Future NFL Stars Who Are Currently Stuck as Backups
With San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick signing a massive contract extension, per ESPN.com, after having started his career as a backup to Alex Smith, now seems like a good time to talk about some other guys sitting on the bench who might have the talent to be a stud.
While not all of them will get the fat stacks of cash Kaepernick just got, they can still make themselves some money by overcoming the players in front of them.
Some of these guys are rookie, while others have been watching from the sidelines a year or two already.
All of them have the talent, drive and—as important as anything else—the opportunity to make their presence known in the upcoming training camp and season.
Let's meet them, shall we?
Bryce Brown, Running Back, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills were not shy about making moves during the 2014 NFL draft and those moves were not just shifting where they were within the actual draft.
Acquiring Bryce Brown from the Philadelphia Eagles (for a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick) worked out for everyone as the Eagles got value for a guy buried deep on their depth chart while the Bills go a potential replacement for two players near or at the end of their deals.
C.J. Spiller can opt out of his contract after this year and 33-year old Fred Jackson is a free agent in 2015 and unlikely to return, save for in a small role.
Bryce is very talented and has good speed but tends to bounce things outside too often. This isn’t unusual for young backs, especially those picked as late as Brown was (seventh round), as those guys all have question marks and aren’t finished products.
However, he could flourish under running back coach Tyrone Wheatley and, like most backs, learn to run between the tackles and be more patient.
He has the ability, he just needs to hone it. Once that happens, and with the potential departures of one (if not both) running back ahead of him, Brown could be a huge factor for this offense.
Audie Cole, Linebacker, Minnesota Vikings
Last year Audie Cole (who I have to admit is my longtime Vikings man-crush) rotated in and out of the defense, then taking over for Erin Henderson, who was moved from the middle position to the weak side.
Cole missed the final week with an injury, but in the five preceding games he started in he compiled 42 tackles and a sack. He struggled a bit against the run, but was solid in coverage, which was actually a weakness of his coming out of N.C. State. He’s normally solid against the run, so that isn’t a concern, but his improved coverage skills are a great sign he can take his production to the next level.
Currently, Jasper Brinkley has the edge for the middle linebacker job and rookie Anthony Barr is on the strong side. Cole could sub for either one on a regular basis (depending on packages) and could steal even more snaps than that from Brinkley, who is really just a two-down linebacker.
That’s where the improved coverage skills Cole has honed come into play.
New head coach Mike Zimmer depends on his middle linebackers a lot in his defensive schemes, so if Cole can get more snaps, he could really explode.
Bill Bentley, Cornerback, Detroit Lions
For the second year in a row, Dwight “Little Bill” Bentley’s season was marred by injury issues which cost him several games. That’s his biggest hurdle to a breakout season.
Because aside from Chris Houston (who struggled himself last season), there isn’t anyone who he shouldn’t be able to beat out.
Bentley is a highly athletic corner who can stay on top of routes and jump while adjusting his body to make plays. He did play an awful lot of zone in college, but his man-coverage skills have improved and would be better if he could stay healthy.
Darius Slay had his own health issues last season and struggled with consistency. Rashean Mathis might have been the best corner on the roster last season, but at 33 (turning 34 a few weeks into the season) he’s on the downhill of his career and is, at best, a stop-gap measure.
If Bentley can get healthy, we could see enough progress from him to gain the starting job and finally help the Lions lock down the side across from Houston.
Kyle Van Noy, Linebacker, Detroit Lions
As pointed out to me earlier this week by Sam Tighe of B/R UK and AP Sports, I left out a great player from my "8 NFL Players That Are About to Lose Starting Jobs to Rookies" piece from earlier this week: Kyle Van Noy.
Right now the team seems to have Ashlee Palmer penciled in ahead of Van Noy at outside linebacker, but that isn’t likely to hold on every snap. As it stands, Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reports that the Lions are already planning to use Van Noy...well, everywhere.
This is the result of the fascinating turn defenses have taken in the last few years, one which values versatility as highly as any other factor.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin told Birkett that he envisions Van Noy as a three-down player during his rookie season, which, as Birkett points out, means Van Noy will also line up at defensive end.
Van Noy can set up with his hand in the dirt or standing up, can drop into coverage, move from sideline-to-sideline and has shown great closing speed on film. Not the most athletic guy coming out of the draft, Van Noy makes up for it in film study.
He’s a guy who will be prepared every week for any offense, and with the opportunity it looks like the Lions will give him, he should be a starter in no time at all.
Casey Hayward, Cornerback, Green Bay Packers
If this had been written last offseason, Casey Hayward would have likely been the starter at corner opposite Tramon Williams. He had that good a rookie season.
Instead, Sam Shields played most of the snaps, and while he struggled at times with both injury and lapses in consistency, he did enough for the Packers to sign him to a pretty significant contract, per Pro Football Talk's Mike Wilkening.
Hayward looked to be the better corner in 2012, though, and while he lost last season, his ability to contribute to run defense and his cover skills appeared to be much better than Shields'.
Right now he appears to be healthy and was participating in OTAs, per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
If he’s fully recovered and stays healthy, we already got a glimpse of what he’s capable of, and it may not take long for him to make his name well-known among NFL fans.
Storm Johnson, Running Back, Jacksonville Jaguars
It’s not often that anyone calls a seventh-round running back a potential star, but in a league where running backs have seen their value tumble and backfields tend to have more than one piece, anything is possible.
It’s especially possible for a guy like Storm Johnson, whose tape shows incredible vision, good feet and an aggressive running style. He’s had some ball-security issues and, like so many rookie running backs, needs to improve his pass protection, but he’s a very good back who can be elusive when he makes it to the second level.
There are a lot of backs ahead of him on the roster, including lead back Toby Gerhart, so it may be a long time before Johnson gets his day in the sun.
Terrance West, Running Back, Cleveland Browns
By all accounts, the Cleveland Browns are going to run the ball a ton, leading Cleveland.com writer Tom Reed to believe the offense could finish in the top third in rushing this year.
Which means, even with newly signed Ben Tate likely to get the lead-back work, there should be plenty of carries for all. That includes third-round pick Terrance West.
West’s tape shows excellent ability to make jump cuts, an ability to overcome first contact and enough overall speed to make teams miss, even if he’s clearly not a burner.
Tate has had some injury issues, though he played through his rib injury for much of last year, and the Browns will keep a close eye on him. As much as they want to run the ball, they will try not to burn anyone out, which means spreading out carries.
West is a very good running back and will get the chance to prove it sooner than later, even if Tate manages to stay healthy.
Marcus Lattimore, Running Back, San Francisco 49ers
If not for a catastrophic knee injury during the 2012 college football season (his second knee injury) Marcus Lattimore could have been the first running back off the board in last year’s draft.
Can he come back from it and be close to the back he was?
Lattimore himself feels like he’ll be ready to go Week 1, telling Tom Pelissero of USA Today that, “I feel faster than I ever was,” though he admits that his quickness isn’t all there yet.
If he does come back healthy and ready to go, the next question is where he fits.
Right now he’s buried deep down on the depth chart, behind at least four other players, including second-round pick Carlos Hyde.
We know Frank Gore will be done soon and LaMichael James is believed to be trying to get traded, per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
That leaves Kendall Hunter, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, and Hyde.
Hyde is really the biggest hurdle, as he can be a bruising power runner and could carry the full load. He doesn’t have elite speed though, and isn’t very explosive.
It should be interesting to watch these two battle at some point, and since Lattimore’s contract goes through 2016, per Spotrac.com, it’s one we could be watching for a few years.
In the end, if Lattimore gets the chance, I feel he can still be very good.