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Career Arc: Tim Burton

Help Really Wanted

Why is it that some NFL teams just can't seem to fill certain positions?

Last night, the NFL’s production values took an embarrassing step downward when the NFL Network’s broadcast of the Cardinals-Rams tilt accidentally aired replays of Kevin Kolb being sacked and Sam Bradford tossing incomplete passes on … wait, those weren’t replays? Oops. If you managed to make it through the tedium of that NFC West showdown last night, you bore witness to a number of receivers you’ve likely never heard of coming within yards of possibly catching passes from Bradford. While part of the blame for that belongs to Bradford and his line, it’s certainly true that the Rams have struggled to find a reliable wide receiver or two to replace their legendary combination of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Even Danny Amendola — the team’s best wideout before breaking his collarbone on Thursday — is a slot receiver who would be more like a replacement for Ricky Proehl.

Of course, while thinking about St. Louis’s difficulties replacing their star wide receivers, another half-dozen teams with trouble positions popped to mind. Players in these spots aren’t always replacing Hall of Famers, but certain teams just seem to have loads of trouble finding a long-term solution to a particular position on the field. In some cases, the team doesn’t value the position as one worth investing in; that’s why the Colts ran a stream of undersize mid-round outside linebackers out on defense during the Bill Polian era, using their savings to lock up players elsewhere. In other cases, teams throw draft picks and cap space at a position for years, only to find that they’ve just invested in another bust.

After reviewing the league’s long-term vacancies and money pits, I found an even 15 positions on 15 teams, which have consistently been the toughest to fill in all of football. In many cases, they are linked to the departure of a star player; in the case of the first entry, it is about to come off the list.

15. Middle Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
The gaping hole in the middle of the Philadelphia defense really showed up for the first time when Jeremiah Trotter left for Washington in free agency in 2002. Levon Kirkland and Mark Simoneau did yearlong stints in the middle, and when Trotter came back to Philly in 2004, he returned to the Pro Bowl for two of the next three seasons. When the Eagles cut him before the 2007 season, though, linebacker became Philly’s bugaboo. They’re not good on the outside, either, but Eagles fans cried out for years for a run-stopping linebacker, especially after linebacker-in-disguise Brian Dawkins followed Trotter out of town. The likes of Omar Gaither, Stewart Bradley, Jamar Chaney, and even a third stint from Trotter produced nothing but waiver fodder, leading the Eagles to deal a draft pick to the Texans to acquire former Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans this offseason. Ryans has been effective during his first four games as a starter in Philly, so this hole is about to fall off the list.

14. Outside Linebacker, New York Giants
Oh, for the halcyon days of Jessie Armstead, let alone Lawrence Taylor! During Tom Coughlin’s nine-year run as Big Blue’s head coach, they haven’t started the same two outside linebackers for the majority of games in consecutive seasons. Eleven different players have been considered the “regulars” during that time frame, a list that doesn’t even include expected starters like LaVar Arrington and Keith Rivers. The only guy who’s even made it to a third year as a regular starter on the outside under Coughlin is Michael Boley. Of course, with a defensive line as good as New York’s, linebackers are mostly window dressing.

13. Running Back, Green Bay Packers
This spot has only been vacant for a little over two years now, becoming available when Ryan Grant suffered a season-ending injury during Week 1 of the 2010 campaign. What makes it so frustrating, though, is the amount of fantasy chatter that surrounds it. Has there ever been such a juicy fantasy football position that’s gone almost totally unoccupied for two-plus years? The Packers are currently stuck on Cedric Benson as their only option at halfback, which speaks to some sort of fondness for “bad boys” that wasn’t apparent about the Green Bay organization at first glance. Will they target Tim Riggins next?

12. Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings
In a way, the Vikings have been saved from their own stupidity by having seemingly disappointing things end up working out well for them. Remember, this is the team that wanted to sign T.J. Houshmandzadeh to a big contract before the 2009 season, only to see Housh sign with the Seahawks and last one season before being released. They decided to replace Houshmandzadeh’s spot in the lineup with injury-prone Sidney Rice, who promptly had a monster season before collapsing with injuries in 2010 and leaving the team for an instantly regretted, huge contract from the Seahawks. And when those guys weren’t around, Minnesota threw heavily to the likes of Troy Williamson, Travis Taylor, and Nate Burleson. The Vikings have one spot shored up with Percy Harvin, but they could sure use a threat across from him. Jerome Simpson is Minnesota’s latest hope.

11. Running Back, New England Patriots
Outside of Corey Dillon’s lone year as the featured, workload-intensive back in New England, Bill Belichick has seemed to perpetually favor rotating his backs based on game situation and what they need. Of course, with the passing offense as good as it’s been since Dillon left town, backs like Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk have seen more of an emphasis on pass blocking in the backfield than anything else.

10. Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
The Bills were smart enough to trade Peerless Price to Atlanta at the peak of his value for a first-round pick, but the likes of Roscoe Parrish and Naaman Roosevelt have not been enough to satisfy Buffalo’s need for a complementary wideout. Furthermore, each time they have developed a talented young wideout, that guys’s taken over for the no. 1 guy within the season. Stevie Johnson usurped Lee Evans, just as Evans did Eric Moulds. This year, nominal starter David Nelson is done for the season with an injury, so the Bills have gone with a heavier dosage of Donald Jones across from Johnson.

