You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
12 Aug 2004
by Aaron Schatz, additional research by Russell Levine
As everyone knows, the San Francisco 49ers are going to be a very different team this year than they were last year, particularly at the skill positions. The salary cap took a meat cleaver to the San Francisco roster. ("I don't want to hurt you, I just want to make you kosher.") Quarterback Jeff Garcia is gone, replaced by backup Tim Rattay. Running back Garrison Hearst is gone, with Kevan Barlow moving from a committee member to the unchallenged starter. Last year's top two wide receivers are now with other teams, replaced by some combination of third-year man Cedrick Wilson, second-year man Brandon Lloyd, and rookie Rashaun Woods. Last year's starting tight end, Jed Weaver, is also gone, with three-year veteran Eric Johnson returning from a year lost to injury.
How rare is this kind of turnover? The 49ers this year are going to see their leader in passing yards, their leader in receiving yards among tight ends, and their top two leaders in receiving yards among wide receivers all change; the rushing leader won't change, but Barlow will probably get at least 50% more carries this season.
Russell Levine and I poured through Doug Drinen's database, looking for teams since 1978 -- the start of the NFL's "modern era" with liberal passing rules and 16 games in a season -- where the top quarterback, top tight end, and top two receivers (in terms of yards) were all different from the year before, or mostly different from the year before. If we could get some running back turnover too, that was a bonus, although technically the 49ers are not replacing their leading rusher from 2003. We wanted to find situations analogous to what is happening to the 49ers this season.
Here is what we discovered:
Russell provided a list of teams with turnover in most of the places we were looking, but each team that I went through, I found myself writing the same sentence: "Here is another team that turned over nearly every skill position, but I don't think they provide a good comparison for the 49ers because the new players were almost all veterans."
Mike Smith's article yesterday analyzed teams in terms of how many games their current roster started in 2003, and you will notice that the 49ers come in dead last. This lack of experience is especially strong in the skill positions. Combined, Rattay, Barlow, Wilson, Lloyd, and Woods have a grand total of 12 NFL starts in their entire careers. Eric Johnson was a starter at tight end for two seasons but played in zero games in 2003.
Here are some interesting facts about some of the teams that also turned over four or five skill position players between seasons. You'll notice, however, that every single one of them had at least one veteran with at least four years of experience among the new players. None of them filled all the holes from within the organization in the way that the 49ers are attempting. You'll also notice that these teams become more and more frequent after the arrival of the salary cap era.
The 1984 Vikings were in no way similar to the 2004 49ers but I wanted to talk about them anyway just because they had such a strange season. The quarterback was different from the year before, but that was because Tommy Kramer had been injured in 1983; they didn't really change quarterbacks. (Fun fact: the third quarterback on this team was Archie Manning in his final year.) The top rusher was different, but the Vikings used a three-player running back committee and two of the three players were the same as the year before. The top tight end was Steve Jordan (Brown University '82!), but he had been on the second tight end the year before. One aspect that was similar to the 2004 49ers: The leading receivers were fourth-year wideout Leo Lewis and second-year wideout Mike Jones, both of whom were getting their first chance to start.
That's not why the year was strange, though. After 1983, Bud Grant retired after coaching the Vikings for 17 seasons. Les Steckel, his offensive coordinator, took over in 1984 and the team slammed into a brick wall. They dropped from 8-8 to 3-13, allowing the most points and yards in the NFL and finishing in the bottom five when it came to getting points and yards themselves. It was so bad that they got Grant to come out of retirement and coach again in 1985, and he went 7-9 with pretty much the same players -- except for picking up an eventual Pro Bowl receiver out of the USFL named Anthony Carter -- and then re-retired.
Like the 49ers, a former backup quarterback became the starter (Jeff Kemp). Like the 49ers, they depended on a second-year receiver taking a step forward (Henry Ellard) and a rookie receiver (Ron Brown). They tell us absolutely nothing about what to expect from the 49ers, though, because they had this guy named Eric Dickerson who ran for 2105 yards.
The 1984 Buffalo Bills had gone 2-14 and so in the offseason the team turned over most of the offense with the exception of Pro Bowl running back Greg Bell. Out was Joe Ferguson, who had been the Buffalo starting quarterback since 1973; in was Vince Ferragamo, who had lost his job on the Los Angeles Rams the year before. Tight end Tony Hunter left for the Rams and was replaced by former 49er Eason Ramson. 1984's top receivers, Byron Franklin and Preston Dennard, were off to Seattle and Green Bay, respectively. Instead, the Bills top receivers were Jerry Butler, who had missed 1984 with injury, and a rookie fourth round pick out of tiny Kutztown (PA) University named Andre Reed. Despite all this turnover, and the addition of number one overall pick Bruce Smith to the defensive line, the Bills went 2-14 again. Since the new quarterback, top wideout, and tight end were not young players, the situation isn't exactly the same as the current 49ers. But, this team could give San Francisco hope, because Reed and Smith were the cornerstones of the eventual four-time AFC champions. The following year the team drafted tackle Wil Wolford, got Jim Kelly out of the collapsing USFL, and replaced their coach in midseason with a guy named Marv Levy.
