Take Note, NFL Hipsters: One Name to Know Now for Every Team
Most NFL rosters have a handful of stars—or potential stars. Those players are the foundation of the team. They have the most influence over the outcome of any game or season. But behind those players are a whole army of valuable roster pieces who can do specific jobs and often do them well.
You know them as the role players. Or the sandpaper guys. Or the lunch-bucket carriers. Or the Gruden grinders. Or the Danny Woodheads.
Pick a cliche—they all mean the same thing. The role player is someone who doesn't often bask in the warm glow of the spotlight. And maybe he won't get much attention beyond scattered praise from the local media. But even if he's unheralded and not moving many T-shirt jerseys off shelves, the role player still makes a vital contribution.
That's true for players like the Patriots' Elandon Roberts, the second-year linebacker set to see a significant increase in snaps. Or new San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who's thriving at a position that's endangered throughout the league. There's Brian Poole, too, who has quickly and quietly become one of the league's best slot cornerbacks for the Atlanta Falcons.
Many of the NFL's role players are hidden. There's a lack of flare and flash surrounding these guys, which means you might not know some of them well.
Let's get to know them then—and shine a light on players who are in the darkness right now but could be making important plays at key moments soon.
Arizona Cardinals: Wide Receiver Jaron Brown
Often season No. 3 is the breakout target for wide receivers. Usually by that time they've adapted to a much more complex offense, and the increased speed of the NFL game isn't overwhelming anymore.
Jaron Brown of the Arizona Cardinals is far past the point of a third-year eruption. And that's why any expectations for fireworks in his fifth season would likely end in disappointment.
But the Cardinals don't need a deafening "kaboom" from Brown. Instead, they'll be content with seeing him finally develop into a solid contributor as an opportunity presents itself.
The Cardinals aren't especially deep at wide receiver. Larry Fitzgerald is still impressively productive at the age of 34 and has posted back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard seasons. But he's no longer a deep threat and averaged only 9.6 yards per reception in 2016.
Then there's John Brown, who's loaded with speed and promise but struggled in 2016 on his way to just 517 receiving yards. A healthy Brown could resurrect his career now. However, if he stumbles, there's a chance for someone lower on the depth chart to emerge.
And that someone could be the other Brown right behind him. Jaron Brown has recorded just 700 receiving yards over four NFL seasons, and he missed nine games in 2016 due to a torn ACL. So he's still a relatively unknown talent, especially having never eclipsed even the 250-yard mark in any single season.
Brown will likely open the season as the Cardinals' No. 3 wide receiver, and he has the potential to rise higher than that as more targets keep coming his way.
Atlanta Falcons: Cornerback Brian Poole
Boundary cornerbacks are the rockstars of the secondary. They get video game covers, constant spotlights while up against the league's top receiving talent and a whole lot of money for their services.
But slot cornerbacks deserve your love, too, and the Atlanta Falcons have one of the best emerging young talents at the position.
Brian Poole went undrafted in 2016. Then, during his rookie season, the 24-year-old recorded 10 passes defensed with an interception. He finished only one pass breakup behind the Broncos' Chris Harris Jr. in 2016, who has a well-established history of quality play from the slot.
Poole adds another bonus element to his play by being an effective blitzer. He rushed the quarterback 25 times in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus, and led all cornerbacks with 11 pressures.
Baltimore Ravens: Tight End Maxx Williams
It feels like the Baltimore Ravens have an injury list longer than most rosters. Between injuries and offseason departures, they entered training camp needing to replace the pass-catchers who were on the other end for 345 targets in 2016.
That's an overwhelming number, and a lack of continuity is scary for any offense. The Ravens need several receivers to step up and fill those massive voids, and one could be a tight end whose career has been derailed so far due to injuries.
Maxx Williams had a decent enough start to his career as a second-round rookie in 2015. He caught 32 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown, which isn't dazzling production, but it came at a position where rookies typically struggle. Williams had something to build on—or at least he did until his 2016 season was wiped out due to a knee issue that eventually required offseason surgery.
He returned during the preseason and looked surprisingly athletic, especially on a 40-yard catch and run in Week 2.
Dennis Pitta is long gone after reinjuring his hip, and a 36-year-old Benjamin Watson is Williams' primary competition for targets elsewhere on the Ravens' depth chart. The path is clear ahead for Williams to emerge and finally justify Baltimore's early draft investment.
