NFL Depth-Chart Predictions: 10 Backups Who Will See the Most Playing Time
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In today's NFL, successful franchises are often defined by the quality of their depth. Injuries happen to the best of teams and the best of players. As a result, teams are often only as good as their backups.
But injuries aren't the only reason backups see the playing field on Sundays. The NFL in an insanely talented league full of capable athletes. These players just need a chance to shine.
In that regard, certain backups essentially force their way onto the field, giving their coaches no choice but to acknowledge their talent.
While there are bunches of backups across the league who will log steady playing time, here are 10 non-starters who will see the most game action in 2012.
Tim Tebow, QB, New York Jets
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What better place to start?
The most recent reports out of Jets camp is that Tebow “has been focused on back-up quarterback duties—rather than any special packages or trick plays—in the first few weeks of the offseason program,” according to Jenny Vrentas of the Newark Star-Ledger.
While this might initially suggest Tebow would log less playing time, it’s not that simple. The Jets are making sure to prepare Tebow to play quarterback in case Sanchez struggles, and with the way this whole saga has unfolded, it’s almost as if the Jets are setting up Sanchez to do just that.
Tebow will certainly see some time as a gadget/Wildcat-type player for New York, but there’s a good chance he could take over quarterback duties at some point.
A series could lead to a quarter. A quarter could lead to a game. And a game could lead to a controversy. It'll be a slippery slope, and once Tebow Time starts, it'll be difficult to stop.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills
Bills running back Fred Jackson is entrenched as the starter, but that doesn’t mean C.J. Spiller won’t get his touches.
Last season, Spiller watched from the sidelines quite a bit early on while Jackson was putting up MVP-like numbers.
In just 10 games, "FredEx" recorded 934 rushing yards on 170 carries and six touchdowns. He also added 39 receptions for 442 yards. Combined, he totaled 1,376 yards in just over half a season.
Losing Jackson to injury was a big blow to the Bills offense, but Spiller stepped up and proved he’s ready to play. The former ninth overall pick contributed 561 rushing yards on 107 carries (5.2 average), and 39 catches for 269 yards.
Because of his speed, ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and better grasp of the offense as a whole, Spiller will see the field in 2012. The Bills will want to keep the backfield fresh, and if they can, this running-back duo could light the league on fire.
Dwight Bentley, CB, Detroit Lions
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Third-round draft pick Dwight Bentley should see a ton of playing time in his rookie season with the Detroit Lions. Rotoworld says the following about the young corner:
Bentley created a ton of buzz during Senior Bowl week, when he held his own against some of the nation's top-rated wide receivers. At 5-foot-10, 182, Bentley ran a 4.42 forty before the draft and caused ten career turnovers in the Sun Belt conference as a 44-game starter.
Rotoworld also points out that Bentley’s best fit may be as a slot corner based on his skill set and smaller frame.
Detroit should have no trouble finding opportunities to get the rookie on the field and put his talent to the test. As an up-and-coming challenger in the NFC North, the Lions will have to match up with Green Bay’s pass-heavy offense and Chicago’s revamped wide receiver core within the division. That means many nickel and dime packages.
Justin Rogers of MLive.com reports that Bentley is already competing for nickel duties in camp, and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham acknowledged that he “‘looks like a polished college player, much better than I anticipated.’”
The Lions very much need the secondary to improve in 2012, and Bentley should have a chance to show he can help.
Akeem Dent, LB, Atlanta Falcons
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Losing starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton this offseason hurts the Atlanta Falcons. It hurts even worse that he went to division rival New Orleans.
The NFC South is steadily becoming a solid group of offensive teams, and as a result, defenses will need to be at their best.
Lofton’s production will surely be missed in Atlanta, but the Falcons hope the other guys can pick up the slack. They signed free-agent veteran Lofa Tatupu on a two-year contract.
Then there’s Akeem Dent.
A third-round pick in 2011, Dent is reportedly a serious candidate to compete with Tatupu for Lofton’s vacant starting spot, according to NFL reporter Adam Caplan.
Tatupu will likely win the starting job based on experience, but expect Dent to log plenty of playing time, as the two try to combine their efforts to make up for Lofton’s lost production.
Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans Saints
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Darren Sproles is the epitome of lightning in a bottle. He set a playoff record last season by hauling in 15 passes against the San Francisco 49ers, and that performance was no anomaly.
Since entering the league in 2005, Sproles’ receptions total has risen every season:
Along with a career high in catches last year, Sproles also set a career high in rushing yards, totaling 603 on 87 attempts (second-highest attempts of his career). So clearly, the Saints used Sproles a lot in 2011.