The Chargers had been a formidable offense for years before finally faltering in 1986 and 1987, and after those seasons Dan Fouts retired. Unlike the current 49ers, the Chargers did not have a young passer waiting in the wings, and signed former Steelers starter Mark Malone (yes, the ESPN guy). This started a somewhat embarrassing period where the Chargers had a new starting quarterback every year from 1988-1992. The rest of the offense, however, offers a very good comparison to the current 49ers. The Chargers had used a running back committee for a few years, including a young back named Gary Anderson. In 1988, Anderson became the uncontested starter and ran for 1100 yards. (Of course, then he lost 1989 to injury and went to Tampa in 1990.) The biggest similarity was in the receivers. The Chargers said goodbye to Wes Chandler, who was a four-time Pro Bowler with three 1000-yard seasons. The receiving corps now consisted of second-year player Jamie Holland, performing in the Brandon Lloyd role, and three rookies: first round pick Anthony Miller, third round pick Quinn Early, and undrafted Darren Flutie. Oh, and like the 49ers, the 1988 Chargers also lost a couple of offensive linemen, including Pro Bowler Jim Lachey. All this turnover did nothing to help the Chargers actually win games, though. The Chargers were 8-7 in 1987 thanks to a 3-0 record from the replacements; the real Chargers were only 5-7. In 1988 the Chargers went 6-10. In 1989 the Chargers went 6-10. In 1990 the Chargers went 6-10. In 1991, to switch it up a bit, the Chargers went 4-12. Until they suddenly put it all together in 1992, not a good period to be a Chargers fan.
The Norv Turner era begins! Rookie Heath Shuler replaced Mark Rypien at quarterback, and Washington fans all just put their fists through their computer screens. Henry Ellard came over from the Rams and had an amazing year as the top wideout, but an 11-year veteran isn't really a good comparison for Cedrick Wilson. Desmond Howard finally started at wideout in his third year and proved that he was a really good return man. The running back situation went from Reggie Brooks starting and Ricky Ervins backing him up to Ervins starting and Brooks backing him up. Both players were early in their careers. Tight end Ron Middleton went to the Rams, replaced by ex-raider Ethan Horton. Interesting note: Frank Wycheck was the backup both years. All of Ellard's garbage time yards couldn't help the Persons win more than three games.
This was the second year of the Buddy Ryan era in Phoenix and the team dropped from 8-8 to 4-12, everyone hated Ryan, and he got fired afterwards. The three-headed QB monster of Steve Beuerlein, Jim McMahon, and Jay Schroeder got replaced by former Seahawk Dave Kreig. Leading rusher Ronald Moore was traded to the Jets for wide receiver Rob Moore, and replaced by his understudy, third-year back Garrison Hearst. (Oh, sweet irony!) The top receivers from the year before all left: Gary Moore and Randall Hill for Miami, Ricky Proehl for Seattle. The new receivers were Moore, rookie Frank Sanders, and Anthony Edwards, who had been injured in 1994. Rookie Oscar McBride took over at tight end and had a whopping 13 catches.
Like Rattay, this team had a backup with his first chance to start, with Ty Detmer emerging from behind the shadow of Brett Favre (and then seeing his shadow, meaning six more years as a backup). They started a rookie tight end, Jason Dunn, and second receiver Chris Jones went from five catches as a rookie in 1995 to 70 catches as a starter in 1996. But the main wideout was a veteran, ex-Patriot and Dolphin Irving Fryar, and Pro Bowl running back Ricky Watters was the focal point of the offense in both 1995 and 1996. This is one of the best teams on this list, going 10-6 each year.
Another team that rebuilt with veterans who didn't solve the problems. Jim Everett was out at quarterback, Redskins flop Heath Shuler was in for one last attempt at a career (it failed). Wideouts Michael Haynes (to Atlanta) and Torrence Small (to St. Louis) were out. Wideouts Andre Hastings (Pittsburgh) and Randall Hill (Miami) were in. Mario Bates and Ray Zellars were the running back committee in both 1996 and 1997. The Saints went from 3-13 to 6-10.
