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Senior NFL Columnist

The replacements: Outlooks for players stepping in for big names

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With Crabtree out, the Niners will test Quinton Patton, their fourth-round pick out of La. Tech. (Getty Images)
With Crabtree out, the Niners will test Quinton Patton, their fourth-round pick out of La. Tech. (Getty Images)

Replacing big-name players, whether lost to injury (49ers receiver Michael Crabtree), free agency (running back Steven Jackson) or retirement (Ray Lewis), can be tough for NFL teams to do.

Teams that handle finding those replacements best improve their chances of making the playoffs, and maybe even more.

So as we head to June, with teams in the middle of OTAs and minicamps, it's time to look at how some of those teams are replacing some of the bigger-name players no longer on their rosters in 2013.

Memo: Some of these losses aren't as big as the name attached might imply.

Here is a look at some of the bigger-name players who have to be replaced and the outlook for those doing the replacing.

The player: Michael Crabtree, WR

The team: San Francisco 49ers

The skinny: Crabtree was coming off his best season in 2012 when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon two weeks ago. He had developed quite a rapport with second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He isn't a burner, but he is tough and reliable.

Replacements: Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Mario Manningham. Williams and Manningham are coming off ACL surgeries and Jenkins did nothing as a rookie last season. Patton is a rookie this season.

Prognosis: They better hope the pilot light goes on for Jenkins. He has the speed to stretch a defense, much more than Crabtree can. And with slowing Anquan Boldin now on the other side, the 49ers will need it. Keep an eye on Patton. The kid has talent. And Crabtree could make it back for the second half of the season.

  

The player: Darrelle Revis, CB

The team: New York Jets

The skinny: The Jets decided to trade Revis to Tampa Bay for draft picks in an attempt to start rebuilding. Since he was coming off an ACL, and his contract demands have been high, it made sense. The Jets played most of last season without him anyway.

Replacements: Veteran Kyle Wilson, who was the third corner when Revis was healthy, stepped in as the starter and was solid. He will likely go back to the nickel with first-round pick Dee Milliner taking over as the other starter. They both should be on the field a lot with Antonio Cromartie, the team's other corner.

Prognosis: It's hard to replace a cover corner like Revis, but the Jets played without him last season and did just fine. Wilson and Milliner together can get the job done. A healthy Revis is better than anybody. But is he healthy?

  

The player: Ray Lewis, MLB

The team: Baltimore Ravens

The skinny: Lewis missed a lot of time in 2012, and when he did play he wasn't close to being the same player. But in retirement the team will lose his ability to motivate the defense -- if you believe in those things.

Replacement: Rookie second-round pick Arthur Brown is a fast, athletic linebacker who can run. Sound familiar? Brown should be able to step in and be an even better player than the Lewis we saw in 2012. There, I said it.

Prognosis: Lewis wasn't close to being what some thought he was last season -- even in the playoffs. Getting younger and faster is always better. Just remember, Brown isn't replacing the 2001 version of Lewis.

  

The player: Ed Reed, S

The team: Baltimore Ravens

The skinny: The Ravens chose not to make Reed a priority as a free agent and he signed with the Texans. Believe me, if the Ravens wanted to keep him they would have kept him.

Replacement: The Ravens signed Michael Huff from the Raiders. Huff, a former first-round pick, played corner last year for the Raiders, which shows his range. He has never quite lived up to the expectations, but he has talent.

Prognosis: Let's be real: Reed was more name than game last year. The Ravens knew it. Now he did fight through some injuries, but I just didn't see the same player he was even three years ago. Huff isn't a Pro Bowl candidate, but he can do the same things Reed did last year.

  

The player: Elvis Dumervil, DE

The team: Denver Broncos

The skinny: The Broncos lost Dumervil as a free agent to the Ravens when they failed to get a faxed contract into the league on time in an attempt to re-do his contact. That one hurt. He is a good player, but the Broncos think he can be replaced with a committee.

Replacements: Robert Ayers, Shaun Phillips and rookie Quanterus Smith. Ayers and Phillips, who was signed as a free agent, combined to have 11 1/2 sacks in 2012. That's more than the 11 Dumervil had. The Broncos think that combination will help offset the loss of Dumervil. Keep an eye on Smith. He suffered a serious knee injury last year, but he had three sacks against Alabama before the injury.

