a wall at its thickest point when you can focus your attention on the rickety wooden gate halfway along?
With that in mind, I'm going to look at 10 players who must be replaced in 2012.
10. Tyler Clutts, FB, Chicago Bears
It's generally not a great thing when the best thing about a player is his name. It's an even worse thing when that player's name is Clutts and it actually describes his play.
Tyler Clutts is a fullback for an offense that likes to run the ball and make good use of a fullback, except he struggles badly to block.
To his credit, he is young enough that he could still take a big leap forward in development, but it would take a massive leap to transform him into a viable lead blocker for Matt Forte.
It's all too easy in today's pass-friendly league to forget about guys who do the dirty work in the run game. But the Chicago offense is one of the few around that makes heavy use of a fullback and they need a guy who can reliably win at the point of attack.
At the moment, Clutts gets blown back by downhill linebackers all too often and forces Forte to make unnecessary cuts in the backfield despite solid blocking by the offensive line.
Clutts was probably the poorest lead blocker in the NFL last season, and for one of the few teams in the league that actually makes use of a fullback, that is unacceptable.
The problem for Chicago is a lack of viable options. With colleges playing more spread offenses, fullbacks are hard to find, making it hard for teams to find hard-nosed lead blockers. The Bears did draft a rookie fullback in Evan Rodriguez, so they might as well give him a shot to win the job.
9. Ziggy Hood, DE, Pittsburgh Steelers
You can't tell Steelers fans that Ziggy Hood isn't a very good player. For some reason, they just don't want to know and start telling you that you simply don't understand his role in the defense.
Well, unless Hood's role is simply to get manhandled at the line and walked backward, I'm not buying that.
Hood brings nothing as a pass-rusher, can't anchor against the run, handle a double-team or occupy blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays. Essentially, he is just a body in the middle of that defense, and one that is routinely being beaten. He is the equivalent of putting a blocking sled out there. It's heavy, but you're expected to move it out of the way.
It is true that 3-4 defenses often require defensive ends to fly under the radar, plying their trade as an unheralded but vital cog in the defense. But you can't explain away Hood's lack of production simply by the scheme in which he plays. If it was all about the defensive scheme, Brett Keisel would look equally inept, but he doesn't. Keisel can play the run and generate a pass rush. He also has an awesome beard, as anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the past couple of seasons could tell you.
The good news for the Steelers is that they have a replacement ready in Cameron Heyward, who should be able to provide a significant upgrade even if he isn't the answer himself. Heyward flashed some pass-rush ability last season, though he looked like he could be moved at the point of attack in the run game.
Still, he would be hard-pressed to do worse than Hood over the course of the season.
8. Erik Walden, OLB, Green Bay Packers
The Packers have been searching for a viable threat on the opposite site of Clay Matthews since they drafted him. It is one thing to have a legitimate pass-rusher. But if there is no other threat, teams can simply assign more protection to the only guy they fear and shut him down.
Last season I saw a play in which Clay Matthews wasn't just double-teamed, but suffered the only legitimate triple-team I can remember. On a three-man rush, Matthews was blocked by the right guard, the right tackle and a tight end, leaving the other two rushers to the left side of the line. Matthews still did no worse than the other guys, including Erik Walden.
Walden was given the shot to be the guy on the other side last season and it just didn't work out Despite the extra attention given to Matthews, Walden managed only three sacks and 16 tackles on the season and was regularly driven from the line of scrimmage in the run game.
There won't be many more beneficial situations for an outside linebacker than to find themselves opposite Matthews, but Walden showed that he couldn't get the job done.
The good news is that the Packers seemed to be keenly aware of this and made it a priority in the draft, selecting Nick Perry out of USC with their top pick. Perry was one of the best pass-rushers available in the draft and has elite potential. He should slot right in ahead of Walden on the depth chart and will be the first legitimate player to take a stab at becoming the second threat opposite Matthews.
The Packers need to show teams they can bring heat from more than one spot on the defense. If they can do that, they become a much more formidable outfit.
7. Terrell McClain, DT, Carolina Panthers
Last season Carolina elected to start a pair of rookies in the middle at defensive tackle. As it turns out, neither player looked close to ready. Both were problems throughout the season. While Sione Fua was the run-stuffer, Terrell McClain was supposed to be their 3-technique penetrating pass-rusher, not that you would know it from the solitary sack he registered as a rookie.
