Grading the Backup Plan for NFL's Biggest Stars
The injury scare to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady Wednesday has put the backup plans for the rest of the NFL's star players into a much brighter focus.
While the NFL is made up of 32 independent teams and hundreds of players, it became stunningly obvious just how much of the 2013 season was actually riding on the health of Brady's knee. Without the Hall of Fame quarterback available, the Patriots could have been looking at a lost season with Ryan Mallett or (gasp!) Tim Tebow at quarterback. The rest of the AFC could have been turned upside down.
However, the Patriots aren't the only NFL team with question marks behind a star player.
In the following slides, we'll take a closer look at each of the backup situations currently in place for the NFL's biggest stars. Each Plan B will be graded based on a number of factors, such as talent, readiness and depth.
QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots nearly had to go to Plan B when Tom Brady hobbled off the practice field Wednesday with what appeared to be an injury to the same knee he had reconstructed during the 2008 season.
Luckily for New England, additional testing on the knee came back with good news, and according to ESPN's Ed Werder, Brady will practice Thursday and likely play Friday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Had Brady suffered any significant damage to the knee, third-year quarterback Ryan Mallett would have taken over the starting gig. While Mallett possesses ideal size and a rocket right arm, he's struggled during his exhibition gigs (he went 9-of-18 for 97 yards in the preseason opener vs. the Philadelphia Eagles).
It's also certainly possible that losing Brady could open the door to the Patriots' using Tim Tebow in a more defined role, possibly as a gadget quarterback who runs the read-option on a certain set of plays each game.
Regardless, the Patriots would be in serious trouble if No. 12 wasn't under center for a significant period of time.
BACKUP GRADE: B-
QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
There's no team in the NFL that would suffer greater consequences than the Green Bay Packers with an injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
A Super Bowl contender every season with Rodgers available, the Packers would become an instant afterthought with current backup Graham Harrell or struggling veteran Vince Young as the starting quarterback.
And just how bad could it get?
One NFC personnel executive recently told Rob Reischel of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the Packers would be "2-14" and then in the "Jadeveon Clowney sweepstakes" without Rodgers available in 2013.
While such a claim may sound a little overboard, there's actually a recent example to parallel here; after losing Peyton Manning for the 2011 season, the Indianapolis Colts went 2-14 and secured the top overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Even if it didn't get that bad, the Packers would be almost guaranteed a lost season without Rodgers healthy.
BACKUP GRADE: F
RB Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Could the Minnesota Vikings get by with Toby Gerhart, whom the team drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, to play the role as Minnesota's No. 2 back?
Gerhart did rush for 531 yards at a 4.9-yard clip during the 2011 season, when he made five starts and totaled over 100 carries.
But survive? Without the generation's most talented running back, who is coming off arguably the greatest season ever at the position?
Peterson is the rarest of talents, and while the Vikings have upgraded at receiver this offseason, quarterback Christian Ponder likely isn't capable of carrying a football team without the threat of an Adrian Peterson in the backfield. Gerhart is a nice Band-Aid, but nothing more.
BACKUP GRADE: B-
QB Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
Wisely, the Broncos acquired their "quarterback of the future" during the same offseason Peyton Manning was brought to Denver. That quarterback is Brock Osweiler, a 6'7", 242-pound giant who has an NFL-ready arm.
While reviews coming from Broncos camp have been overwhelmingly positive on Osweiler this offseason (see this story by Mike Klis of the Denver Post for the best example), the drop off from QB1 to QB2 in Denver should still be viewed as substantial.
If the Broncos lose the 37-year-old Manning for a significant period in 2013, any hopes of playing in a Super Bowl are almost certainly lost. Remember, Manning's arrival was good for a five-win improvement in 2012 (8-8 in 2011 to 13-3). The Broncos would probably fall back to or below .500 without him available.
BACKUP GRADE: C+
WR Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
In the grand scheme of things, receivers remain infinitely less important to a team's success than the quarterback position. But if there's one receiver an NFL team can't afford to lose, it's likely Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions.
