Which NFL Rookies Have the Biggest Shoes to Fill in 2013?
It's the circle of life.
Every year, all 32 teams in the NFL hit the draft and look for new talent to replace aging or departing players.
Sometimes, there's no real talent to replace (which is why you end up picking first), and sometimes, you have enough depth to allow even a first-round player to come along slowly.
Sometimes, though, a rookie has to step up, or do even more. Occasionally, he needs to replace a player who was a vital piece of the team.
That's why you won't see a guy like EJ Manuel on this list. Replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't compare to replacing Joe Montana.
The following players have their work cut out for them.
Dee Milliner Replacing Darrelle Revis for the New York Jets
Dee Milliner might have the toughest job in the NFL this year in following up Darrelle Revis.
For those just catching up, Revis was traded by the New York Jets to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in return for draft picks. This was after Revis tore his ACL in September of last season and expressed his desire for a very large new contract.
We can argue whether Revis is the best corner in the league, but he was certainly the best corner in the AFC East and absolutely the best on the Jets. His absence could have a big impact on their defense this year.
That brings us to Milliner, far and away the best corner prospect in the 2013 NFL draft this year (particularly with D.J. Hayden’s health issues).
Is that enough, though? It’s one thing to be good, or even great, but Revis was beyond those labels.
We cannot expect Milliner to shut down elite wide receivers the way Revis did (we’ll see if he still can post-ACL injury), but he is good enough to hang with them and cover them.
On top of that, I have never been a big fan of Revis’ tackling ability. Yes, the Jets didn’t ask him to blitz or contain the run for the most part, but he still needed to get his hands dirty and too often seemed to lack the overall skill, strength and polish that was a hallmark of the rest of his game.
Now, in a different defense, perhaps Revis shines as a tackler. But during his time in New York, he fell short.
If there is one thing you can say Milliner might have over Revis, it’s that he is an outstanding tackler.
Of course, that’s not what he’ll have to do to replace Revis, and he’s going to face some stiff competition from receivers like Mike Wallace, Steve Johnson, Julio Jones, Roddy White, A.J. Green and Marques Colston.
And that’s just before their Week 10 bye.
It’s a tough schedule, and while he’ll get help from Antonio Cromartie (who really stepped up last season), the spotlight (and criticism) will be directed at the rookie.
Cordarrelle Patterson Replacing Percy Harvin for the Minnesota Vikings
Now, they have a big Harvin-sized hole in their offense. While tight end Kyle Rudolph might bounce back from a slow second half in 2012, Jarius Wright might continue to improve as a receiver, Greg Jennings provides a nice vertical threat and Jerome Simpson should have a bigger impact this year, none of them can replicate what Harvin did. They need to replace that post-catch playmaking ability.
To that end, the team moved back into the first round of the draft (after spending two picks there already on defense) to acquire Cordarrelle Patterson, a wide receiver from the University of Tennessee.
Patterson is a very raw athlete, still learning after a stint in JUCO and just one season in Tennessee. He has some issues body catching, has struggled with drops and needs to sharpen his route running. However, he is incredibly effective after the catch, accelerating swiftly and moving smoothly.
Pretty much what Harvin was, only with some better route running.
Is he likely to step right in and destroy defenders? Probably not, in part because the wide receiver position is one of the more complex ones to learn in the league. That’s why most receivers take two or three years to really start having an impact.
Still, as quarterback, Christian Ponder threw a ton of short passes last season. Patterson may have more early opportunities than other rookie wide receivers.
As he’s replacing Harvin, who was such a big part of the offense and whose departure wasn’t all that wonderful as far as some fans were concerned, he’ll be closely watched when he takes the field.
Tavon Austin Replacing Danny Amendola for the St. Louis Rams
Tavon Austin was the most dynamic player in the 2013 draft class, flashing excellent speed and great ability after the catch.
Not unlike Amendola.
Of course, the Rams are hoping that Austin is a bit less prone to injury than Amendola (even if Amendola’s injuries were freaky most of the time) with even more upside.
Bradford hasn’t had a lot of weapons at receiver in the past, so this year, St. Louis loaded up with them, including West Virginia teammate Stedman Bailey and former Tennessee Titan tight end Jared Cook.
The heavy lifting will fall to Austin, the No. 8 overall pick in this year's draft. You don’t take a receiver that high when you are that talent-poor at the position and expect anything less than a first-year starter.
