One of the hardest things to do in the NFL is predict, before the season, which teams will earn the right to keep playing on through the winter months.
Making the playoffs requires a lot of things of a football team: determination, hard work, skill, management of egos, and luck.
The last one plays a particularly pronounced role in one facet of NFL life: injuries.
They strike early and often (just ask Tom Brady) in the league and, at any moment, a player's career can be dashed in one play. It's the sad truth of the NFL.
But an injury to even the most important player does not necessarily doom a team's season. (again, ask Tom Brady's replacement, Matt Cassel)
Great teams are always preparing for the worst, and while no team, player, or fan should ever wish for an injury, a team must always be prepared by stocking every roster spot with as much talent as possible.
With that, I'd like to point out who, in my opinion, are the most talented players in the league who wait in the wings, ready at a moment's notice to step into the limelight.
The idea of a "backup" in the NFL is never really set, though, especially as "platooning" has taken hold across the league. For instance, some of the most successful backfields in the game today are comprised of not even one or two star backs, but a whole group who share the load.
Many hands make light work, as they say. So I've tried to take that into account as much as possible and go with players who also do their work on special teams, only in specific game situations, or have to make the most of limited touches on the ball.
But that just makes the list more debatable, which is half the fun.
1. Pierre Thomas, RB, New Orleans Saints
While Reggie Bush has proven to be as explosive and athletic a player in the NFL as he was in college, he has yet to really find success is a running back in the NFL.
Yet behind him is Pierre Thomas, a supremely talented back out of Illinois who has yet to really see a great deal of time in the NFL.
Thomas went undrafted out of college and was signed by the Saints to fill out camp, but performed so well that they kept him on the roster, where he's been ever since.
The last two years he has entered the season behind Bush on the depth chart, and as training camp is set to begin hasn't quite supplanted his more esteemed teammate.
But Reggie's injury last year allowed Thomas to earn much more time behind center, where he outperformed Bush's career yards-per-carry mark by a full yard (4.8 vs. 3.8) and managed nine rushing touchdowns in just 129 attempts.
His coming-out party was really Week 17 of the 2007 season, though, when he got the start and ended up with 226 yards from scrimmage (105 rushing, 121 through the air) and caught a touchdown.
It put Thomas on the map...and lost me a fantasy football title. But I don't hold a grudge or anything...I swear.
Also displaying some very soft hands, reeling in 32 receptions, Thomas could find a lot more work on first and second down this season, even if Bush is healthy.
While Bush is still one of the most exciting athletes in the game, and might be the league's best punt returner, it's unlikely that he'll keep his hold on the mantle of starting running back much longer with Thomas performing so admirably in limited time.
And then it might be Thomas getting the Subway promotions.
By the way, I was watching Happy Gilmore not too long ago and there's the part where he gets the Subway sponsorship, and he mentions they gave him a card to get free Subway for the rest of his life along with his sponsorship money.
I know some people who do contracts like this for pro athletes, but I'm always embarassed to actually ask them. I think I'd just prefer to go on pretending that somewhere in Tiger Woods' house is a fountain spouting free Gatorade.
2. Lawrence Timmons, LB, Pittsburgh
I wasn't originally going to put Timmons on this list, for the obvious reason that the guy who was in front of him on the depth chart, Larry Foote, is no longer with the team, so Timmons should get the chance to show the world what he can really do.
But when you think Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker in 2008, you think James Harrison. You think LaMarr Woodley. You think James Farrior.
In 2009, you'll think Lawrence Timmons.
After recording 13 tackles and zero sacks in 2007, Timmons ratcheted it up, taking playing time away from Larry Foote as he tallied up 65 tackles and five sacks.
That Larry Foote is going to be collecting game checks that have a return address in Detroit, and not Pittsburgh, is largely due to the play of Timmons.
With Timmons taking over Foote's starting role (and even more snaps, one would think) it's very likely that Pittsburgh's defense is only going to get more aggressive and more creative in 2009.
The sound you just heard was the AFC collectively tearing their hair out.
3. Kevin Faulk, RB, Patriots
Kevin Faulk is another name I toyed with not including on this list. He's a career third down back. He probably wouldn't be terribly effective as an every-down threat, these days, and I question what he would do with 300+ carries in a season.
But that doesn't mean he hasn't been one of the best guys who doesn't fill up the "Games Started" column during his 10-year NFL career.
With 35 starts, total, in his time in the league, Faulk has hardly been given the chance to truly shine as a feature back.