Few in the game's history have been as consistently dominant as Johnson, who shattered Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yards record in 2012. Without Johnson in the lineup, the Lions receivers would suddenly look very pedestrian.
The most likely starters on the outside would be veteran Nate Burleson (27 catches in 2012 before breaking his leg in October) and Ryan Broyles, who is returning from yet another knee reconstruction. Patrick Edwards, Kris Durham and Mike Thomas would be the next three in line.
The Lions are prolific throwing the football in part because of volume (see: Matthew Stafford's number of attempts), but also because of Johnson's presence on every snap. Broyles and the rest of Detroit's depth at receiver couldn't come close to replicating his production.
BACKUP GRADE: C-
QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
In terms of "what quarterback injury would be the most devastating to a team," Drew Brees certainly gives Aaron Rodgers a run for his money.
So much of what the New Orleans Saints do is based off Brees and his ability to captain a high-paced, pass-heavy offense. Three times in the last five years, Brees has led the NFL in passing yards.
Any kind of significant injury to Brees would send the Saints season into a tailspin. The backups currently in New Orleans inspire little to no confidence.
Luke McCown has started nine NFL games, but his career stat line includes nine touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Seneca Wallace hasn't played in a regular-season game since 2011. And fourth-stringer Ryan Griffin is in no way ready to lead an NFL offense.
Without Brees, the Saints might struggle to get to four or five wins.
BACKUP GRADE: D
RB Arian Foster, Houston Texans
Since 2010, Arian Foster has rushed over 4,200 yards and has recorded a league-high 41 touchdowns. He's also added another 1,500 receiving yards, making him one of the most important and versatile running backs in the game today.
However, the Houston Texans could probably sustain a similar level of play on the offensive side of the football without him available, thanks in large part to backup Ben Tate.
Over the last two seasons, Tate has rushed for over 1,200 yards while sporting a 5.1-yard per carry average. During his most extensive playing time in 2011, the former second-round pick nearly cracked 1,000 yards on just 175 carries.
The Texans would never want to entertain the idea of losing Foster for a significant period of time, but Tate does provide a very capable backup plan if that worst case scenario ever did unfold.
BACKUP GRADE: B+
QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
While the Packers and Saints will both hold their collective breaths at the quarterback position this season, the Atlanta Falcons aren't in any position to feel much better about their backup options behind Matt Ryan.
No. 2 quarterback Dominique Davis has exactly zero regular-season playing experience, and his preseason results have been shaky at best.
In 2012, he threw three picks and fashioned a passer rating of just 76.6 over four preseason games. His debut last week featured a completion percentage of 42.1 and another interception, good for a passer rating of under 50.
Behind Davis is rookie Sean Renfree.
The Falcons are certainly talented on offense, but there's no question this team would be in serious trouble without Ryan at the helm.
BACKUP GRADE: D+
RB Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
Since 2009, few running backs have provided more for their respective offense than Ray Rice for the Baltimore Ravens.
Over that four-year span, Rice leads all running backs in yards from scrimmage—and by a wide margin. His 7,506 yards are almost 1,500 more than Arian Foster, the second-place back (6,052) since '09.
However, the Ravens wouldn't be dead in the water without Rice in the lineup.
Second-year back Bernard Pierce proved to be a legitimate playmaker in his first season, which saw him rack up 532 yards on just 108 attempts. His game-breaking skills could slide nicely into the Baltimore offense should Rice ever have to miss significant time.
BACKUP GRADE: A-
DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
It's certainly possible that you go through decades of 3-4 defensive ends and not a find a comparable replacement for J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans.
Identifying one currently on the Texans roster? Forget about it.
Watt put together one of the best seasons ever by a 3-4 defensive lineman in 2012, totaling 20.5 sacks and batting down 16 passes. There's simply no player in Houston who could replace that kind of production should Watt miss any time due to injury.