Buffalo Bills: Defensive Tackle Adolphus Washington
It's difficult to gauge where exactly the Buffalo Bills are as a team right now and how realistic they are about competing in 2017.
They've traded away a whole lot of talent to kick off a rebuilding process, most notably shipping off wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams. But enough talent still remains on the roster for the team to remain reasonably competitive. Particularly on defense, where 2016 third-round pick Adolphus Washington could play a larger role now.
The defensive tackle had a solid rookie season with 2.5 sacks and 21 tackles, even while playing only 30.8 percent of the Bills' defensive snaps. He still won't start, but his appearances should increase as Washington rotates in to keep 34-year-old Kyle Williams fresh. And Washington may be leaned upon even more if Marcell Dareus' poor off-field behavior continues. Dareus was sent home for Buffalo's Week 3 preseason matchup after violating a team rule.
Washington had a productive college career that's still in the not-so-distant past. Over four years at Ohio State, he finished with 25 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks.
Carolina Panthers: Wide Receiver Russell Shepard
Russell Shepard was limited to an important but still mostly anonymous role for the majority of his career prior to 2016. He clung to an NFL existence by becoming a special teams ace.
Then a season-ending Vincent Jackson injury led to an opportunity for Shepard to finally make a name for himself at wide receiver. The 341 yards on 23 catches he produced for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016 doesn't sound too impressive at first. Then you remember that in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons he posted just 91 yards all together.
His sudden spike in production led to potential late-bloomer status and a three-year contract from the Carolina Panthers worth $10 million. The Panthers are thin at wide receiver beyond Kelvin Benjamin, especially with rookie Curtis Samuel behind after missing much of training due to a hamstring injury.
Shepard is still young—getting set to turn 27 years old in mid-September—and now he could have a chance to take another giant leap.
Chicago Bears: Wide Receiver/Returner Deonte Thompson
The Chicago Bears are at least a year away from being competitive again. That feels like the most rosy, dreamy and optimistic scenario.
A rebuilding team has an unspoken mission statement: to give opportunities and touches to young players and see if they're viable options for the future. That's why a door is open for Deonte Thompson to rise.
During his career, Thompson has primarily been a kick returner—and a good one. He finished second in 2016 with 804 return yards, and during the 2017 preseason he returned a missed field goal for a 109-yard touchdown.
He's been relatively quiet as a receiver. But, much like Shepard, his 2016 output soared high above any other single season in Thompson's career. He finished with 22 receptions for 249 yards, and, prior to that, Thompson had recorded only 228 yards over five NFL seasons.
The Bears are now ultra thin at wide receiver following Alshon Jeffery's departure and Cameron Meredith's season-ending injury. Those two alone were targeted a combined 191 times in 2016, which means there will be plenty of chances for a new hero to emerge. And that could be Thompson.
Cincinnati Bengals: Linebacker Jordan Evans
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is the physically imposing heartbeat of the Cincinnati Bengals defense. He plays on the edge and crosses it too often.
That's why he'll be suspended for three games to begin the 2017 season. The Bengals need to slide in another physically gifted athlete who can fly all over the field. Thankfully, they have that option available after getting a draft steal in linebacker Jordan Evans.
Evans was still on the board in the sixth round, and the Bengals happily snapped him up. Evans is brimming with athletic appeal, having lit up the Oklahoma Sooners pro day. He posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.50, which would have been the second-best result among linebackers at the scouting combine.
Evans also impressed in the vertical jump, with his quick-twitch explosion translating to 38.5 inches. On the field, that natural athleticism made Evans a versatile defender for the Sooners. During his senior season he finished with 98 tackles and four interceptions.
He has three-down back potential and can be trusted against both the run and pass. The latter is what stands out most, particularly after a college career during which Evans had a passer rating in coverage of only 66.5 over his final three seasons, per PFF.
Cleveland Browns: Tight End Seth DeValve
You likely recognize Seth DeValve's name for off-field reasons more so than for anything he's done between the lines—only a little bit off the field, though, as DeValve was among a group of Cleveland Browns players to take a knee during the national anthem.
In doing so he became the first white NFL player to participate in the protest that now unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick started in 2016. Soon you'll likely get to know DeValve for other reasons, though—football reasons.
DeValve was a fourth-round pick in 2016. Even high draft picks at tight end usually need time to develop. So, as a Day 3 pick, DeValve was brought along slowly, and during his second preseason, the 24-year-old showed impressive downfield burst while catching nine passes for 108 yards. That was the second-highest total among tight ends in August, and DeValve's preseason was also highlighted by two catches for 30-plus yards.
