In 2006, Merriman racked up 17 sacks in just 12 games, made the Pro Bowl, was named to the All-Pro team, and finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
In 2007, Merriman had 12.5 sacks and was again a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro.
In 2010, the Chargers have agreed to release him outright, just as soon as he gets healthy.
That's a Lindsay Lohan-like career arc. The speed of his dazzling rise to dominance is matched only by the thoroughness of his freefall to the waiver wire. It's downright astonishing when you look at the big picture.
[Rewind video: Merriman pranked on live television]
Given the last two-plus years of injury/invisibility, plus all of his non-football issues -- the steroid suspension, the thing with Tila Tequila, the dumbest celebratory dance in sports history -- it's easy to forget how good Merriman was. Thirty-nine and a half sacks in three years? That's a Hall of Fame pace, easy. And a lot of those 39.5 sacks came against double-teams and opponents scheming against him. Merriman was an absolute game-changer, and from the second he entered the league, one of its most dominant players.
It's hard to compare it to anything, because so few players play at such a high level so quickly. Imagine what kind of catastrophe it would take for, as an example, Patrick Willis(notes) to be released in a couple of years. Or Darrelle Revis(notes). Or maybe for the Packers to be letting Clay Matthews(notes) go in 2014.
One wonders if Merriman can ever again be the player he once was.
It's rare that someone who was once great in the NFL (or in any area of life, really) can get back to their previous high level of play after two years of no and/or poor performance. With Merriman, it's fair to wonder, too, how much of his early career dominance was steroid-fueled. He denies ever using and he went with the "tainted supplement" explanation, and he did have one very good year that came after the suspension. Still, the questions will always be there.
Based on his 2009 season, the physical dominance seems to have left him. He played in 16 games, but had just four sacks and 26 tackles. But he wasn't completely healthy, either. He hadn't fully recovered from reconstructive knee surgery, and wasn't anywhere near the same player. So far in 2010, he's mostly been sidelined with more leg injuries. When he has been out there, there's been no sign of the dominance re-emerging.
I wish the best for the man, and I hope I'm wrong, but if I had to bet on Merriman ever getting back to his 2005-2007 level, I'm afraid I'd have to bet against it.