Wes Welker. Robert Mathis. Aldon Smith. Josh Gordon.
A solid quartet to put on any NFL field. Except that they are among 29 players suspended by the league heading into the 2014 season.
Among those big names, Cleveland’s Gordon got the longest ban, sidelined for the entire season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. His absence might be the most damaging, too, and not only for its length. A Pro Bowl wide receiver, Gordon was the only established target on the Browns, who figured to be an also-ran even with him in the lineup.
That Gordon’s case lingered for weeks while appeals were heard, and was not decided until just before the season, didn’t help the Browns, either.
“How it played out was not ideal circumstances for us, obviously, but that’s behind us,” coach Mike Pettine said. “You can’t worry about guys you don’t have. ... I’ve said this all along, you don’t replace a Josh Gordon, a top-five NFL receiver, with just one player.”
Welker’s four-game suspension, announced Tuesday, shouldn’t hurt the Broncos nearly so much considering the other receiving talent on hand. And having Peyton Manning throwing to them.
More harmful: Matt Prater’s four-gamer, which takes away a significant weapon. Prater made 25 of 26 field goals in 2013, including a record 64-yarder. Denver is going with a rookie, Brandon McManus.
Prater has been in the NFL’s drug program, which includes alcohol, since a DUI arrest in 2011. He said he realized one more strike meant he’d face sitting out an entire season when he decided to have some beers “right after the season.”
“Why did I risk it?” Prater said. “I made a mistake. I don’t have an excuse for it. I screwed up and now I’m paying the price for it.”
For Indianapolis and San Francisco, the loss of key defenders could have a huge impact.
Mathis, gone for four games, led the league with 19 1-2 sacks in a career year. The Colts will face high-powered Denver and Philadelphia in the first two weeks without their best player on that side of the ball.
“We’ve got a soldier down,” Colts DE Cory Redding said of Mathis. “We’re going to wait for him to come back, but until then, we’re going to hold down the fort.”
Smith’s absence means San Francisco is without two playmakers at linebacker, because All-Pro NaVorro Bowman is recovering from a gruesome knee injury sustained in the NFC title game loss to Seattle. Smith is gone for nine games for violating the drug and personal conduct policies, which means both he and Bowman might not be in the lineup before mid-November.
Plus, defensive tackle Ray McDonald was arrested last week on a domestic abuse charge, something NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he will clamp down on. Goodell announced stiffer penalties for such incidents last week, with six games for a first offence.
“Some people have a magic number of if you have one, if you have two, if you have eight, if you have seven, I’ve always believed one is too many,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “We’re continuing to work to try to figure out what we can do better. Better as an organization, better as individuals, whether you’re a player, whether you’re a coach, whether you’re in the administrative side.”
Ravens standout Ray Rice is suspended for two games for a domestic abuse issue, a penalty that Goodell later referenced as not being strong enough. Baltimore opens with defending AFC North champion Cincinnati, and Rice’s backup, Bernard Pierce, was hobbled in the preseason.
Two players are suspended indefinitely: Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon and Redskins safety Tanard Jackson. Neither’s loss should be too significant.
One other player gone for the season, Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington, is a significant one for the Cardinals, who previously lost Karlos Dansby in free agency. They also had top defensive lineman Darnell Dockett tear up his right knee and is done for 2014.
Other familiar names whose suspensions likely will hurt their teams are Patriots CB Brandon Browner (four games), Eagles tackle Lane Johnson (four), Cowboys DB Orlando Scandrick (four), and Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather (two).
“I think you have to get creative with what you do, and roll some different guys in there, maybe change some personnel groupings and get some different matchups,” Cleveland’s Pettine said, speaking directly about Gordon’s absence, but representative of how many teams must react. “That’s the challenge that we face.”