There's been buzz around DeValve all offseason, including his position coach, Greg Seamon, saying DeValve is a "guy who is important to us and emerging," via Andrew Gribble of Browns.com.
Eventually David Njoku will move forward in his own development and take snaps away from DeValve. Njoku was a first-round pick, so the Browns will be eager to see what he can do as well.
But at worst they'll have a good and unfamiliar problem: an abundance of talent at a core offensive position.
Dallas Cowboys: Tight End Rico Gathers
Before the 2017 preseason, Rico Gathers was a fun project to dream about. And seeing him as an impact player in the NFL still required quite the imagination.
He was a college basketball power forward who dominated on the hard court at Baylor. But prior to that he hadn't played competitive football since the age of 14.
That's a scary eight-year gap, and yet all Gathers needed was one team willing to buy a lottery ticket and hoping to cash it in a year or two later once he relearned his position. And it looks like the Dallas Cowboys might be ready to do that soon.
Gathers lit up the preseason with 106 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He did that over only two games before sitting out the Cowboys' remaining preseason schedule due to a concussion. Unfortunately, that concussion has now landed him on injured reserve. But he's eligible to play after eight weeks, which still gives Gathers half a season to keep making an impression, assuming he recovers well.
Jason Witten still sits atop the Cowboys' tight end depth chart. He's a franchise legend, but Witten is also now 35 years old, and his 673 receiving yards in 2016 was the second-lowest single-season total of his career.
Denver Broncos: Wide Receiver Jordan Taylor
The Denver Broncos are top heavy at wide receiver. They have a quality tandem in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, two receivers who both posted 1,000-plus receiving yards during the 2016 season, even with the Broncos' shaky quarterback situation.
But if one of those two were to suffer an injury, the reinforcements behind them would be thin. Highly hyped draft pick Carlos Henderson is already out for the season with a torn left thumb ligament. And Cody Latimer has been a disappointment, with only 158 receiving yards over three seasons.
This brings us to Jordan Taylor, the undrafted free agent in 2015 who showed some potential during his second year and who might see more snaps going forward after an impressive preseason.
A large and lanky target at 6'5" and 210 pounds, Taylor finished 2016 with 209 receiving yards. That doesn't pop off the page until you notice he wasn't on the field for even 30 snaps until the Broncos' 13th game.
Now Taylor is fresh off a productive preseason in which he logged 110 yards, also in limited play, highlighted by a 32-yard catch in Week 4.
Detroit Lions: Cornerback Jamal Agnew
The Detroit Lions made their offensive line a priority in the offseason and were then left to grasp while trying to address a floundering secondary.
They spent a second-round pick on cornerback Teez Tabor, who has plenty of quality college game film after posting a passer rating in coverage of only 41.2 over the past three years, per PFF. But he may not have the athleticism to be a quality NFL starter if his pro day workout is any indication.
They also signed D.J. Hayden following his flame-out with the Oakland Raiders. When Hayden inevitably has the same experience as a slot corner for the Lions, fifth-round pick Jamal Agnew will be ready.
Agnew is a small-school prospect and one that comes with a little bit of history attached to his name. He's the first player in nine years to be drafted from the University of San Diego. He was a four-year starter and finished as the school's all-time leader in passes defensed (59). He also recorded 11 interceptions.
At 5'10" and 185 pounds, he lacks the ideal size and length to play on the boundary in the NFL. But as NFL.com's Lance Zierlein noted in his pre-draft scouting report, Agnew has the physicality and ball skills to thrive as a slot corner: "Has closing burst to close on throws and disrupt at the catch point. Is extremely physical when challenging the catch."
Green Bay Packers: Wide Receiver/Returner Trevor Davis
It seems like Trevor Davis could be the next Jeff Janis for the Green Bay Packers—even with the real Jeff Janis still on the roster.
He's a young, intriguing wide receiver with blazing speed and home-run play ability. But can that speed be harnessed consistently enough to make Davis a factor?
That's the question he'll have to answer going forward following a rookie season in 2016 when Davis barely saw the field and played just 90 offensive snaps. But a breakout opportunity could be ahead for him as a returner.
Janis is listed as the Packers' primary kick returner right now. However, the leash could be short on him if he struggles early. The Packers averaged only 19.7 yards per kick return in 2016 (tied for 24th) and are in need of a spark in that area.
