The road to free agency can begin unexpectedly for some athletes.
In some cases, players can accelerate their own teammates' availability and that's precisely the case with the following list. These players have come in with inexperience, low expectations and deep depth charts only to eventually take control of the the starting job and really surprise some folks.
Here's a look at 10 backups who have made their teammates expendable free agents this offseason.
James Starks was no slouch as a collegiate athlete.
As a starter for the University of Buffalo, Starks, who was born and raised in New York, rushed for 3,140 career yards and scored 40 total touchdowns. But in the 2010 NFL draft, he was largely ignored, falling to the sixth round.
That's where the Green Bay Packers made one of their better investments of the last few offseasons.
Starks would go on to miss the majority of his rookie season after being placed on the PUP list to begin the year. He was finally activated in November and after weeks of internal hype out of Green Bay, Starks saw his first NFL snaps in Week 13 of the regular season.
Collecting 73 yards on 18 carries impressed many and earned Starks a shot at the starting gig due to the state of the depth chart. Starks had to wait until the NFC Wild Card Game to make that first start, but he absolutely embarrassed the Philadelphia Eagles defense when he got there.
Running for 123 yards on 22 carries, Starks broke the Packers' rookie rushing record for a single game and he was far from done. He carried the ball 81 total times over Green Bay's four-game playoff run for 315 yards. He only scored once and his yard-per-carry average was only 3.9, but the rookie had proved he could play.
He only made two starts in 2011, playing in a time share with Ryan Grant. Regardless, Starks raised his average to 4.3 yards a carry and added an impressive pass-catching element to his repertoire.
All this likely made the Packers more than comfortable letting Grant test the free-agent market this offseason.
The story of Montario Hardesty has some similarities to both Ryan Grant and James Starks.
Hardesty, like Starks, was selected in the 2010 NFL draft, but as a second-rounder. Like Grant, though, Hardesty suffered a season-ending injury that very same season. He spent the year on the bench and in the books and largely used 2011 as his rookie campaign on the field.
He only amassed 88 carries at three yards per attempt this season, good enough for 266 yards. Two separate mini-breakouts account for most of that production however.
In Week 3, making his first career start in place of an injured Peyton Hillis, Hardesty rushed for 67 yards on 14 totes. He added three receptions to his 4.8 yards per carry and left many good first impressions.
Hardesty would only see 14-plus carries in a game once more in 2011, and that came in his third career start in Week 7. The 25-year-old touched the ball 35 times, adding 95 yards on the ground and 27 through the air.
After that, he would only carry the ball 16 more times as Hillis took over leading role. But that very well may not be in the cards for 2012, as Hillis is expected to walk.
Just because you're used to him, doesn't mean Victor Cruz has been around that long.
He was active for just three games last season as the New York Giants' scouting staff apparently had no idea what they had in the undrafted rookie out of UMass. It was made pretty clear in 2011 what the Giants had in Cruz, as he set the slot on fire to the tune of 1,536 yards on 82 receptions. That's nearly 20 yards a reception.
On top of that, the 25-year-old scored nine touchdowns and had almost no ball security issues.
The pace that Cruz has chosen to ascend to All-Pro and Super Bowl champ status is astounding. It will also lessen the impact of losing Mario Manningham to free agency this year.
Steve Smith was lost the year before and Plaxico Burress the year before that. The Giants have made smart investments at the wideout position however, and are in the position they're in because of it.
I could not believe my eyes as a fantasy football player in 2011 as I watched the Washington Redskins' backfield pan out as it did.
Tim Hightower got the first shot at things, but he had 3.8 yards per carry in five starts before he tore his ACL. Then came Ryan Torain, who should definitely be nicknamed "Flash in the Pan" by now.
Torain made his first start in Week 4 and ripped the St. Louis Rams defense to shreds. He had a touchdown and 135 yards on just 19 carries, a 7.1 yards per carry average.
Over his next 40 carries, Torain averaged just over 1.6 yards a carry (65 yards) and was waived shortly after the season.
The third Redskins back to get his shot at the starting gig was Roy Helu and it was a match made in heaven. Making just five starts, Helu got his hands on the ball 204 times for 1,019 all-purpose yards and three total touchdowns.
From Weeks 12-15, Helu made four straight starts, carrying the ball 96 times for 387 yards and proving he could handle the load. As Hightower recovers from his injury and hits unrestricted free agency, the Skins are more than comfortable rolling with Helu and Evan Royster.
Word on the street is that the Indianapolis Colts are looking to get big and they want to "dominate both lines of scrimmage," playing in the style of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's easier said than done, but if that's the plan, one might think Donald Brown would have difficulty finding his niche.
Two inches shy of 6'0" and 15 pounds of muscle shy of 225 lbs, Brown relies on his vision and his speed to get outside to create yardage—and create yardage he did in 2011.
Brown touched the ball 150 total times last season for the Colts and he created about five yards every time he did it. His 731 all-purpose yards in limited time on the field was impressive and most likely played a role in the team's release of Joseph Addai during the recent roster overhaul.
While he may not start in 2012, he should provide a nice change of pace for the lead back.
When you trail Julius Peppers by only two sacks through 82 career games, that should say something about your potential going forward.
Mario Williams does indeed have 53 sacks through 82 starts and trails Peppers, who had 55 through 82 games. The Chicago Bears' All-Pro is now up to 100 sacks exactly at age 32, and he's shown no signs of slowing down.
Williams is five years younger than Peppers and is reaching free agency two years before Peppers did.
The pride of the Houston Texans is no lock to return, though, and Williams can thank a torn pectoral muscle and the two gentlemen seen with this slide.
Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt, both 2011 draft selections, filled in admirably in place of an injured Williams for most of the season. Combined, the two totaled 101 tackles, 11.5 sacks and seven passes defended, making moving on from Williams a much easier thing to do.
At age 30, Carlos Rogers had his best season to date in 2011. The former ninth overall selection in 2005, Rogers had six interceptions on his way to an NFC Pro Bowl nod and second-team All-Pro nomination.
Fellow 30-year-old Shawntae Spencer had one of his worst seasons, ending up fifth on the depth chart by the time he got healthy.
The 49ers might not bring either of them back and they've got some pretty decent arguments why: Chris Culliver, Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock.
Brown (pictured) turned in his best year at 27 and looks to be finally living up to his potential. The team added Culliver in the third round of the 2011 draft and the rookie looked more than promising, posting 35 tackles with a pick.
Add in Brock, an undrafted free agent, who has shown skill working in the nickel role and the 49ers look to be setting up for a youth takeover in the defensive secondary—a talented one at that.