At 6'2 and under 300 pounds, he just didn't have the required bulk to deal with NFL-sized offensive linemen. He was continually unable to exploit his quickness and shoot gaps to disrupt the offense. He is a prime example of a player who was fine at the college level, but was clearly not ready for the leap up in competition.
The Panthers are looking to replace Fua in the starting lineup, but it looks like they plan to give McClain another shot at the other spot inside.
One of two things needs to happen for the middle of the Carolina defensive line to become viable this season. Either McClain needs to take advantage of a full offseason in an NFL strength and conditioning program, developing the functional strength and size he needs to be able to deal with monster linemen he faces, or he needs to be sat down in favor of somebody who can get the job done.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they did little to address the problems they had at defensive tackle, but Andre Neblett has always been a better player than you would think, given the snaps the Panthers have given him. He may not be the disruptive force in the backfield that Carolina wants McClain to be, but then neither has McClain. Neblett could take the pressure off his younger teammate by taking starters snaps and allowing McClain to focus on becoming a situational rusher.
6. Jamarca Sandford, S, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings had the league's worst secondary by the tail-end of last season. Losing starters Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield at corner didn't help. But the real problem was at safety, where things looked creaky even before anybody went down.
Jamarca Sandford was a hard-hitting strong safety out of Ole Miss when he made the Vikings roster and made a couple of impact hits early in his career that got the coaches on his side. He was also replacing Madieu Williams, who had struggled, so the standards weren't exactly high at the time.
The problem is, Sandford was completely lost in coverage. He's not the best athlete in the secondary to begin with, so to have any hope of being an effective player in coverage he has to make up for that with instincts and the ability to read and diagnose a play quickly.
Unfortunately, his skills there seem to match his athleticism. That all adds up to him being targeted early and often, resulting in a continuous stream of receptions to opposing receivers.
Sandford might be best suited for a role as a special teams ace who has backup duty in the secondary. They have enough problems without trying to cover up holes at safety.
To their credit, the Vikings spotted the problem and went aggressively after Harrison Smith from Notre Dame in the draft. They actually traded up into the bottom of the first round to get their man. On paper, he looks like the perfect fit in the Cover-2 scheme Minnesota runs.
Smith has the range to be a factor in coverage and the ability to read a play correctly. He also has more than enough athleticism to be a force against the run.
5. Antrel Rolle, S, New York Giants
Nobody likes pointing out flaws in teams that just won the Super Bowl. It's counterintuitive, and it comes off a little like hating for the sake of it. But the Giants had some major problems last season that they did well to hide.
Antrel Rolle got a big-money contract when he signed with the Giants, and at the time I was wondering what they could possibly have been watching because he had never come close to justifying his rookie hype as a member of the Cardinals. He talks a good game, and he has some real athleticism, but he just doesn't have the mental game, and it shows all too often.
The Giants compounded matters last season when they decided that he would be a good option to cover the slot when they went to nickel formations. This was an even bigger disaster than his play at safety. He was routinely beaten by savvy, quick slot receivers.
Rolle just doesn't have the instincts to be in the right place at the right time, and he can't cope with the quickness of slot receivers when he has to defend a two-way go inside.
The Giants don't look like they have many better options at safety, so the chance to cut their losses there looks gone. But if Prince Amukamara can at least develop at corner, they can avoid playing Rolle in the slot again, which is where he was exposed the most.
4. Ronde Barber, CB/S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If ever a season was a curtain call, last season was it for Ronde Barber. At one point he was one of the best corners in the league and a real force against the run and in the slot. But last season the wheels fell off, and he and teammate Tanard Jackson engaged in a friendly competition to see who could miss the most tackles.
While most sensible people would see this as a cue to hang up the cleats, Barber and the Bucs are experimenting with moving him to safety, a move that is usually made to extend a corner's career before it is apparent that he can't get it done anymore.
To be fair, Barber is still a veteran presence, and he does stick his nose in from the slot and influence things. But there was a time when he would shut down plays in his area, whereas now he is simply an obstacle that must be negotiated.
It's time that he calls it a day after a great career, but he doesn't seem to have received the memo yet.
