Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt’s idea of putting players’ names on the backs of jerseys when forming the American Football League in 1960 never looked smarter than it does now.
The confluence of unrestricted free agency, salary-cap issues and eight head-coaching changes created a frenzy, an unprecedented number of marquee players changing uniforms for the 2013 season.
Prominent names who were traded included quarterback Alex Smith, who went from San Francisco to Kansas City; quarterback Carson Palmer, who went from Oakland to Arizona; wide receivers Anquan Boldin, from Baltimore to San Francisco, and Percy Harvin, from Minnesota to Seattle; and cornerback Darrelle Revis, from the Jets to Tampa Bay.
Free agency saw star wide receivers Wes Welker (Denver), Mike Wallace (Miami) and Greg Jennings (Minnesota); running backs Steven Jackson (Atlanta) and Reggie Bush (Detroit); safeties Ed Reed (Houston) and Bernard Pollard (Tennessee); offensive tackle Jake Long (St. Louis); and linebacker James Harrison (Cincinnati) move to new teams.
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But perhaps no position underwent as much dramatic upheaval as the pass rushers.
Four of the NFL’s most dominant pass rushers of the past 13 years — Dwight Freeney, John Abraham, Osi Umenyiora and Elvis Dumervil — all changed teams during the offseason, as did Paul Kruger, whose nine sacks led the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens last season.
Freeney, 33, led the NFL in sacks with 16 in 2004, and his 1071/2 career sacks rank 21st all time. But his age and price tag forced the Indianapolis Colts to let him walk, just as they let Peyton Manning leave a year ago. Freeney resurfaced with San Diego, which gave him a two-year deal for $8.75 million.
Denver lost Dumervil, 29, after a fax-machine snafu prevented the Broncos from successfully renegotiating a pay cut. So Dumervil, who had 11 sacks in 2012 and was the NFL’s sack leader with 17 in 2009, was released and agreed to a five-year contract worth at least $26 million with Baltimore, where he’ll replace Kruger, who signed a five-year, $40.5 million package with Cleveland.
Abraham, 35, led the Falcons with 10 sacks in 2012 and is 13th all time with 122. But he went to Arizona after the Falcons signed Umenyiora, 31, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Giants, to a three-year, $8.5 million deal after he posted six sacks a year ago.
FIVE MVP CANDIDATES
QB Tom Brady, Patriots, above: Brady’s a two-time MVP, and there may be no team more dependent on any one player than the Patriots. Brady, 36, threw for more than 4,000 yards and directed the NFL’s top-ranked offense to 12 wins in 2012, but this year, he’ll have to perform with a new set of receivers since five targets who combined for 338 of his 401 completions a year ago are gone — Welker (118 receptions) left for Denver; WR Brandon Lloyd (74) was not re-signed; TE Rob Gronkowski (55) has undergone several surgeries; TE Aaron Hernandez (51) went to jail on a murder charge; and RB Danny Woodhead (40) went to San Diego. If anyone can overcome this turnover in talent, though, it’s Brady.
QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers: Rodgers, the 2011 MVP, was the most efficient passer last season — 108.0 rating, 4,295 yards, 39 touchdowns, eight interceptions — and imagine how much better those numbers would have been had he not been sacked a league-high 56 times last year. The Packers averaged just 106.4 yards rushing per game and didn’t have a back reach 500 yards last season, which put the burden of moving the ball almost totally on the shoulders of Rodgers, 29, who signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension in April.
RB Adrian Peterson, Vikings: Peterson last year became the first non-quarterback to win MVP honors since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 after rushing for a league-leading 2,097 yards — eight shy of Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season record — less than a year after undergoing major knee surgery. Peterson, 28, vows to obliterate Dickerson’s mark with 2,500 yards this season, and that may be the best way for the Vikings, who went 10-6 and earned a playoff berth, to return to the postseason considering the spotty play of quarterback Christian Ponder.
