Once upon a time in the NFL, there was a Giants linebacker named
Andy Headen. From 1983 to '88 Headen backed up Lawrence Taylor,
the greatest outside 'backer the game had ever seen. Every year
Headen would fill dispatches from training camp with the same
wistful sentiment: "I'd love to be a starter," he would say (or
something like that). "But I know that's pretty tough, sitting
behind Lawrence." And each summer New York coach Bill Parcells
would explain that although he couldn't start Headen, he
couldn't trade him, either. In a league thin in pass rushers, he
couldn't afford to lose his best blitzing insurance.
When Headen played--which was seldom--he was quite effective,
scratching together 19 sacks over the years. Then one day in
1987 Headen was transformed from a sub into a symbol: He became
the poster child of the NFL Players Association in its fight for
free agency. When the union made its case for the right of
players to move from one team to another, it said that the Andy
Headens of the league deserved their chance to be stars.
A decade later Jason Gildon is Andy Headen. Only now, courtrooms
and salary caps and veterans who think they're underpaid and can
do something about it--thanks to free agency--have combined to
change the lives of promising young players. Headen was sullen
in New York, where he never got his chance. Gildon is bubbly in
Pittsburgh, where he is getting his in the wake of Kevin
Greene's departure. A third-year outside linebacker at a
bargain-basement price (1996 cap figure: $268,001), Gildon is
one of the NFL's new breed of promising stars, opportunists who
are playing earlier in their careers because they're
cheaper--and because teams need to find out as soon as possible
just how good these kids are.
"It's more like college football now," says Indianapolis vice
president of football operations Bill Tobin. "We have four years
to see if the guy can play and get what we can out of him. Free
agency means that after four years, you have no idea if the
guy's going to be your player or jump somewhere else."
July 31, 1996
This season Gildon slides into the pass-rushing shoes of Greene,
who fled to Carolina for more dough as a free agent. And Gildon
isn't the only fresh face likely to be starting for the
Steelers. Quarterback Jim Miller, 25, will try to fill the void
created when Neil O'Donnell signed with the Jets, and Justin
Strzelczyk, 27, may inherit the spot at right tackle vacated by
Leon Searcy, who moved on to Jacksonville through free agency.
That same ripple effect is being felt elsewhere: New York tackle
Doug Riesenberg refused to take a hefty salary cut, so the
Giants released him and will go with Scott Gragg, 24, a
second-year man. Because the Chargers got fed up with the salary
demands and off-field problems of running back Natrone Means,
23-year-old Aaron Hayden will get 20 carries a game as a
sophomore. In pre-free-agency times, second-year wideout Chris
T. Jones would be facing another season of seasoning in
Philadelphia. But since incumbent Fred Barnett took Miami's
millions, the Eagles will make their 1996 playoff push with
Jones, who has caught five NFL passes.
For the most part, the salary cap and free agency have been the
propelling forces behind the new youth movement. Another key
element: expansion. The new teams have studied the mistakes of
prior expansionists, and they know that building a foundation
out of discarded veterans can be fatal to long-term success. By
midseason last year, rookie middle linebacker Bryan Schwartz was
quarterbacking the Jaguars' defense; he wound up leading the
team in tackles. This year Jacksonville's offense will feature a
25-year-old quarterback (Mark Brunell), three 24-year-old
running backs (Means, James Stewart and Ryan Christopherson)
and, in all likelihood, a starting line whose average age is 26.
There's yet another factor favoring the up-and-comers, and it
will be more evident this summer when teams make their final
cuts. Last spring the NFLPA won its battle with team owners to
raise the minimum salary for veterans of six or more credited
seasons to $275,000 from $185,000. Many of the
near-minimum-salary vets kept in the past were special-teamers
(Bennie Thompson of the former Cleveland Browns, for instance).
Now they will probably be replaced in a salary-cap pinch by
relative newcomers earning half the money or rookies, who can be
paid as little as $119,000 a year.
The bottom line in the NFL these days demands it: To balance the
budget, youth must be served. In April, Dolphins head coach-G.M.
Jimmy Johnson stockpiled bodies by swapping a second-round and a
fourth-round draft choice for five middle-round picks. "When you
put together your roster today," says Johnson, "it's a fact of
life that you're not going to be able to keep as many veteran
guys as you used to. You don't have the roster flexibility you
used to have. When you draft, you'd better draft some kids you
know are going to play for you."
Johnson may not have placed any members on our 1996 All-
Breakout Team, but it's a safe bet that Miami will sew up some
spots in '97. (An early favorite is secret special-teams weapon
LaCurtis Jones, a 6-foot linebacker taken in the fourth round.
Jones was the career tackles leader at Baylor--Mike Singletary's
alma mater--and he blew scouts away last winter with a 33-inch
vertical leap.) As for this fall, here are a few of the callow
players who are leading candidates for stardom.
--Aaron Hayden, running back, Chargers: He backed up Stewart at
Tennessee in 1994, then Means at San Diego in '95. But the
fourth-round pick is just what coach Bobby Ross wants: a
reliable non-fumbler who can give him four yards a carry and, at
218 pounds, run the clock out in the fourth quarter of close
games--the kind the Chargers seem to play every week. Look for
Hayden to pass the 1,000-yard mark with room to spare.
--Vaughn Booker, defensive end, Chiefs: At 6'5" and 293 pounds,
he will be replacing Darren Mickell, who signed as a free agent
with New Orleans. A third-year man from Cincinnati, Booker had
49 quarterback pressures in limited time last season, and he
should become the sort of two-way force Mickell never was.