Another new coach, another new set of veterans. Brian Billick replaced Jim Harbaugh with ex-Ram Tony Banks, and running back Priest Holmes missed half the season so ex-Buccaneer Eric Rhett was the leading rusher. Jermaine Lewis, who had been the leading receiver in 1998, went back to being primarily a special teams player, replaced by six-year veteran Qadry Ismail. This team had a cast of thousands at tight end in 1998 replaced by a cast of thousands at tight end in 1999 with almost entirely new players.
This was Andy Reid's first year as head coach in Philadelphia. The running back was the same -- Duce Staley -- and there wasn't much turnover on the defense (among the defensive players on both teams: Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, Hugh Douglas, Bobby Taylor). The passing game completely changed, however. The 1998 Eagles had played Koy Detmer, Bobby Hoying, and Rodney Peete; the 1999 Eagles grabbed Packers backup Doug Peterson and let him mentor first-round pick Donovan McNabb. Wideouts Jeff Graham and Irving Fryar left for San Diego and Washington. Third and fourth wideouts Russell Copeland and Freddie Solomon retired. In their place were veteran Torrence Small, picked up from the Colts, ex-Steeler Charles Johnson, and rookie "The Ill Na" Na Brown. The Eagles improved from 3-13 to 5-11 but everything really jelled in 2000 when Reid switched scrub wideout Chad Lewis to tight end, McNabb took over as the starting quarterback full time, and the defense took big step forward.
Like most of the teams listed here, the turnover here was primarily veterans. Unlike many teams listed here, this team won, going from 3-13 in the last year of the Ditka era to 10-6 under Jim Haslett in 2000. Haslett brought in two quarterbacks, veteran Jeff Blake from the Bengals and a second-year passer named Aaron Brooks who was stuck behind Brett Favre in Green Bay. (Side note: Has there ever been a team like Green Bay, where the backups consistently become starters on other teams? Favre's backups have included Marc Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, and Ty Detmer.) 1999's top wideout, Eddie Kennison, went to Chicago. Andre Hastings retired. Keith Poole was still in New Orleans but played much less. The new top receivers were Joe Horn, who flourished after leaving Kansas City, and ex-Bengal Willie Jackson. 1999 tight end Cam Cleeland was injured and Andrew Glover came over from Minnesota to replace him. The one constant among the offensive skill players was Ricky Williams.
This is the best case scenario for the 2004 San Francisco 49ers, and it also may be the team here that comes closest to the 49ers in terms of filling their holes from within the organization. The quarterback, Jim Miller, had been around longer than Rattay, but like Rattay he had played well as a backup but was starting for the first time. The top two receivers from the previous year either got injured (Marcus Robinson) or left for another team (how many times do I have to mention Eddie Kennison in this article?). The third receiver from 2000 was a player similar to Cedrick Wilson, a guy who had been good for two years and finally got a shot to be the number one target. Marty Booker responded with over 1000 yards and was the mack daddy of my fantasy football team. Second-year receiver Dez White was in the same position as Brandon Lloyd is now, and the third wideout, rookie David Terrell, was analogous to Rashaun Woods. The running back was also new, rookie Anthony Thomas.
Familiar to everyone, since they are recent. Rookie quarterback in Joey Harrington, two new starting wideouts, Az Hakim and Bill Schroeder, who had much more experience than the wideouts the 49ers are counting on this year, and the same running back (James Stewart).
That's a lot of teams, and none of them are really similar to the 49ers. It is probably good news for the 49ers that the team on this list that was probably in the most similar situation, the 2001 Chicago Bears, came out of nowhere to go 13-3. What made the 2001 Bears work, however, was less the offensive change and more the defense that allowed the fewest number of points in the NFL. The 49ers cannot expect that kind of defensive step forward this year. Then again, the Bears had no reason to expect that kind of defensive step forward in 2001 either.
The Bears are really an exception, though. Only three other teams on this list had winning records, and they either had established running backs (1984 Rams, 1996 Eagles) or took a big defensive step forward similar to the 2001 Bears (the 2000 Saints went from being ranked 28th in points allowed and 20th in yards allowed to 10th in points allowed and 11th in yards allowed). Pro-rating the non-strike games of the 1987 Redskins, these teams won 5.4 games the year before changing up all their players and 5.7 games the year after. And all of them had at least one skill player who was a veteran of more than three previous seasons.
There is simply no historical precedent for the 2004 49ers, but there is hope. It comes on the defensive side of the ball, though, because history says that's where the 49ers will need to improve to win games with this much offensive change. Too bad the defensive coordinator left and the best defensive player is holding out. Where have you gone, Julian Peterson, the Bay Area turns its lonely eyes to you.