9. Inside Linebacker, San Diego Chargers
I’m not convinced that many of these spots are cursed by released stars. Here, stalwart inside linebacker Donnie Edwards was released after the 2006 season, and while Edwards isn’t known as a superstar, he’s been replaced by a different pair of starting inside linebackers each year. The team’s cycled through the usual group of underwhelming young players (Brandon Siler), stretched special-teamers (Matt Wilhelm), and veteran free agents that didn’t perform once out of their old system (Takeo Spikes). Donald Butler appears to be a keeper at one spot, but Spikes will be on his way out once the season ends.

8. Safety, Dallas Cowboys
This is cheating, since it could either be a free safety or a strong one, but the Cowboys do a good job of driving the success out of people. Roy Williams and Darren Woodson formed a potentially elite duo during Williams’s first two years in the league. Since 2004, though, the Cowboys have spent millions on Williams, Ken Hamlin, and Gerald Sensabaugh, only to get below-average performance over the long term. Williams and Hamlin turned into embarrassing parodies of their former selves as their Dallas careers went on, and Sensabaugh was at fault for one of the long touchdowns in the Week 17 loss to the Giants last year.

7. Wide Receiver, St. Louis Rams
Cursed! After Isaac Bruce bolted town before the 2008 season, the Rams decided to insert Donnie Avery as his long-term replacement. Avery’s knee has never been the same since. Avery’s replacement as the organizational favorite was Laurent Robinson … who didn’t have a breakout year until the Rams cut him. Meanwhile, they’ve wasted mid-round draft picks on the likes of Austin Pettis and Greg Salas and invested in detritus like Mike Sims-Walker, and their best wideout before Thursday was a scrawny slot receiver they had signed off a practice squad for nothing.

6. Left Tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers
There’s really only been one long-term left tackle in Pittsburgh since Marvel Smith left — Max Starks — but it’s the amount of work the team’s spent replacing Starks that’s been so memorable. Despite dalliances with Jonathan Scott and picks spent on the likes of (not that) Mike Adams, they seem to end up committed to Starks on a yearly basis. Starks is barely acceptable at left tackle, just good enough to get by, but just bad enough to make Pittsburgh yearn for his replacement.

5. Nose Tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
When the Chiefs moved to a 3-4 before the 2009 season, they moved former LSU star Glenn Dorsey from defensive tackle to defensive end. They bookended him with fellow LSU product Tyson Jackson, but the Chiefs still had no nose tackle. Today, they still have no nose tackle. After starting with undersize Ron Edwards, KC rotated the virulent Shaun Smith and the veteran Kelly Gregg into and out of the lineup before drafting workout wonder Dontari Poe in the first round this year. They must trust that they can mold Poe into a solid starter, but if you’ve watched the Chiefs during the first four weeks of the season, you know that has not been the case so far.

4. Left Tackle, Chicago Bears
John Tait moved from the left side to the right side before the 2008 season, giving the Bears a chance to move legendarily bad left tackle John St. Clair into the starting lineup at its most important position. It didn’t go well. St. Clair was replaced by the celebrated Orlando Pace, but Pace was a shell of his former self and only lasted a single season. This was when the Bears drafted tackle Chris Williams in the first round and hoped that he’d be able to play left tackle, but he hasn’t so far — and would have, by now, if he were able to. Instead, the Bears went with utility lineman Frank Omiyale before finding the mysterious J’Marcus Webb, who functions both as a left tackle and a valid turnstile at most L stops. Jay Cutler shouldn’t have bumped Webb, but he also deserves a left tackle.

3. Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers
After one of the all-time great fluke seasons in league history — 93 catches, 1,405 receiving yards, 16 touchdowns — Muhsin Muhammad left Carolina to sign with the Bears. Carolina’s kept it cheap across from Steve Smith since then, and cheap has delivered at its standard rate of return. Plugging in the likes of Keyshawn Johnson or Dwayne Jarrett across from the frantic brilliance of Smith is just a huge disappointment, and it’s hard to see Brandon LaFell offering much more anytime soon.

2. Quarterback, Miami Dolphins
Miami would be no. 1 if it weren’t for its investment in Ryan Tannehill, a move that represents a serious investment in advancing since the halcyon days of Jay Fiedler. In chronological order, the primary quarterbacks in Miami since Dan Marino retired: Fiedler, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Trent Green, John Beck, Cleo Lemon, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, and Matt Moore. Tannehill’s deal under the new rookie contract rules isn’t so awful that it beggars belief, but it’s a serious commitment at the position for, arguably, the first time since Marino. If he plays the way he did against the Cardinals last week, this long-running hole will be off the list.

1. Quarterback, Cleveland Browns
That leaves Cleveland and their search through the wild for anything resembling a starting passer. Since deciding to replace Tim Couch after 2002, the Browns entered in the quarterback sweepstakes and came out with the following: Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye, Trent Dilfer, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy. Browns football! At least Culpepper had a pedigree as a star coming off of knee surgery; the guys the Browns were targeting were never-weres or never-would-bes. Brandon Weeden’s a first-round pick, but at 28, it remains to be seen whether the new ownership takes a shine to him or he ends up getting benched very quickly. Until then, the Browns have managed to invest as little as possible in filling football’s most important position.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell