More than ever, wide receivers are expendable

It all began on March 5, when the present and future salary cap squeeze of one team combined with the on-field needs of another, and the Tennessee Titans dealt Justin McCareins to the New York Jets for a second-round draft choice.

Neither franchise likely realized the big-picture significance of the trade at the time. But precisely 228 days later, when the NFL trade deadline passed Tuesday after an uncharacteristic flurry of activity, the McCareins deal nearly seven months earlier was the starting point and catalyst of sorts for the most remarkable wholesale wide receiver sell-off in league history.

It was as if wide receivers had suddenly become junk bonds. Heck, weren't there even rumors in the offseason that Randy Moss could be had for the right price?

Beginning with the McCareins trade, and up through a deal that sent the disgruntled and AWOL Keenan McCardell to the San Diego Chargers, a dozen veteran wide receivers changed teams via trades. There were an additional four trades involving rookie wide receivers during the draft in April.

The roll call of veteran wide receivers swapped included the greatest pass catcher in NFL history, Jerry Rice, peddled for a conditional seventh-round draft choice. Terrell Owens, the mouth that roared, was traded. There were three other former first-round selections -- David Boston, Keyshawn Johnson and Joey Galloway -- involved in trades. On deadline day, a couple of former second-rounders with terrific potential but flawed personality traits, Antonio Bryant and Quincy Morgan, changed places. Marty Booker, James Thrash and Kevin Johnson are with new teams this season.

In some of the trades, there were mitigating circumstances. The relationship between McCardell and Tampa Bay management had become so bilious and fraught with spite that a divorce was inevitable. Granted his outright freedom by an arbiter who chose to ignore the lack of diligence by an agent, Owens wasn't going to hang out in the Bay Area any longer. The Keyshawn-Galloway swap, and then Tuesday's Morgan-Bryant switch, were trades of convenience involving a quartet of malcontents. Miami got Boston to upgrade its passing game and then, when he blew out his knee in camp, was forced to snatch Booker out of desperation.

Despite some of those circumstances, and a few other ancillary factors, the sheer quantity of wide-receiver trades this season signals this new mindset: Even with the high-profile nature of the position, wide receivers have become as disposable as cheap pens, plastic cigarette lighters and yesterday's underwear.

"It's too easy to find (wide receivers) and, with the new emphasis on the illegal contact rules, even mediocre wide receivers can go out and catch 50 or 60 balls for you," said one veteran NFC personnel director who watched the recent wideout migration only as an interested spectator. "Slowly but surely, it seems, the position is being devalued. And all the moves over the last seven or eight months pretty much reinforce that. There are a lot of people, me included, who think wide receiver is becoming kind of a 'plug-in' position. You know, you lose one guy, you plug another one in and move on."

The uneven history and lackluster production of first-round receivers, at least during their rookie seasons, would seem a deterrent to that philosophy. But teams keep selecting wide receivers in the early rounds, including seven in the first round of the '04 draft, and quickly moving them into the lineup. Certainly, over the last five years or so, wide receiver has been transformed into a carousel position, and that apparent lack of priority on continuity in that spot evolved into this year's seven-month auction.

Consider this: Of the 61 wide receivers who were starters in last weekend's 14 games, just 35 of them, fewer than 60 percent, were playing with their original NFL franchises. A half-dozen teams last weekend featured no home-grown products among their starting wide receivers. The top three wide receivers for the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons all started their NFL careers with other teams. Dallas made three deals -- for Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and Morgan -- all in the past 20 months.

Keyshawn Johnson, who is playing for his third different team in a nine-year career and who has been traded twice in the past five seasons, suggested a couple of weeks ago that it was ego-gratifying to be so coveted. "Somebody wants you badly enough to trade for you," he said, "that's a good sign. That's flattering."

Perhaps. But there is another view, a flip-side perspective that suggests the recent portability is more than just a one-season aberration, and that doesn't bode well for the position. Franchises simply aren't as inclined to keep big-play receivers around, especially when those players are big-time headaches.

If you've got a unique talent such as Moss, who earns every cent of his fat salary, then you keep him. But there are teams that feel like, for a relatively modest payout, they can find receivers who will snag 60 to 70 balls a year. Never discount the notion, especially at wide receiver, that the system can enhance a player's productivity.