DE J.J. Watt, Texans: Only two defensive players have earned MVP honors since the award was established in 1957 — tackle Alan Page in 1971 and linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986 — but Watt is a game-changing presence like no player since Taylor. Watt, 24, a force against the run and pass, hopes to be the first player voted defensive player of the year in consecutive seasons, and to become the NFL’s first 20-20-20 defensive player. He came close a year ago with a league-leading 201/2 sacks, 231/2 tackles for loss and 16 batted passes.
QB Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: OK, we saw what Kaepernick could do in half a season when he came off the bench for Alex Smith and dazzled the league with a cannon arm and spectacular running ability. But that came against defenses that didn’t have much time to prepare for him and the 49ers’ changes to the read-option and Pistol formation installed so late in the season. San Francisco took a huge leap of faith in Kaepernick by jettisoning Smith, who was 19-5-1 in his last two years as a starter. Kaepernick, 25, has started seven regular-season games in two seasons, but if he continues to play like he did against Green Bay and Atlanta in the postseason, he can lead the 49ers back to the Super Bowl. FIVE VETERANS WHO WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE
T Jake Long, Rams: Long, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, made four consecutive Pro Bowls and started all 48 games in his first three seasons at Miami before running into some injury issues. He missed the last four games of the 2012 season because of a triceps injury, and the Dolphins declined to sign him to a new deal. Long signed a four-year, $34 million package with the Rams. If he’s healthy — and Long said he feels as good as he has in years — the Rams found some needed protection for quarterback Sam Bradford, who was sacked 35 times last season.
OLB Connor Barwin, Eagles: The Eagles, under new coach Chip Kelly, are going to a 3-4 defense, and to make it work, rush linebackers are essential. Barwin was a rising star in Houston, where he had 111/2 sacks in 2011. He had just three sacks a year ago, but that was still enough to earn him a six-year, $36 million deal with Philadelphia, which had just 30 total sacks in 2012.
S Michael Huff, Ravens: Huff, as the replacement for 2004 NFL defensive player of the year Ed Reed, doesn’t have Reed’s 61 interceptions, the most by any active NFL player. But at 30, he is younger and faster, and the Ravens are hoping Huff’s versatility will be worth the three-year, $8 million contract they gave him after the Raiders cut him for salary-cap purposes. A heralded first-round pick in 2006, Huff has not emerged as a dominant player, but he has lined up at free safety, strong safety (the position vacated by Bernard Pollard) and even cornerback as he transitions to the Ravens’ scheme.
QB Alex Smith, Chiefs: Smith’s pride was hurt in San Francisco, which dumped him in favor of Colin Kaepernick late last season despite Smith leading the 49ers within a fumbled punt of the Super Bowl in 2011 and a 6-2-1 start last year before missing one game because of a concussion. Smith is the most accomplished quarterback the Chiefs have begun a season with since Joe Montana in 1993, and he should master Andy Reid’s high-percentage, low-risk West Coast offense.
RB Chris Ivory, Jets: Shonn Greene’s signing with Tennessee left the Jets without a featured running back, so they acquired Ivory from New Orleans, where he was behind Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the Saints’ stable of running backs despite averaging 5.1 yards in 256 carries in three seasons. The Jets paid a hefty price for Ivory, first sending a fourth-round pick to the Saints and then signing the former Washington State star to a three-year, $6 million extension with the belief Ivory will be effective as a full-time starter.
FIVE VETERANS WHO ARE BIG GAMBLES
CB Darrelle Revis, Buccaneers: Tampa Bay ranked first last season in rushing defense and last in pass defense — teams didn’t bother running when passing was so easy — so they turned to “Revis Island” for some help. They traded a first-round draft pick to the Jets for Revis, who once was the game’s best cover corner. But Revis, 28, is getting older and coming off knee surgery. He’s confident he’ll be ready for the start of the season, but how effective will he be?