Tampa Bay has options beyond Barber at safety. They made a splash in the draft, taking Mark Barron from Alabama. Cody Grimm has been impressive at times, and Ahmad Black will be a far better player than his measurables suggest if he ever gets a chance to prove it.
3. J.D. Walton, C, Denver Broncos
Somehow, people are under the impression that the Broncos have a very good offensive line, based largely on the rushing yardage they were able to churn out last season when they dumped their offense and started running the read-option with Tim Tebow.
Unfortunately for Denver, they managed that yardage in spite of the offensive line rather than because of it, with Tebow and Willis McGahee often breaking multiple tackles on any given positive run. The biggest problem on that line is young center J.D. Walton, who so far in his career seems completely out of his depth in the middle
Denver threw less than your average team, yet Walton still managed to give up pressure with the worst of them, but his real issue came with run blocking. He was regularly marched into the backfield or beaten immediately off the snap by defenders.
Peyton Manning has hidden some pretty significant cracks in offensive lines during his time in Indianapolis, but there are few things that can torpedo an offense like immediate pressure straight up the gut.
Denver hasn't shown any real desire to upgrade over Walton. At the moment ,the only viable option at center is rookie Blake Philip out of Baylor. Philip is a little bigger than Walton and may be able to anchor better in the run game. At this point, it would be unlikely that he would fare much worse.
It may be a step into the unknown, but the chances of actually downgrading compared to Walton are pretty slim.
2. Wayne Hunter, OT, New York Jets
A problem at left tackle is seen as a far bigger problem than a problem at right tackle because quarterbacks don't see the pressure coming from their blind side, making it the most dangerous. If he can't see it coming, a quarterback may get injured by a sack or lose the ball in the process. That's why left tackles get the big-money contracts.
Things are a little different for the Jets, though. Wayne Hunter was such a problem at right tackle in his first season replacing Damien Woody that open-side pressure started to ruin Mark Sanchez without even needing to get to him.
Sanchez is still a young quarterback in terms of his development, and when he was able to see pressure developing in front of him, he took his eyes away from his receivers and started to react to the pressure instead.
That is the beginning of the end for a quarterback. Unless the Jets can find a way to plug up the hole at right tackle, Sanchez is finished.
The Jets would seem to have three options to replace Hunter. Vlad Ducasse has been next in line all along, but the fact that the Jets wouldn't try him last season even in the midst of Hunter's worst games does not look good for his prospects. They also recently signed Ray Willis and Stephon Heyer. Both are experienced linemen who could step in.
Unfortunately, neither has experience playing particularly well at tackle, so any move the Jets would makes looks like a sideways step at best.
Sanchez better start working on being able to throw in the face of open-side pressure because it's coming again in 2012.
1. David Diehl, OG/OT, New York Giants
David Diehl has the rare distinction of having played terribly at multiple positions as a starter and still walking away holding the Lombardi Trophy in a hail of ticker tape at season's end.
For years, he was an offensive guard who had been asked to play left tackle for the Giants after injury forced the move. He had been steadily declining on the edge after never having been great there, so the Giants decided last year to move him back inside to left guard, where he would presumably be far better in his natural position.
Unfortunately for them, it looks like Diehl's play may simply have been inexorably declining regardless of position. He was overmatched inside just as he had been on the edge. Despite playing only half the season there, he was beaten as often as almost any guard in football, and things only got worse when Will Beatty went down and Diehl had to move back to left tackle.
From that point, the Giants were reminded why they had moved him out of the position in the first place. During their run to the Super Bowl, I have never seen a team give as much assistance to a left tackle as Diehl was getting.
Chris Snee spent the majority of the last few games entirely on an island with defenders on the right-hand side because the Giants were sliding everything to the left to ensure Diehl would have double-team help from the left guard on as many plays as possible.
This season the Giants seem set to give Diehl a shot at right tackle in place of Kareem McKenzie, who was similarly hung out to dry in the effort to help Diehl.
Sean Locklear is next in line at right tackle. Though he is far from a great option, he will likely be a better one than Diehl, even if Diehl manages to improve after battling injury last year.
The good news is that nobody in football was better than Eli Manning at playing under pressure last season, so he's used to it.