Overall itinerancy at the position, magnified by the volume of trades involving veterans over the past seven months, can also be regarded as a sort of validation to the belief that wide receivers are becoming increasingly replaceable. The college game is producing relatively polished young receivers like Roy Williams, Larry Fitzgerald and Mark Clayton, and with the rules changes, it simply might not be a priority for teams to keep veterans around for more than three or four years.

The upshot: In terms of sheer quantity, the league might never again witness the kind of wide-receiver swap-fest that took place between the McCareins deal and the trade deadline. But the position has definitely taken on a kind of commodities quality that isn't apt to change anytime soon.

Around the league

  • Before completely exiting the wide-receiver discussion, a tip of the hat to Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen, who elicited far more for Keenan McCardell than most observers felt he could net for a 34-year-old player who hasn't been on a football field since Dec. 28, 2003. We're not even going to get into the politics of the holdout, except to note that McCardell didn't land, even with the trade to San Diego, the upgraded contract that supposedly was the centerpiece of his hiatus. But most observers figured the Bucs would get a fourth-round pick for McCardell, who definitely will add something to the Chargers' nondescript wideout corps. Allen instead got third- and sixth-round picks, more ammunition for a Tampa Bay team that has to look more toward the draft than free agency to remedy its situation. Kudos, too, to Chargers general manager A.J. Smith for not only bringing in McCardell, but also veteran Bobby Shaw, to bolster the San Diego wideout contingent. Watching the Chargers in person last weekend, it was obvious that the team's biggest shortcoming was at wide receiver, and that was even before Reche Caldwell went down with a season-ending knee injury. This is a Chargers team that is more competitive than anyone imagined, and if you sneak a peek at the schedule, one that could hang around in playoff contention for a while. Sometimes, you've got to play for the "now" in this league. Adding two veteran receivers like McCardell and Shaw will help quarterback Drew Brees and will help the San Diego offense in general.

  • Don't be surprised if soon, really soon, the agent for Michael Vick approaches Atlanta Falcons management about a contract extension. And no one should be shocked if the asking price is north of the record $34.5 million signing bonus that Peyton Manning received in Indianapolis this spring. While Vick's play has been only average this season as he struggles to assimilate a new offense that demands more discipline of him, last week's comeback victory over San Diego served as a graphic reminder of just how important the quarterback is to the Falcons on the field. And let's be honest. Off the field, even with the marketing genius of owner Arthur Blank, the Falcons probably wouldn't be playing to sellout houses at the Georgia Dome were it not for the presence of the NFL's most exciting individual performer. His sporadic play aside, Vick sells, locally and nationally. He is becoming the face of the NFL, and at some point, he is going to be cashing a lot of crisp currency with the faces of dead presidents on it. You strike when the iron is hot in the NFL and, after last week's game in which he essentially brought the Falcons back from the dead, Vick is hot.

  • Another of the Falcons' most high-profile performers and team leaders, linebacker Keith Brooking, quietly reworked the 2004 segment of his contract this week, ESPN.com has learned. The team redistributed roughly $600,000 and created approximately $500,000 in 2004 cap room. The precursor to a Vick deal? Not hardly, since that will take a whole lot more than $500,000 in cap space. The suspicion is that Atlanta is attempting to extend the deal of a key veteran, perhaps Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. The sides have been talking for a while now, and word is they aren't close to an extension. But given Crumpler's outstanding play, and the reality that he is the receiver Vick most trusts on the team, perhaps the Falcons' brass is getting ready to ramp up the dialogue. To date, the signing bonus the team has proposed is less than $3 million, and Crumpler hasn't jumped at that. A factor in whether the extension is completed is the very real threat that Atlanta could exercise the "franchise" designation on Crumpler next spring, and essentially preclude him from leaving. It wouldn't be a very hard swallow for the Falcons, since the "franchise" tag for a tight end is historically palatable. This spring, for instance, it was just $2.612 million. Only the kicker/punter spot, at $1.611 million, had a lower "franchise" level.

