Buying or Selling These 2013 NFL Backups as Successful 2014 Starters
Time marches on for all of us. That is a fact.
Players march on in the NFL every offseason, which is also a fact.
But if there’s a job, someone has got to do it.
Here, we are taking a look at seven players who will be going from understudy to feature performer. For some, they’ve had a slight taste of being a starter in the past. For others, this will be a whole new experience, and there’s little doubt that they welcome the challenge.
Who will make the successful transition from backup to the big time? We have included our best guesses after a little work.
So for the nine players featured here…cue the music.
Buy: ILB Kevin Minter, Arizona Cardinals
Talk about an opportunity.
In 2013, the Arizona Cardinals made linebacker Kevin Minter the 45th overall pick in the draft. Via Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the former LSU product basically saw no playing time on defense as a rookie. That was somewhat understandable considering Bruce Arians’ club featured inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington.
That is about to change in a big way. Dansby signed with the Cleveland Browns, and Washington will be serving a one-year suspension courtesy of the league, as detailed by Nate Davis of USA Today. In steps Minter, who will team with veteran linebacker Larry Foote (late of the Pittsburgh Steelers) to man the middle of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ unit. The Cardinals also signed linebacker Ernie Sims for some depth as well.
Minter will be surrounded by plenty of experience as he takes on a much bigger role, including the likes of 14-year defender John Abraham, who lines up at right outside linebacker these days. All of this savvy combined with Minter’s ability should pay off eventually for one of the league’s better defensive units.
Sell: RDE Wallace Gilberry, Cincinnati Bengals
Selling on the guy who actually had more than twice as many sacks as the player he is replacing?
In six NFL seasons, the last two with the Cincinnati Bengals, defensive end Wallace Gilberry has totaled 28 sacks, exactly half of those coming in his brief stint with Marvin Lewis’ team.
But it’s also worth noting that during his career in the league, the former University of Alabama performer has started a whopping five games, two of those coming in 2013.
With Michael Johnson now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gilberry is expected to take over his role at right defensive end. The now former Bengal totaled just 3.5 sacks this past season, this after finishing with 11.5 sacks in 2012.
Meanwhile, Wallace and fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap tied for the Bengals’ team lead with 7.5 sacks this past season, and Lewis and new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther certainly hope that is something to build on.
What was lost with Johnson’s play last season is that while his sack numbers were down, his overall performance was up. Cincinnati was the league’s third-ranked defense in 2013, finishing fifth in the NFL in both rushing and passing yards allowed. It did that with star defensive tackle Geno Atkins sidelined for the second half of the season.
Now it will be trying to do that with Johnson gone. It could be a tricky transition for Gilberry as he takes on a much bigger role.
Buy: RDE Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings
Talk about an insurance policy.
Back in early March, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported the details of a five-year, $42.5 million contract signed by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen. Apparently, there was no way the organization was going to let the four-year performer hit the open market.
Forget the money for a moment (if you can). Is Griffen ready to take over the right defensive end spot manned by veteran Jared Allen for the last six seasons? Those are some big shoes to fill considering that during his stint with the Purple Gang, he played and started all 96 games and totaled 85.5 sacks.
Can Griffen come up with those kinds of numbers? Anyone would be hard-pressed to duplicate that kind of performance. But this will be a new-look defensive front under head coach Mike Zimmer, featuring second-year pro and former first-round defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who will team up with free-agent addition Linval Joseph inside. Add veteran left defensive end Brian Robison, and you’re looking at a unit that will grow together over the next few seasons starting in 2014.
Griffen has made just one career start, which is obviously getting ready to change. He’s totaled 17.5 sacks in four seasons, including a career-high eight in 2012. A double-digit sack total for Griffen may be in the cards this season.
Selling: WR Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers
Just over a year ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers added speedy wideout Markus Wheaton in the third round to help offset the loss of speedy wideout Mike Wallace, who opted to go swimming with the Miami Dolphins.
Now the second-year pro is the odds-on favorite to replace Emmanuel Sanders, who took his talents to the Mile High City this offseason via free agency.
Is the former Oregon State player ready for the spotlight? His rookie campaign was forgettable due mainly to injuries. Dan Hanzus of NFL.com discussed Wheaton’s first year, which saw him play in just 12 games and total six receptions.
