Notable NFL Players Facing Role Reductions in 2014

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IJune 20, 2014

Notable NFL Players Facing Role Reductions in 2014

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    It happens every year. Whether it's the NFL draft or free agency, some well-known veteran players always end up being put on notice by incoming offseason acquisitions by their respective team.

    Sooner rather than later, this year's first-round picks are going to push last year's stars out of the picture. It's really just a matter of how long it will take. That being said, if a team is doing their business appropriately, their draft picks won't be expected to assume the full burden as rookies (although the franchise-saving quarterback is never out of the question for a Week 1 start).

    The NFL is a production business, but even some players who may have produced in the recent past may not be given an opportunity to produce those same numbers again in the near future.

    Here are some of the players that should be looking over their shoulder in 2014.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Cincinnati Bengals)

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    The Cincinnati Bengals signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to a three-year contract in 2012. Now, entering the final year of his deal, he has witnessed the Bengals draft a running back in the second round in each of the past two years: North Carolina's Giovani Bernard (2013) and Louisiana State's Jeremy Hill (2014). 

    Green-Ellis was the Bengals' bell cow in 2012, carrying the ball 278 times. Last year, with Bernard in his rookie year, Green-Ellis earned 220 carries—a dropoff of 58 from the previous year. Bernard was one of the most electric rookies in football last year, earning 1,209 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. Bernard (56 catches) is also far superior to Green-Ellis (two catches) on passing downs.

    Over the past three years, Green-Ellis has not broken the four yards-per-attempt plateau. His average of 3.71 YPA from 2011-2013 ranks 80th out of 96 backs who had at least 100 carries in that span, per Pro-Football Reference. His work in short-yardage situations has been valuable for teams, but Hill is a younger version of Green-Ellis and has far more tread left on his tires. As a second-round pick, the Bengals would probably like to see him on the field sooner than later.

    This could be Green-Ellis' last year with the Bengals, and he could fade into the background of the offensive game plan.

Alfonzo Dennard (New England Patriots)

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    The New England Patriots got a steal when they selected cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in the seventh round in the 2012 NFL draft. Dennard did not become a starter until close to midway through the season, but once he got his opportunity, he did not relinquish the starting spot.

    Dennard has been valuable for the Patriots over the past year-and-a-half, but his time could be running out as a starter. The Patriots signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this offseason, both of whom project as starters in base defensive packages.

    Browner must serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, so Dennard could still factor into the starting lineup at the beginning of the season. However, he could be battling with second-year corner Logan Ryan for that spot on the depth chart.

    Dennard has also been absent from the team's organized team activities and mandatory minicamp recovering from shoulder surgery, according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe, and while it's not necessarily a death knell to his status with the team, he's certainly not doing himself any favors by missing out on valuable practice reps.

Kevin Burnett (Oakland Raiders)

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    It's never a good sign when a team drafts your replacement. The Oakland Raiders used the fifth overall selection to grab Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, who happens to also play the weakside linebacker position. There is some versatility to Mack's game, but his presence could push linebacker Kevin Burnett off the field more often than usual.

    Burnett and middle linebacker Nick Roach were the Raiders' top two linebackers last season, with each playing over 1,000 snaps according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). There's plenty of room for all three linebackers on the roster, but someone is going to have to come off the field in nickel situations, and it's not likely to be Mack, who thrives on passing downs.

    There is some speculation as to whether Burnett should even feel comfortable that he'll have a job at the end of training camp. He signed a two-year deal worth $5.25 million, and the Raiders owe $4,142,500 in salary cap money on his contract, of which the Raiders can recoup all but $642,500 (dead money).

    The Raiders would be wise to keep Burnett around through the end of his contract, to allow Mack a year to acclimate to the NFL game and learn the Raiders' playbook, but they would be even wiser to make sure their fifth overall draft choice is put to good use.

Wes Welker (Denver Broncos)

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    Wes Welker's role in the Denver Broncos' offense looked like it was going to increase this coming season when the Broncos did not re-sign Eric Decker. Days later, they signed another receiver, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Emmanuel Sanders; in May, they selected Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer in the second round of the NFL draft.

    Between Welker, Sanders, Latimer, Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas, the Broncos aren't going to have enough space on the field for everyone. That likely means Welker will be playing a smaller role in the offense than last year, when he played 787 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while missing three games.