The Texans would likely call on a combination of Tim Jamison (four career sacks) and Jared Crick (zero sacks as a rookie in 2012) if Watt were ever to go down. Both are serviceable players, but there's no sugarcoating what kind of drop-off the Texans would face without the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year healthy.
BACKUP GRADE: C
LB Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
While the Packers have survived without Clay Matthews for brief stints throughout his four-year NFL career, it's difficult to see Green Bay being able to sustain a championship-level defense without their star outside linebacker in the lineup for a long stretch.
Currently listed behind Matthews on the depth chart is Dezman Moses, an undrafted free agent in 2012 who, despite surprising with four sacks as a rookie, is likely better suited for spot duty. Over his four starts in place of Matthews last season, Moses combined for a -9.4 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Behind Moses is a bunch of raw and inexperienced first-year players.
Losing Matthews wouldn't qualify as the same kind of death blow to the Packers that a severe injury to Aaron Rodgers so clearly would be, but he's obviously the most important player on an otherwise average defense.
Without him, Green Bay would be in trouble defensively.
BACKUP GRADE: C-
LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos
The Broncos could very well open the 2013 season without Von Miller available. He's currently in the midst of appealing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Without Miller around (19.5 sacks in 2012), the Broncos would likely lean on a veteran to fill his shoes.
Shaun Phillips, who tallied nine sacks for the San Diego Chargers in 2012, is the most obvious candidate to replace Miller in the lineup. However, it's worth noting that the veteran finished last season with the second-worst overall grade among 3-4 linebackers at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Four games over a 16-game schedule isn't a damning absence for Miller and the Broncos. However, any kind of hypothetical injury that would cost Miller most of the season would certainly put Denver in trouble on the defensive side of the football, especially without Elvis Dumervil in town.
BACKUP GRADE: C+
CB Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
If you ask Pro Football Focus (subscription required) who the second-best cornerback was during the 2012 regular season, you'd get back Richard Sherman as their answer. He received the site's top cover grade and was an indispensable part of the Seattle Seahawks' rise last season.
But if Sherman went down in 2013, Seattle could still be one of the league's top defenses. Or at least PFF thinks so.
This offseason, the Seahawks actually acquired Antoine Winfield, PFF's highest-graded cornerback from last season. He'll now back up Sherman—while also covering the slot as the nickelback—in Seattle.
Few cornerbacks in the game could realistically replace what Sherman brings in terms of man-to-man coverage, but the Seahawks can rest comfortably knowing such a well-respected veteran is available to step in as a starter at a moment's notice.
BACKUP GRADE: A
LB Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
There's very little debate over Patrick Willis' designation as the game's top inside linebacker. Maybe his only true rival at the position is NaVorro Bowman, the linebacker he plays next to on almost every snap.
While Bowman's presence would certainly aid the San Francisco 49ers during any kind of injury to Willis, the drop-off from starter to backup is a substantial one for San Francisco.
Sixth-round pick Nick Moody is penciled in as Willis' top backup, with 26-year-old Michael Wilhoite also a potential option. Either way, the 49ers would be replacing a difference maker in Willis with a special teams player.
The 49ers could certainly survive without Willis, based mostly off the surrounding talent on defense and Bowman's emergence. However, there's no question that the depth behind the two All-Pro inside linebackers is spotty, at best.
BACKUP GRADE: D+
DE DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
Since 2005, no player in the NFL has produced more total sacks than DeMarcus Ware's 111. He's averaged close to one a game since arriving in Dallas, which further highlights just how important he is and has been to the Cowboys defense.
As you'd expect, losing Ware for anything longer than a few games would be a crushing blow. The Cowboys have never really experienced such a loss; Ware has missed only one game in eight NFL seasons.
Without him, however, Dallas would likely have to lean on a combination of Kyle Wilber (one career tackle in 10 games) and George Selvie (three career sacks with four NFL teams) at defensive end. While Selvie has impressed this preseason, any defensive lineup that doesn't feature Ware would be apocalyptic for Dallas in 2013.
BACKUP GRADE: C-