It’s easy to assume Austin will stay healthy, but there’s no guarantee he will. Furthermore, if the rest of the offense fails to step up, he could struggle to post yards.
And of course, he can’t stop Bradford from struggling.
This season, there is a lot of pressure for Austin to perform right away at a position where that rarely happens.
Xavier Rhodes Replacing Antoine Winfield for the Minnesota Vikings
As much as there was some noise when Percy Harvin was traded, there was a (surprising) torrent of frustration and, in some cases, anger from fans when Antoine Winfield was released by the Vikings this past March.
The idea seemed to be that they would re-sign him at a lower price, but Winfield was having none of that, so they were left with a rather large hole in the secondary.
However, after trading Harvin to the Seahawks, the Vikings had two picks and a ton of flexibility, which allowed them to go after Xavier Rhodes with their first pick.
Rhodes is a physical press corner who is going to have to watch his tendency to get too physical with the receiver. That said, he will be a pain in the butt for receivers, as they will have a hard time shaking him on cuts. While he sometimes struggled against the run in college, he really improved in his junior year and could be a real force against the run.
Winfield was always a solid tackler, but last season saw him tie or improve upon multiple career highs, especially in defended passes and assists. As good a season as he had in 2012, what are the chances he was going to replicate that in 2013?
Not good. On the other hand, Winfield was the most experienced and effective corner they had, and it would have been much easier to bring Rhodes along if Winfield were across from him, even if Winfield regressed.
Since that’s not the case, Rhodes could be on the hot seat early as quarterbacks test the rookie to see what he’s made of and the Vikings look to him to step up and help solidify this secondary.
Eric Reid Replacing Dashon Goldson for the San Francisco 49ers
Dashon Goldson has moved on to Tampa Bay, and the San Francisco 49ers needed to find someone to fill his shoes. They hope they’ve found someone with the first-round pick of Eric Reid.
The LSU prospect might even eventually be a step up from Goldson, who was solid for the Niners during most of his tenure. Reid has some impressive speed and size, as well as solid tackling skills. He has the athleticism to line up with both receivers and tight ends. If he gets his hands on you, you aren’t getting away easily.
Unfortunately, Reid can be overly aggressive and will need to be a bit more controlled so he’s not out of position and doesn’t get baited by smart quarterbacks or savvy receivers.
Judging from OTAs, it seems like Reid will be a good fit.
With a great front seven, Reid will certainly have an opportunity to make plays. Goldson is a good player, but there is room for someone to replace him.
However, fans will be very quick to pine for Goldson if Reid struggles in San Francisco.
Matt Elam Replacing Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard for the Baltimore Ravens
Elam has more of an issue with filling the perception of what Ed Reed did than the production, because over the last few years, Reed’s play has slipped. Still he’s Ed Reed, so replacing him is a big deal now that he's in Houston.
If Elam is replacing Reed in spirit, he’s got to replace Bernard Pollard in production. Pollard has departed to Tennessee after two solid seasons with Baltimore.
A safety with good ball skills who is a hard hitter and a tough tackler, Elam needs to rev up his motor. Too often, he seems to be waiting for something to happen rather than anticipate it, something both Reed and Pollard could do.
Reed especially had a knack for making the big play at a big moment, and the Ravens will miss that if Elam can’t produce.
Elam also needs to throttle down his need to go for the big hit, as he misses enough of those for it to be a problem.
It’s no small task to replace either Ed Reed or Bernard Pollard, much less both. Fans will be watching Elam closely to see if he’s up to the task.
Markus Wheaton Replacing Mike Wallace for the Pittsburgh Steelers
When Mike Wallace left to take his talents to South Beach (or just Miami), he left a decent-sized hole in the Steelers offense.
Antonio Brown is good, but he's not a direct replacement for Wallace, who is more of a vertical threat. Ben Roethlisberger is going to need someone to go long, and Wheaton needs to be that guy.
And if he develops the way Pittsburgh hopes, Wheaton may be better than Wallace ever was for the Steelers.
Wheaton has the speed and the route running to gain the separation he needs to beat cornerbacks. He's able to adjust and catch any number of throws deep, whether going up for a catch or grabbing a ball inside and out.
It could be that Brown, along with Emmanuel Sanders, will be enough for Roethlisberger and the offense.
More than likely, though, Wheaton will get his shot and the team will need him to step up.
Andrew Garda is the former NFC North Lead Writer and a current NFL analyst and video personality for Bleacher Report. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at Footballguys and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.