  • Yeah, we know, the whole discussion of in-season coaching changes has become a recurring theme in this column over the past three weeks. But this week it might be even more pertinent. That's because there is growing sentiment, some of it emanating from the New Orleans locker room, that Saints coach Jim Haslett could be bounced by owner Tom Benson if the club loses at Oakland on Sunday. Such a defeat would drop the underachieving Saints to 2-5 and, with a bye next week, could force Benson into a change he honestly would prefer not to make. The numbers, though, don't lie in this case. Since leading the Saints to a division title in 2000, his rookie year as a head coach, Haslett is just 27-29.

    As has been indicated in this space before, most NFL people feel the New Orleans roster is the most talented assemblage in the NFC South. The consensus is that there is "something missing" with the Saints, and whether or not that is reflective of the head coach, he is typically the one implicated. Haslett is a good guy, incredibly candid, a coach for whom players insist they enjoy playing. But the deeds don't match the words and a loss at Oakland, to a Raiders team that is similarly struggling at 2-4, might be all Benson can tolerate.

    If the ax falls on Haslett, it will be for football reasons, but there also is a lesser political element involved. Team officials are set to reveal their plans next week for dealing with the stadium issue. The prevailing sentiment Louisiana lawmakers and some of New Orleans' power brokers, has moved away from building a new facility and more toward refurbishing the Superdome. As for who might replace Haslett as an interim coach, defensive coordinator Rick Venturi has previously filled that thankless role on two occasions. But in a 1991 stint with Indianapolis (where he replaced Ron Meyer) and in New Orleans in 1996 (replacing Jim Mora), Venturi posted a combined 2-17 record. And while Benson likes and respects Venturi, it would be hard to elevate a guy who presides over the bottom-rated defense in the league. There are no other assistants on the staff with previous head-coach experience in the NFL, so the job could fall to offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy.

  • Maybe we're just misreading the tea leaves, but the other coach supposedly on the endangered species list, Dave Wannstedt of Miami, might survive through the season. The word we're getting from inside the Dolphins' organization is that owner Wayne Huizenga is very fond of Wannstedt, has been supportive in their weekly conversations and might consider retaining his head coach if the team would rally back and finish 7-9 or thereabouts. That would, of course, represent quite a turnaround, and the Dolphins probably can't pull it off. The Miami media, which has characterized Wannstedt as a dead man walking, and his eventual departure as inevitable, is probably right in its assessments. For now, at least, we are less inclined to believe that Wannstedt will be jettisoned in-season, even if Miami remains winless at its Nov. 14 bye week. We are also less inclined to believe that Wannstedt will wind up at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, if Walt Harris is canned there. Friends and confidants are advising Wannstedt that the Pitt job isn't a particularly good one, that the recruiting has fallen off the last couple of years and that the administration is fragmented. The more likely scenario is Wannstedt remaining in the NFL, perhaps as a coordinator, or maybe as a senior assistant. This note, too, on the Dolphins this weekend: Jay Fiedler will start at quarterback, but Wannstedt is prepared to have a quick hook. Backup A.J. Feeley logged considerable snaps with the first-unit offense this week -- not quite splitting time 50-50 with Fiedler but pretty close -- and Wannstedt won't hesitate to go to the bullpen early if his starter struggles.

  • Given that his offense statistically ranks just 29th in the league entering this weekend, it's been pretty easy for his many critics to bash Arizona Cardinals coach Denny Green for not signing a more experienced starting quarterback in the offseason. But here is one of the better-kept secrets in the league: Over his last three outings, third-year veteran Josh McCown has compiled a 95.2 quarterback rating. Sure, he still isn't getting the ball into the end zone enough and has only three touchdown passes. In fact, he has thrown zero touchdown passes in four of his five starts. But the youngster is beginning to get his feet on the ground in the Green-designed offense, looks less rattled and is regaining some of the moxie he exhibited in three late-season starts in 2003. Is it time yet to canonize the kid as the latest Green success story at quarterback? Not quite. But when the Cardinals get wide receiver Anquan Boldin back in another week or so, and can then put their three projected starting pass-catchers on the field together, it should represent a substantially clearer picture of how much McCown has or has not progressed. His play over the rest of the season almost certainly will determine whether Green pursues a veteran free agent, or goes after a quarterback in the draft next spring.

