Rising from the Scrap Heap: Who Will Be the Most Successful Veteran Castoff
NFL teams are always looking to save a little money by letting go of pricey veterans in favor of younger, cheaper options who pair less mileage with cheaper (unless picked in the Top 10 of the draft) contracts.
Many time this proves to be the right move as 30-something veterans move on to limited success with new teams, but a few manage to translate change into an impressive run that leave fans wondering just why that player was let go in the first place.
Who will do the best job of proving their old team wrong this year? Read on to find out.
Jason Taylor/Ladainian Tomlinson, New York Jets
One was completely cut loose while the other was allowed to dangle precariously in free agency. What both have in common is that they were coveted by a New York Jets team that is eyeing a Super Bowl after taking their surprising playoff berth all the way to the conference championships.
Both veterans also have another shared trait: They are playing in as close to an ideal situation for their current abilities as possible.
Tomlinson was perceived to be slowing down after the 2008 season, during which he still managed to top 1,000 yards, but posted the lowest rushing total (1,110) of his career. He followed that with an even more drastic downturn in 2009, in which he put together 730 yards on only a 3.3 yard-per-carry average.
The argument over scheme/personnel versus declining talent has been a hot-button issue surrounding Tomlinson’s less than graceful departure from San Diego, and in New York he has the perfect situation to prove his critics wrong. Sharing the backfield with Shonn Greene, he should not log enough carries for fatigue to be a factor, while the New York Jets run-centric personnel and scheme will offer him the maximum running room he could find on an NFL team.
Taylor actually experienced an uptick in production from 2008 to 2009, after managing a respectable seven sacks in his Dolphins return. Age is a concern, however, and the Dolphins left him dangling with talk they would address his situation towards the end of the offseason. He elected not to wait in favor of a team that showed genuine interest.
Going to the New York Jets, Taylor will not have to see excessive field time, as he will assume the role of a pass-rushing specialist in a high-attack New York Jets defense that will make it difficult for blockers to key on Taylor.
Donovan McNabb, Washington Redskins
Despite a number of perennial Pro Bowl (and even future Hall of Fame) players changing colors this offseason, McNabb has to stand out as the biggest name.
Rather than being installed as a helpful piece of an offense (Tomlinson), he will more than likely become the focal point of a Washington Redskins offense that dearly needed a playmaker.
The situation is not as favorable for McNabb as others, but he also hasn’t shown the same signs of decline, having put up 3,500 yards behind a 92.9 rating in 2009.
His supporting cast is somewhat lackluster, however. His primary wide receiver will be Santana Moss, a consistently productive player who at this stage of his career is probably better suited to being a very good No. 2 receiver rather than the focal point.
He will have to be, however, as the talent drop-off at wide receiver gets steep at that point, with either young, unpolished talent (Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly) or declining veterans several seasons removed from their heyday (Joey Galloway, Bobby Wade).
The backfield is an injury-plagued trio of overworked backs that combined for 30 catches and 1494 rushing yards (or roughly the total of Thomas Jones by himself).
McNabb knows how to make it work with a less than stellar receiving corps, but will have to lean heavily on his tight ends and Santana Moss if he hopes to reignite a stagnant Redskins offense.
Thomas Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Jones had perhaps the best 2009 of anyone on this list, putting up over 1400 yards to lead the New York Jets rushing attack. The emergence of Shonn Greene coupled with Jones’ sizable contract, and a poor playoff showing, forced Jones out the door in New York.
He comes to a Kansas City offense that seemed to be just finding itself late in the 2009 season, after replacing Larry Johnson with speedster Jamaal Charles en route to an 1,100 yard season mostly accrued in a second half, where he averaged 121 yards per game.
Johnson disappointing early performance, coupled with limited upgrades along the offensive line, could be a concern as the unit did not seem well suited to blocking for a power back. Jones will need to prove that his regular season performance is reflective of his current level, rather than the sub-three-yard-per-carry playoff performance.
Brian Westbrook, St. Louis Rams
This is assumptive, as Westbrook is considered likely to sign with the Rams, but has yet to officially latch on with the team.
That said, Westbrook is in an awkward position. Coming off a year in which injury (once again) limited him to only 61 carries and 274 yards, he will be placed on a team that may need quite a bit out of the fragile veteran as lead back Steven Jackson will need to have his workload pared down considerably if the team retains any hope of not burning out their franchise player.
If Westbrook can retain some semblance of health, however, he could still be productive. He averaged 4.5 yards-per-carry last season as well as put up 25 catches for 181 yards in only eight games.
On a team light on wide receiving (or offensive line) talent, rookie Sam Bradford could put the good hands of Westbrook to use as a safety valve.
Joey Porter, Arizona Cardinals
Like Jason Taylor, Porter was jettisoned from Miami following a solid season in which he put up 9 sacks in 14 games, but finished the year on the bench after drawing the ire of head coach Tony Sporano.
Arizona will be looking for leadership and a veteran presence after losing Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle on defense, as well as Anquan Boldin and Kurt Warner on the other side of the football.