There are some other candidates when it comes to replacing Sanders. The Steelers drafted Justin Brown in the sixth round in 2013, and in May they added Martavis Bryant with a fourth-round pick. Veteran Lance Moore, late of the New Orleans Saints, was added as well, but he figures to fill another role, that left by the departure of Jerricho Cotchery, who led the team with 10 touchdown receptions this past season.
No one is saying that Wheaton won’t eventually emerge as the starter opposite Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if eventually came later than sooner.
Buy: RT Ricky Wagner, Baltimore Ravens
It’s still hard to fathom that only two teams in the NFL in 2013 ran for fewer yards than the Baltimore Ravens.
That lack of balance proved to be bad news for quarterback Joe Flacco, who would follow up his Super Bowl season with 19 touchdown passes and a career-high 22 interceptions.
The six-year signal-caller also didn’t get a lot of help from the guys up front, a problem-plagued unit with numerous issues. The Ravens allowed 48 sacks, 10 more than the previous season and the most by the club since 1999.
It was a very rough year for former first-round tackle Michael Oher, who started all 16 games on the right side, allowed eight sacks and struggled overall, as documented by Pro Football Focus. The massive performer signed with the Tennessee Titans this offseason.
So now it’s second-year pro Ricky Wagner who is Ricky-on-the-spot. The fifth-round pick in 2013 from the University of Wisconsin has drawn good reviews from new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com.
If the Ravens have any intentions of returning to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons under head coach John Harbaugh, an offensive unit that produced just 26 touchdowns in 2013 must bounce back strong.
Meanwhile, Wagner and his linemates must make sure their quarterback isn’t bounced too often.
Buy: LDE Damontre Moore, New York Giants
For years, the New York Giants have made a living out of drafting defensive ends who can get after opposing quarterbacks.
The team’s most recent Super Bowl title teams in 2007 (XLII) and 2011 (XLVI) were keyed by pass rushes led by performers such as Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Michael Strahan.
Of course, Tuck is now with the Oakland Raiders, and Strahan is getting ready to be enshrined in Canton in about five weeks. At right defensive end, Pierre-Paul looks to rebound from a pair of subpar and injury-plagued seasons.
But what about the other defensive end spot? The Giants used a third-round pick in 2013 on Damontre Moore, who played in 15 games this past season but was more of a factor on special teams than on defense, where he totaled just 11 tackles and zero sacks.
That figures to change in 2014, although the team did sign free-agent Robert Ayers from the Denver Broncos this offseason.
Still, the Giants want to see more…of Moore, who has definitely caught the eye of defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. “I think preseason games will be the measuring stick,” said Fewell recently to Dan Graziano of ESPN.com. “We think he’s made a lot of progress from where he was a year ago. He’s grown a lot, and if he takes that next step in the next month on his own, progressing even more, then when he comes back in the fall we’ll have another measuring stick of where we need to go with him.”
The 2011 Giants totaled 48 sacks on their way to a Super Bowl title. That figure dropped to 33 sacks a year later while this past season’s club got to opposing quarterbacks 34 times.
Is the 6’5”, 250-pound defender ready to assume a regular spot in the lineup? Tom Coughlin and Co. are certainly hoping so, and they need the second-year pro to step up in a big way.
Buy: C J.C. Tretter, Green Bay Packers
There are several members of the Pack who won’t be back in 2014.
The Green Bay Packers took a few hits in free agency this offseason. Wide receiver James Jones signed with the Oakland Raiders, and safety M.D. Jennings bolted for the Chicago Bears.
However, the one move that might wind up hurting the most was the departure of steady center Evan Dietrich-Smith, who switched bays, signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Enter second-year pro J.C. Tretter, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2013, who sat out his rookie season due to a broken ankle. That will change significantly this fall.
“Obviously, I didn’t get a lot of time on the field,” said Tretter recently to Mike Spofford of Packers.com. “A lot of it was rehab, but I still think there’s a huge jump to be made and there’s a very high ceiling, a huge potential to reach which I don’t think I’m close to yet. It’s something you keep working at, keep grinding at, until you get there.”
With Tretter in the starting lineup, the Packers look to build on last season’s running attack that produced 133.5 yards per game while improving on those 44 sacks allowed by the club.
While there could be some growing pains for the 6’4”, 307-pound pivot, there’s enough surrounding support to make the transition a bit easier for Tretter.