S Ed Reed, Texans: Houston can point to shoddy secondary play as a reason they haven’t been able to advance deep into the playoffs, so they signed Reed, the 2004 NFL defensive player of the year and Super Bowl champion with the Ravens to a three-year, $15 million deal. But Reed, who turns 35 on Wednesday, has lost a step and is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his hip. Reed said he plans to be ready for the season opener at San Diego.
DT Glenn Dorsey, 49ers: Dorsey, who missed 12 games last season with the Chiefs because of some mysterious calf injuries in both legs, sure landed on his feet: He signed a two-year deal with San Francisco, including a $2.2 million signing bonus. Drafted in the first round as a defensive tackle for a 4-3 front by the Chiefs in 2008, Dorsey was miscast as an end in the Chiefs’ 3-4 scheme during the past four seasons. The 49ers are looking at him as a nose tackle in their 3-4.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Colts: Heyward-Bey is another example of first-round busts drafted by the Oakland Raiders during the last years of Al Davis’ regime, as he valued speed over anything else. Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, could run, but he couldn’t catch. After two unproductive seasons, Heyward-Bey caught 64 passes in 2011 but had 41 receptions and five touchdowns in 2012. He signed with Indianapolis for $3 million, with $1.5 million guaranteed, but at least the Colts were smart enough to make it a one-year deal.
WR Percy Harvin, Seahawks: The Seahawks traded a first-round pick for Harvin, a talented but enigmatic performer at Minnesota. Harvin was out because of an ankle injury when the Vikings made their playoff push by winning their last four games, and he was troubled by migraines during his four seasons in Minnesota. Harvin recently had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip and is on Seattle’s physically unable to perform list. The Seahawks have earmarked their Monday night contest Dec. 2 against New Orleans as a potential return date.
FIVE COACHES TO WATCH
Marc Trestman, Bears: Trestman, 57, has waited a long time and paid his dues for a chance to be a head coach in the NFL. He’s making the move from the Canadian Football League, where he led Montreal to Grey Cup championships in 2009-10. It’s not often an NFL team turns to the CFL for a head coach, though Bud Grant and Marv Levy proved to be successful in both leagues. Trestman has 17 years of experience as an NFL offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and harnessing the skills of quarterback Jay Cutler will be his personal project.
Sean Payton, Saints: Payton, 49, received a hero’s welcome when he returned to the New Orleans sideline for the exhibition opener against the Chiefs after serving a one-year suspension for his role in the bounty scandal. Payton’s absence was acutely felt last year when the Saints stumbled to an 0-4 start and finished 7-9. Payton, who led the Saints to a Super Bowl championship after the 2009 season, signed a five-year extension in January, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the league at $8 million a year. Owner Tom Benson is going to want to see a return on that investment.
Andy Reid, Chiefs: A lot has been made of Reid’s rebirth as the Chiefs’ new coach, and his move to Kansas City seems to have invigorated him. Reid, 55, was a proven winner in Philadelphia, but spending 14 years anywhere in this league is a long, long time, and he needed a change of scenery. Reid has reached five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, and he and his staff are still hungry to win it all.
Chip Kelly, Eagles: Kelly, who replaced Reid in Philadelphia, and Doug Marrone in Buffalo are the latest coaches to make the move from college football to the NFL. Much of the attention has been on Kelly, 49, who went 46-7 in four years at Oregon and had the high-powered Ducks in national title contention. Kelly has no pro experience, either as a player or as a coach, so the question will be whether his hurry-up offense and other philosophies will succeed in the NFL. Will he succeed like Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, or flop like Nick Saban?
Chuck Pagano, Colts: Pagano’s first season as a head coach last year was one of the most inspirational stories in the NFL. Pagano, 52, took a leave of absence three games into the season after he was diagnosed with leukemia. The Colts’ youthful roster rallied behind interim coach Bruce Arians (now at Arizona) and went 9-3 in Pagano’s absence. The Colts, 2-14 in 2011, finished 11-5 last year and qualified for the playoffs. Now that Pagano has returned and has a clean bill of health, the Colts and second-year quarterback Andrew Luck want to prove last year was no fluke.
Randy Covitz, The Kansas City Star