There are still a few solid pieces to go along with Porter, Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson are still Pro Bowl quality players, while rookie Dan Williams has the build and talent to be a great force in the middle.
Porter’s inconsistency and high motor could fit very well within the guise of the Arizona Cardinals, who can look like a super-bowl candidate or a top 10 drafting team on any given night. The biggest difficulty however would blockers keying on Porter, who will see limited pass-rushing help from the rest of the 3-4 Cardinals linebacking corps.
Jake Delhomme, Cleveland Browns
Delhomme followed one of the worst seasons by a quarterback in 2009 by moving to one of the worst teams of 2009 in the Cleveland Browns.
With a terrible 8:18 TD/INT ratio, Delhomme seemed like his troubles were as much mental as they were physical or mechanical last season.
That may good news in a way, as a mental block can be aided with a change of scenery, while the physical decline of a 35-year-old player is unlikely to see any future upswing.
It is perceived that Delhomme is a stopgap for starter-in-training Colt McCoy, but the Cleveland Browns are going to hope Delhomme can put up a solid enough season to keep McCoy on the sidelines throughout his rookie tenure.
If his 2010 bears any similarity to last season, however, new Browns head-honcho Mike Holmgren may be quick to pull the plug in favor of the talented youngster.
Torry Holt, New England Patriots
Holt’s perception in 2009 is deceiving. As a primary receiving threat his 51 catches for 733 yards would have to be considered disappointing. But as a 33-year-old piece of an offense, the once elite wide-out still showed decent ability working alongside an underwhelming crop of inexperienced wide-outs.
Moving on from Jacksonville, Holt will be stepping into a situation where he is asked to do much less, while being surrounded by much more. New England has been a haven for aging veterans looking for one last chance to shine, although that has generally applied to running backs and linebackers, more than the receiving corps.
Holt should be a good fit as a veteran presence that is already familiar with running out of a high-octane passing offense, after being a leader during St. Louis’ greatest show on turf era.
Holt won’t be threatening similarly aged Randy Moss for playing time, but especially early in the season, while Wes Welker’s situation is questionable, Holt could be a great stabilizing depth player whose savvy and instincts should help augment his declining speed and burst.
Larry Johnson/Willie Parker, Washington Redskins
Parker is something of a cheat because he will not reach 30-year-old status until well into the season, but makes the list because he pairs with Larry Johnson, who already reached that magic number.
The one luxury of Washington's backfield is that no one will have to be 'the guy,' as the two pair with Clinton Portis for a three-headed attack that appears to be the Washington Redskin's attempt at finding a New England Patriots model for their backfield.
Johnson had a miniature rebirth when he put up 107 yards in a Week 12 game for the Cincinnati Bengals, before returning to his prior form with 92 yards over the final five games of the regular season.
Johnson's decline appears to have been fairly abrupt and related to more than age, as he has not put together a solid full season since 2006.
When healthy, Parker has shown some ability to still be a solid back, putting up four yards-per-carry last year despite being limited to under 100 carries for the entire season.
On a Washington team that will have multiple players to draw from, Parker might have a better chance of remaining effective over Johnson, as long as he is kept between 80 and 120 carries for the year. If a higher pace is attempted, the Redskins may end up putting him on the sidelines for injury more often than not.
Alan Faneca, Arizona Cardinals
The latest entry to the list, Faneca was let go in an eye-raising move by a New York Jets team that proved plenty willing to bring in new vets, while showing plenty of its existing veteran base the door.
Faneca was a major piece of the Jets offense line that blocked for the league’s number one rushing attack last year, and will be replaced by a rookie in Vladimir Duccasse.
The Cardinals will be leaning strongly on Faneca, as they look to establish a running game behind Beanie Wells, in the wake of quarterback Kurt Warner’s retirement.
Faneca is a durable 33-year-old veteran who has made 128 consecutive starts over the past eight seasons, but showed signs of slowing last year, especially in the passing game where he was rated among the blockers most frequently ‘beat’ by opposing pass rushers.
His veteran presence will be counted on to lead an otherwise young (average age: 27) offensive unit that has little experience run-blocking with any regularity.
When looking at a player that has been cast aside, there is the possibility that a change of scenery and desire to prove oneself can drive that player to a fountain of youth year of renewed success. One or two players should be able to find it while most will likely perform as expected or even suffer further drop-off trying to transition into a new system.
For situation, Tomlinson and Taylor have to be regarded as being put in the best position to succeed, while Donovan McNabb’s abilities showed little sign of decline and he has perhaps the best motivation to succeed after being traded to a division rival.
Thomas Jones also falls under the limited decline (1,400 yards/will to win (being replaced by another fading vet) category, while a change of scenery could be the perfect cure to Jake Delhomme’s mental block.
Who will be the most successful? While it will not necessarily translate to the win-loss column, the vote here is that McNabb can work a little more magic and turn in a solid year while father time catches up with the Jets-vets and Delhomme proves a better mentor to Colt McCoy than starter for the Cleveland Browns.