    Welker is also entering the final year of his contract, meaning now is the time for the Broncos to get Latimer and Sanders as much experience in the offense as possible to help get them ready for life without Welker.

Chris Johnson (New York Jets)

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    The Tennessee Titans made running back Chris Johnson their bell cow for the past six seasons, but he may not get the same opportunity with his new team, the New York Jets. Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory already dot the "i" in the Jets' backfield, and the two backs combined for 358 carries and 1,530 yards (4.27 yards per attempt). Ivory earned 182 carries while Powell carried the ball 176 times.

    Johnson's carries will likely cut into the totals for both Powell and Ivory, but Johnson is not likely to completely take over the workload. He has not been highly successful as a "workhorse" back for the Titans in recent years.

    Where Johnson's presence could be felt most is in the passing game. Powell and Ivory combined for 38 receptions, with Powell accounting for 36 of those on his own. Johnson has hauled in at least 42 passes in five of his six seasons in the NFL, and he has notched two seasons with 50 or more receptions. 

    He could also serve as a big play threat from the backfield; Powell and Ivory can soften up defenses before Johnson comes in and gashes them for a long gain. Johnson has been much closer to CJ1K over the past few seasons than the CJ2K moniker he earned in 2009, but getting him involved in a three-headed rotation in the backfield could be the best solution for all parties involved.

Trent Cole (Philadelphia Eagles)

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    For eight years, Trent Cole found a home as a defensive end in the Philadelphia Eagles' 4-3 defense. His home was uprooted and relocated from defensive end to outside linebacker when former head coach Andy Reid became "former" and new head coach Chip Kelly became "new".

    Cole's first year as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 front was not a resounding success, but it was also far from an epic failure. The veteran pass-rusher notched eight sacks, an improvement on his career-low three sacks from 2012. 

    However, the Eagles may already be looking to his replacement after drafting Louisville outside linebacker Marcus Smith in the first round in May's draft.

    Smith is considered a "Jack" linebacker in the defense, which is the same spot manned by veteran outside linebacker Connor Barwin (Cole's position in the defense is known as the Predator), but it's more likely that we'll see a rotation of all three men sharing the load and switching spots from time to time. 

Chad Henne (Jacksonville Jaguars)

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars didn't draft quarterback Blake Bortles with the No. 3 overall selection so that he could sit on the bench. Bortles will be a starter, and the time will come sooner than later.

    Last year's starter, Chad Henne, has been splitting first-team reps with Bortles at Jaguars organized team activities, according to Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. This could be happening for any number of reasons, even if the Jaguars simply want Bortles to get as much practice as possible with the best receivers on their roster, and against the best defense on their roster.

    The Jaguars want Henne to start all 16 games, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter (via Rotoworld), but the six-year NFL veteran has missed time due to injury in four of the past five seasons. Bortles has been anointed the quarterback of the future for the Jaguars. If Henne misses even a little time in 2013, or if the Jaguars' season goes in the tank early, that's all the window Bortles may need to claim the starting spot for good. 

Tamba Hali (Kansas City Chiefs)

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    The Kansas City Chiefs selected Auburn outside linebacker Dee Ford 23rd overall to help round out their pass-rushing depth chart. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, one of the reasons the Chiefs drafted Ford was because one of their key pass-rushers, outside linebacker Tamba Hali, rounded out a bit this offseason—measuring in at 20 pounds over his optimal playing weight.

    Make no mistake; the Chiefs didn't draft Ford simply to send a message to the eight-year veteran. General manager John Dorsey think Ford can contribute right away.

    "What he will do during the course of the game is spell guys," Dorsey said in an interview with Gil Brandt on Sirius XM NFL radio (via Fox Sports). "That gives you the ability to have your guys fresh rushing the passer late in the game."

    First-round draft picks are not meant to be situational players, though. At some point, Ford will be asked to man a more active role in the defense. Outside linebacker Justin Houston will be a free agent in 2015 but would the Chiefs really let their young stud pass-rusher hit the open market? The Chiefs can save $9 million in cap space by releasing Hali next offseason, according to

    At his age and with an expensive contract, time is not on Hali's side, and he may not get much time to prove otherwise.