The New Orleans backfield is crowded, but there’s no denying the dynamite impact Sproles can have. He can run the ball, catch the ball and return the ball, and the Saints will be sure to utilize his talents often during a season saturated with uncertainty surrounding the organization.
Aaron Maybin, DE/OLB, New York Jets
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Much to the chagrin of Bills fans, Aaron Maybin resurrected his young yet unsuccessful career with the New York Jets last year after Buffalo released him in the 2011 offseason.
You can’t blame the Bills for running out of patience with their former first-rounder. Per the Associated Press and ESPN.com: “Selected 11th overall in the 2009 draft out of Penn State, Maybin failed to register a sack or even break into the team's starting lineup in 27 career games.”
Then, as if magically, something changed with Maybin after he signed with the Jets. Maybe it was the scheme. Maybe a newfound fire in his belly.
Or maybe, simply, it was the fact that the Jets had a better overall defense, one that had the luxury of using players like Maybin in situational roles in which he was likely to succeed.
Whatever the case, he recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles in just 11 appearances in 2011. Brian Costello of the New York Post suggests that Maybin is fighting for a starting role with the Jets. But he’ll have to show he can stop the run to convince Rex Ryan of making that call.
Regardless, he’ll see a lot of time next season as the Jets hope to continue tapping into Maybin’s pass-rushing potential.
Miles Burris, LB, Oakland Raiders
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Rookie linebacker Miles Burris is already turning heads at Oakland Raiders camp. The fourth-round draft pick was touted for his pass-rushing skills at San Diego State, and he may have an opportunity to shine in 2012 in the NFL.
Starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain was sentenced to 180 days in jail on charges of assault, reckless endangerment, menacing and wrongful discharge of a firearm, according to Alabama Crimson Tide beat writer Michael Casagrande.
The shakeup has the Raiders giving Burris extensive time at both outside linebacker spots. Rotoworld reports, “In Tuesday’s practice, Burris worked with the first-team defense at weak-side linebacker with Aaron Curry getting time off. Burris is learning both outside spots during the instructional workouts.”
Burris is a workout junkie with a strong work ethic, high motor and a natural love for the game. His attitude and versatility should earn him playing time, and if he excels, he could carve out an even bigger role with the Raiders.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Minnesota Vikings
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Four-time Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson is coming off ACL, MCL and meniscus surgery, though all signs point to him being ready for Week 1. Nevertheless, the Vikings will try not to over-use their team MVP.
As a result, bruising backup Toby Gerhart will likely see a healthy number of touches next year. On 109 carries last season, Gerhart averaged 4.9 yards per carry. The offense as a whole was not very good, and Minnesota hopes that it has made progress toward alleviating that problem.
He’s a decent pass-catcher and a strong straight-line runner with good vision, but Gerhart needs to improve on his pass protection, as reported by Tom Pelissero of ESPN 1500 Twin Cities back in February.
There’s no position battle here, nor is there a threat of a running-back-by-committee approach. However, with Peterson coming off serious knee surgery, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Gerhart set a career high in carries in 2012.
David Wilson, RB, New York Giants
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Word out of Giants camp is more like, well, jubilation regarding rookie running back David Wilson. Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News writes that Wilson “showed off his speed and explosiveness in the first two practices.”
Further, per Vacchiano, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride described the first-rounder as "encouraging" and "exciting."
Veteran Ahmad Bradshaw is locked in as the starter for the Giants offense. GM Jerry Reese confirmed as much in an interview with Mike Francesca on WFAN in New York, calling Bradshaw the "lead dog" of the backfield.
However, Wilson should still see a lot of opportunities. The Giants offense has evolved brilliantly under Eli Manning, and Wilson and fellow rookie Rueben Randle should have no problem filling in for the departed Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham, respectively.
Bradshaw is coming off a bone-marrow injection taken from his hip and injected into his troublesome foot, according to Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports. And while he says he’ll be ready for training camp, there’s just no guarantee with injuries.
The Giants drafted Wilson in the first round for a reason. He’ll see the field.
Aaron Hernandez, TE, New England Patriots
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Believe it or not, star tight end Aaron Hernandez is actually a backup in New England. It’s easy to overlook because of how much he’s used in Bill Belichick’s offense and the numbers he produces, but it’s true nonetheless.
Needless to say, Hernandez will be one of the most highly utilized backups in the league in 2012. In 2011, he caught 79 balls for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. (That’s a backup tight end.)
For comparison’s sake, Larry Fitzgerald made only one more catch and one more touchdown grab last season, though he totaled about 500 more yards.
Hernandez is a huge part of the Pats offense, and that trend will only continue. Expect another big year from the athletic pass-catching tight end out of Florida.