Booker will also give Pro Bowl end Neil Smith the opposite-side
pass rusher he has needed for years. "I think he could be a
star," NBC analyst Phil Simms says.
--Chris Gedney, tight end, Bears: A rash of illness and
injuries--colitis, a torn Achilles tendon, a broken collarbone
and a broken leg--have slowed his progress. But Chicago's
offense craves a 65-catch bull at tight end, and this 6'5"
265-pounder, a third-round pick from Syracuse in 1993, will be
that guy. Assuming, that is, he doesn't trip over a crack in
the sidewalk this fall. "He can be [the Packers'] Mark Chmura,"
Chicago coach Dave Wannstedt says.
--Ed McDaniel, outside linebacker, Vikings: Sackers get all the
attention among outside linebackers, but McDaniel quietly led
the league in a stat nearly as important--tackles for loss. He
had 18 1/2 last year, an amazing seven more than any other
defender. After McDaniel was dominant in a 38-21 midseason loss
at Green Bay, Packers quarterback Brett Favre said of him, "The
guy's a killer." This year the rest of the NFL will find that out.
--Scott Gragg, tackle, Giants: Ten years ago a mean fighter of a
left tackle named Jumbo Elliott debuted for the Giants. This
fall Gragg--who bears a remarkable facial resemblance to
Elliott--takes over on the opposite side. He's one inch taller,
at 6'8", and 17 pounds heavier, at 325. Meaner, too, his coaches
say. The nickname's also good: Lurch.
--Jason Gildon, outside linebacker, Steelers: He had an
auspicious 1994 pass-rushing debut, picking up his first sack
when he blew by Miami's All-Pro left tackle, Richmond Webb, and
nailed Dan Marino. "I don't think either guy knew who I was,"
Gildon says. For those who still don't, Gildon went to Oklahoma
State, where he broke Leslie O'Neal's career sacks record. "For
two years I've learned behind two great teachers, Greg Lloyd and
Kevin Greene," he says. "I feel some pressure, being in a place
with such a great linebacker tradition, but I feel I'm ready to
get it done. It's all there for me to take."
Those are the very words Headen always wanted to utter but never
had a chance to. Gildon, meanwhile, turns 24 on July 31.
Suddenly that's a golden age in the new land of opportunity,
the National Football League.
PETER KING'S '96 ALL-BREAKOUT TEAM
WR Lee DeRamus, SAINTS Big-play receiver will get his chance
after missing most of '95 rehabilitating a broken leg.
LT Tony Berti, CHARGERS Replaces nine-year veteran Harry
Swayne as Stan Humphries's main protector.
LG Todd Perry, BEARS Very good run blocker who will continue
to improve in his fourth season.
C Andy McCollum, SAINTS Former Arena leaguer started nine
games for New Orleans last season.
RG Brian DeMarco, JAGUARS Will form one of the league's best
right-side tandems with tackle Leon Searcy.
RT Scott Gragg, GIANTS Mountainous '95 second-round selection
replaces the aging Doug Riesenberg.
TE Chris Gedney, BEARS Finally overcomes injury and illness to
become a potent weapon in Chicago's offense.
WR Chris T. Jones, EAGLES Ability to make the spectacular grab
might earn him the nickname Chris "T.D." Jones.
QB Mark Brunell, JAGUARS Took over as the starter at midseason
and threw only seven interceptions in 346 attempts.
RB Aaron Hayden, CHARGERS Losses of Natrone Means, Ronnie
Harmon and Rodney Culver make Hayden very important.
FB Mack Strong, SEAHAWKS Replaces the retired Steve Smith and
fits right into Dennis Erickson's offense.
DE Ellis Johnson, COLTS His size (6'2", 298) and quickness
prompted the Colts to move him to left end from tackle.
DT Jim Flanigan, Bears His 11 sacks last year were
ninth in the NFL; made two touchdown receptions on offense.
DT Warren Sapp, BUCCANEERS Will have some teams kicking
themselves for passing on him in '95 first round.
DE Vaughn Booker, CHIEFS Replaced an injured Darren Mickell in
Game 7 last season and kept the job.
OLB Jason Gildon, STEELERS Kevin Greene's heir has spent much
of the past two years on special teams.
MLB Bryan Schwartz, JAGUARS Started nine games as a rookie;
will be in the middle for the Jags for a long time.
OLB Ed McDaniel, VIKINGS Crushing tackler forced a league-high
six fumbles last season.
CB Carlton Gray, SEAHAWKS Has averaged an interception every
four games in his first three seasons.
SS John Lynch, BUCCANEERS Ex-pitcher hits ballcarriers harder
than batters ever hit him.
FS Toby Wright, RAMS St. Louis's top tackler last year also
had six interceptions and 12 pass deflections.
CB Marlon Kerner, BILLS At 5'10", tough coverage man and
gifted leaper who runs the 40 in 4.6.
PK Bjorn Nittmo, CHIEFS Makes his return to the NFL after
hitting 87% (47 of 53) of his CFL field goals last season.
P Matt Turk, REDSKINS Given the job as a cost-cutting
measure, he produced the league's fourth-best net average last
Ret. Antonio Freeman, PACKERS As a rookie, was fifth in the
NFC in kickoff returns, with a 23.2-yard average.
Head coach Jeff Fisher, OILERS After 0-5 start with Houston
midway through 1994, he's 8-9.
Off. coordinator Bob Bratkowski, SEAHAWKS Architect of
Seattle's explosive system is destined to become a hot
Def. coordinator Willie Shaw, RAMS St. Louis's D went from
20th to 12th in his first season at the helm.