  • There was some irony to the fact that the Thursday hearing that marked the first step toward trying to get wacko tailback Ricky Williams back into the league was convened in Santa Monica, Calif. That's where another former NFL star tailback, O.J. Simpson, once resided. OK, so it's terribly unfair to compare Williams, whose biggest vice is a fondness for weed, to a guy once accused of murder. But it is notable that Williams and his legal team have, in part, adopted an O.J.-style defense in trying to rationalize, at least in their own little universe, why the erstwhile tailback should be welcomed back into the pro football community. You know the drill: If the evidence is stacked against you, then challenge the evidence-gatherers or the integrity of their findings. We're not saying that NFL drug tests are infallible. But in the case of Williams, the labs used by the NFL certainly got a lot of practice. Early word is that there is no way the league plans to reinstate Williams this year. But since we whiffed on our notion that there was little chance the league would overturn the Maurice Clarett draft eligibility ruling, we've vowed to never say never again. You get a bunch of high-priced and smooth-talking attorneys in the same room and there are no absolutes. That said, we reiterate that the NFL would set a serious precedent, and set itself up for plenty of legal action from previously suspended players, if Williams plays in 2004. As for suggestions by Williams' attorneys that their client made an "emotional" decision or overreacted to the NFL's sanctions, well, they don't wash. Adults with a lot more sense than Williams make those same kinds of decisions all the time and have to pay for the consequences.

  • We ran into former NFL wide receiver Terance Mathis in the Georgia Dome press box last weekend and the 13-year veteran, who hasn't played since the 2002 season, would love some wideout-needy team to give him a call. At age 37, Mathis still feels he can contribute somewhere as a possession receiver, and would welcome an audition. Right now, he can't even get personnel directors to return his telephone messages. "If a team brought me in, and I stunk the joint out, I could accept it then when they said there was no place for me," the ever-classy Mathis said. "But to not even have people pick up the phone, or to suggest I can't play anymore when they haven't even seen me on the field, well, that's frustrating. I'm working out four times a week and I feel like, in some offenses I've seen, I could be productive." Mathis acknowledged he is close to giving up his pursuit of a job as a player. He wouldn't mind getting into scouting, or some other football-related aspect of the game, though, if playing isn't possible. During the heyday of his career, Mathis was a superb possession receiver with sneaky deep speed. He caught 689 passes for 8,809 yards and 63 touchdowns, most of his big years in Atlanta, and had eight straight seasons of 50-plus catches and four 1,000-yard campaigns.

  • Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis has turned a deaf ear to the critics who are screaming for him to replace quarterback Carson Palmer, the first player chosen in the 2003 draft, with former starter Jon Kitna. We're not going to join the chorus. For one thing, Lewis made the offseason decision to switch starters knowing full well the result might mean some slippage from the Bengals' 8-8 record of a year ago. To have allowed Palmer to fester on the bench another season would have meant another year in an apprenticeship that wasn't paying any dividends. Plus Lewis knew he had the luxury of job security and could afford to take some lumps. Palmer has completed 104 of 190 passes for 1,023 yards, with four touchdown passes, eight interceptions and a microscopic passer rating of 59.6. There isn't much good about those numbers. At the same time, the second-year pro hasn't lost his poise, despite playing in an offense that hasn't run the ball very well and where wide receivers drop far too many big-play opportunities.

    If someone wants to criticize Lewis for the poor play of his defense, a unit peopled by a lot of guys who played for him at various other NFL precincts, well, we won't get in the way. The Bengals rate dead last in the league in defense versus the run and face the red-hot Reuben Droughns of the Denver Broncos on Monday night. The way Cincinnati is playing versus the run, a well-constructed Reuben Sandwich might go for 100 yards. The Bengals are allowing 160.4 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. Since the start of the 2003 season, the Bengals have surrendered individual rushing performances of 196 yards (Curtis Martin), 186 yards (both Jamal Lewis and Lee Suggs), 180 yards (Lewis again), 141 yards (Marcel Shipp), 123 yards (Duce Staley), 120 yards (Clinton Portis), 121 yards (Marshall Faulk), 115 yards (William Green), 104 yards (Domanick Davis) and 101 yards (Lewis for a third time). Those numbers aren't pretty and frankly, neither is the play of the Bengals' interior against the run. Tackles John Thornton and Tony Williams have not been effective, Cincinnati lost middle linebacker Nate Webster to a season-ending knee injury and the safeties haven't always supported very well.

    Remember, the Bengals lost out in the free-agency bidding for Warren Sapp and then their efforts to land a big, run-stuffing tackle were further filed when Daryl Gardener, who had agreed to a contract, couldn't pass his physical because of back problems.

  • Not to be a Carson Palmer apologist, because he hasn't earned that yet, but the offense in Cincinnati needs to get more balanced and to get some playmakers on the field. Palmer is averaging 38 passes per game, and while Rudi Johnson is a nice enough runner, he isn't the blunt instrument pounding on defenses that Corey Dillon was. And in many games, in part because they have trailed early, the Bengals have abandoned the run. Palmer misses wide receiver Peter Warrick, whose leg injury will keep him out of a third straight game. Rumblings are that the injury, widely advertised as a bruised shin, actually is a broken bone. Warrick seemed to finally find his niche in 2003 as a slot receiver and he had 79 catches. He's got just 11 receptions for 127 yards right now, after grabbing 29 passes for 279 yards in the first five games last season.

  • Seems that the trade of Jerry Rice wasn't the only deal the disappointing Oakland Raiders had going earlier this week. Oakland also was shopping offensive right tackle Langston Walker and tight end Teyo Johnson, both of whom have fallen into disfavor with Norv Turner's staff. Walker played well at times last year in replacing Lincoln Kennedy, but flopped this season when projected as the starter, after Kennedy retired. Johnson has been dropping down the depth chart since camp. The Raiders also heard from at least two teams, Cleveland being one of them, inquiring about the availability of wide receiver Jerry Porter. The fifth-year pro, an explosive No. 3 guy a few years ago when Rice and Tim Brown were the starters, isn't getting many balls thrown his way and is chafing a bit. During the offseason, there was some preliminary dialogue about doing an extension, but Porter is more likely now to play out his contract and go into the unrestricted market next spring.

  • The New York Giants have won four in a row but the streak hasn't cured everything. Coach Tom Coughlin, during the bye this past week, decided to bench starting weakside linebacker Barrett Green, one of New York's key offseason additions. It appears that Nick Greisen, who went to camp as the starting middle linebacker but was injured, will move into the lineup at Green's spot.

  • Next week will mark the anniversary of the death of Steve Schoenfeld and, as has become the sad wont of this space, we can't let it pass without again reminding all of his friends what a unique and colorful friend the longtime NFL writer was to all of us. Even four years after he left us, the victim of a hit-and-run accident, Steve is missed. There are still some of us, yours truly included, who still think the phone is going to ring some morning at 9 o'clock, and he'll be on the other end. For those scribes looking for something good to do next week, pick up the phone and call Robin Schoenfeld, his widow. She'd love to hear from you.

  • Punts: Condolences to Cincinnati right offensive tackle Willie Anderson, a good guy and much underrated player, whose father recently passed away after a long battle with diabetes. ... With seven rushing touchdowns, the Steelers' Jerome Bettis needs just two more scores to earn a $100,000 bonus. That's just a couple of more one-yard runs, right? ... Redskins officials might begin to more closely monitor the carries logged by tailback Clinton Portis. He's on pace for 408 attempts, just two shy of the league's single-season record, and his body isn't quite built for that kind of workload. ... Quirky stat of the week: Cleveland wide receiver Andre Davis scored on a 99-yard touchdown catch last week but failed to post 100 yards receiving for the game. ... Philadelphia has scored just three offensive touchdowns in the last 10 quarters. . . . In its last 14 road games, Buffalo is 2-12, has surrendered 49 sacks and is minus-30 in turnover/takeaway differential. . . . Almost out of desperation, Jacksonville may have unearthed a productive situational pass rusher in linebacker Greg Favors. The Jags used him at end in passing downs last week and he produced a pair of sacks.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.