At 32, that time is likely well behind Kevin, but he's still done more with limited time than maybe any other player he played with or against.
Coming out of college, Faulk was thought to be the next great thing. He had an amazing career at LSU and seemed to be poised for great things.
Ten years later, Kevin Faulk won't be making the NFL Hall of Fame, but he has managed nearly 6,500 yards from scrimmage and has been one of the most dependable offensive performers in Patriots history.
Starting when necessary but always a fixture on third down, Faulk had a great year in 2008 as the only real constant in a nebulous, shifting backline that saw starts from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Sammy Morris, Faulk, and Lawrence Maroney while also featuring Heath Evans and a cameo from LaMont Jordan.
If there's room for one "dependable, if not explosive" option on this list, it had to go to Faulk.
4. Jeff Garcia, QB, Oakland
Jeff Garcia has had a very odd career. He was definitely more than adequate in San Francisco and made three Pro Bowls, looked to be done after bad years in Cleveland and Detroit, seemed to have his swan song in Philadelphia and then resurfaced in Tampa Bay to post back-to-back quarterback ratings in the 90s once again.
I wonder if any other quarterback in the league has been dismissed as done more often than Jeff Garcia only to come back, once again.
Now he's in Oakland, backing up JaMarcus Russell, who has way too much money invested in him to not be the starter come opening week.
Still, I think most fans would be surprised to look at what Garcia has actually done in his career.
Four Pro Bowls, a career 87.5 QB rating, more than 25,000 passing yards and 161 touchdowns against just 83 interceptions.
The last couple years he's been especially effective. Much like Brett Favre in his last year in Green Bay (and the total opposite of Brett Favre since he left Green Bay), he finally seemed to realize he's not the same passer he was in his heyday in San Francisco and has focused more on being accurate on short throws and taking few risks.
As a result, his interception percentage has been down to just 1.1%, 1.2%, and 1.6% the last three years...the best three years of his career in that regard and among the tops in the league all three years.
As good as those numbers have been at 39, I don't think Garcia has a lot of years left in him.
But we've said that before.
I guess he'll just have to settle for being on this (esteemed) list for now.
5. Jerious Norwood, RB, Falcons
Jerious Norwood is one of those names that seems to just stick in the back of your mind. You probably know of him. You should've heard of him by now. But you just can't put a face to a name.
Well this might be a refresher, it's his game-winning touchdown run for Mississippi State against Florida in 2004.
I love that video. He bursts past one defender, then completely freezes another with a sidestep before bursting past everyone, even making two Florida defenders crash into one another in a feeble attempt to tackle him.
The sidestep is my favorite part. The guy misses him so bad he ends up in the parking lot. But it's alright, I hear they only charged him half-price to get back in the stadium because the game was over.
I've been waiting for the inevitable NFL Live "Jerious Norwood, 23 carries, 185 yards, 2 TDs)" stat line to scroll across my TV ever since.
It hasn't happened.
It hasn't happened because, to this point, he's never gotten 20 carries in a single NFL game. He's never even gotten 15.
The book on him is that, listed at barely over 200 pounds, he's too small to be an every-down back. He's incredibly fast, has great hands, is a very solid kick-returner, but there's questions about his ability to pound out four-plus yards consistently on first down crashing into behemoth linemen.
Still, there might be no player in the league who has done more with limited time recently. His last three years he had 99 rushes, 105 rushes, and 93 rushes, respectively, with just two starts.
His yard per carry average might be the most obscene in the NFL, though. In 2006 it was 6.4, in 2007 it was 6.0, and last year it was 5.1 yards per carry.
Which brings his three-year career totals to 297 rushes for 1735 yards and 76 receptions for 717 yards and a host of long touchdown runs/receptions.
Got to love that.
But now, Norwood is sitting behind a mammoth name on the depth chart: Michael Turner.
Turner, who would've easily topped this list two years ago when he was stuck behind another huge name (LaDainian Tomlinson, you may have heard of him), but has since become the resident runner in Atlanta.
So while I might have to wait a little longer to see the huge day from Norwood that I figured would find a regular home on my screen by now, I'd bet dollars to donuts that day is coming soon.
Small adendum here: was looking at some more numbers today and actually cannot believe I missed this. Darren Howard of the Eagles deserves some serious credit. While he's mostly a pass-rushing specialty guy rather than a true backup, he managed to pull down 10 sacks last season deputizing for guys in front of him.
10 sacks, 0 starts. And an interception and fumble recovery thrown in for good measure. I'd say that's fairly productive in limited time.