Prognosis: In talking with people in Denver last week, they wanted to keep Dumervil but they feel he is replaceable. The key is Von Miller. With all the attention he got in 2012 and will get this season, the player on the other side will get his share of single blocks. He has to win -- whoever it is.

  

The player: Steven Jackson, RB

The team: St. Louis Rams

The skinny: The Rams let Jackson leave as a free agent and he signed with the Falcons. Jackson is still a good player, but aging running backs are tough to pay to keep.

Replacements: This will likely be a back-by-committee approach with second-year players Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead competing with rookie Zac Stacy for time. Richardson rushed for 475 yards as a rookie and averaged 4.8 per carry. The Rams want to get him the ball more in the passing game after he had 24 catches last season. Pead had just 54 rushing yards last season, but he should get more time and has the quickness the Rams like.

Prognosis: I like getting young at running back, but replacing Jackson will be tough. Richardson's 4.8-per carry average has to give the Rams some hope. I think he can be a 1,000-yard rusher in his second season.

  

The player: Anquan Boldin, WR

The team: Baltimore Ravens

The skinny: The Ravens traded Boldin to the 49ers because of cap issues. The fact is they could have lost him after the season without getting a thing. Boldin was a big part of the Super Bowl run and he's an effective route runner who has great hands. But he doesn't run all that well and he's a year older.

Replacements: Jacoby Jones, the team's third receiver last season, will get a chance to step up and start. He has much more speed than Boldin does, but he isn't as reliable. There are a lot of younger players who will get a shot, including Tandon Doss, Tommy Streeter and Deonte Thompson. The Ravens will also use Dennis Pitta more in the slot to compensate for the loss of Boldin.

Prognosis: Boldin's third-down magic will be missed. He is tough, physical and reliable. But the Ravens will have more speed on the field on first down if Jones wins the job. That matters. Ask the Broncos and the 49ers.

  

The player: Percy Harvin, WR

The team: Minnesota Vikings

The skinny: The Vikings traded Harvin to the Seahawks for draft picks, including a first-round pick this year. Harvin is a talented player, but he was a headache at times for the organization.

Replacements: The Vikings signed former Packers receiver Greg Jennings as a free agent and he will fill the intermediate target area that used to feature Harvin. They also drafted Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round, and he has big-time ability. I also think second-year player Jairus Wright will be much more of a factor down the field.

Prognosis: The Vikings came out smelling really good on this trade. Harvin isn't worth the problems, and they ended up with two receivers who will help offset his loss. And I really like Wright, who can fly.

  

The player: Mike Wallace, WR

The team: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Skinny: The Steelers lost Wallace to Miami in free agency when they declined to tag him or give him a long-term deal. His speed will be missed.

Replacements: Emmanuel Sanders will move from the No. 3 receiver to the starter opposite Antonio Brown. Sanders does not have the deep speed Wallace has, but he is a nice intermediate route runner. They also drafted Markus Wheaton from Oregon State and he will battle to be the No. 3 receiver.

Prognosis: They will be fine. They didn't use Wallace's deep speed last year anyway. So they will be able to overcome his loss with Sanders stepping up to a bigger role.

  

The player: Brian Urlacher, MLB

The team: Chicago Bears

The skinny: The Bears released Urlacher, a future Hall of Famer, leaving a hole in the middle of the defense. He then opted to retire from the game.

Replacements: Rookie Jon Bostic, the team's second-round pick, and veteran D.J. Williams will fight to win the starting job. Bostic has a lot of speed, but he didn't make as many plays as you would expect with that speed at Florida. Even so, I would expect him to beat out Williams for the job. Speed is what made Urlacher special. It will help Bostic become his replacement.

Prognosis: It's tough to replace the veteran leadership of an Urlacher, but I think Bostic's speed will make for an easier transition. There will be more mistakes, but he might get to more plays too.

  

The player: Jake Long, OT

The team: Miami Dolphins

The skinny: The Dolphins lost Long to the Rams in free agency, leaving a huge hole on the left side of the line. Long has battled injury issues the past couple of years, but the talk of his demise is greatly exaggerated.

Replacement: The Dolphins will move right tackle Jonathan Martin to the left side, his more natural position. Martin started as a rookie last season and did a solid job, but this is a big move for him,

Prognosis: I expect some early issues for Martin, but after a bit he will settle down and play well. Is he on the same level as a healthy Long? No. But that's asking a lot.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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