It could come from Davis, who had a 68-yard punt return touchdown during the preseason. In his final year of college, he recorded 686 return yards for the California Golden Bears.
Houston Texans: Linebacker Zach Cunningham
Zach Cunningham's time will come. Maybe not right away in 2017, but it'll come. And when it does he will have the tools to excel as a three-down linebacker.
The Houston Texans invested heavily in Cunningham by selecting him with their second-round pick in the 2017 draft (57th overall). His path to consistent playing time is blocked by Brian Cushing. But the oft-injured Cushing is fading at the age of 30 and has logged only three full 16-game seasons over an eight-year career.
When Cushing either declines too far or moves on, Cunningham will be ready to slide in as a versatile defender. He led the SEC in tackles during the 2016 season (125) and was also effective in coverage. Of the 57 career receptions he allowed over four seasons at Vanderbilt, just four went for gains of more than 20 yards, per PFF.
Indianapolis Colts: Defensive End Tarell Basham
During a long drive you'll encounter at least one slow driver in the left-hand lane. You'll be annoyed by the minor disturbance, but you'll forget about it fast and carry on.
That passing annoyance is about on par with how it feels to go up against the Indianapolis Colts pass rush over the past few seasons. Quarterbacks have felt cozy in the warm security of their clean pocket, and offensive linemen have needed little effort to swat away buzzing pests.
The Colts ranked 22nd in sacks during the 2015 season and 19th in 2016. They haven't gone past the 35-sack plateau since 2014, which is why part of their defensive revamp over the offseason focused on creating a more imposing presence up front.
That included adding defensive end Tarell Basham in the third round of the draft, and he should play a significant role eventually.
The 2016 MAC Defensive Player of the Year finished his collegiate career at Ohio with 27 sacks and 38.5 tackles for a loss. That included 71 pressures, per PFF, which ranked fifth in the country. He also has frightening burst for someone of his size (6'4" and 266 lbs) and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.70 seconds at the combine.
The Colts also added John Simon and Jabaal Sheard, two other low-cost and potential high-reward veterans to help with the pass rush. Basham should still get snaps in a rotational role at first, with the 23-year-old's contributions growing if his power and athleticism lead to immediate production.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Wide Receiver Dede Westbrook
It'll be soul-crushing to watch all the exciting young talent on the Jacksonville Jaguars offense get wasted by poor quarterback play. That list includes Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who have the potential to grow into a dominant receiving tandem.
Behind them now is Dede Westbrook, and it's already looking like the Jaguars committed draft robbery by stealing him in the fourth round.
Westbrook finished the preseason with 288 receiving yards and two touchdowns over three games. He consistently showed off his defense-stretching speed while averaging 22.2 yards per reception. The 23-year-old had a 30-plus-yard catch in each game, too.
That all came after Westbrook shined at Oklahoma, finishing sixth in the nation during the 2016 season with 1,524 receiving yards. He's positioning himself nicely to be an early contributor, and that alone is an accomplishment for any Day 3 wide receiver.
Which means Westbrook has also put himself in position to be frustrated by the wayward and wobbling passes coming from quarterback Blake Bortles.
Kansas City Chiefs: Wide Receiver Jehu Chesson
The Kansas City Chiefs are another team lacking proven depth at the wide receiver position. That problem is minimized to some degree by their run-oriented offense and the presence of Tyreek Hill, the electrifying second-year wideout who will ascend to a larger role now.
But even with Hill streaking downfield and tight end Travis Kelce doing the same, someone else still needs to a reliable third option for quarterback Alex Smith.
That someone could be Chris Conley, who has a turbo gear as well, though he's only totaled 729 receiving yards over two NFL seasons. Or it could be Albert Wilson, who's also been underwhelming with his single-season career high of 451 receiving yards.
Or instead, the Chiefs could turn to a new face by giving rookie Jehu Chesson a chance to contribute early.
A late fourth-round pick, Chesson finished his time at Michigan with 1,639 yards on 114 catches over four seasons. He also scored 12 times, with nine of those touchdowns coming in 2015, his standout season that ended with his being named first-team All-Big Ten.
His college production doesn't glow like the numbers tied to high-end receivers drafted on Day 1. But Chesson's natural athleticism catches the eye after he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds and posted a broad jump of 132 inches.
That type of explosiveness may be hard to keep off the field, especially if Wilson and/or Conley continue to struggle in a supporting role.
Los Angeles Chargers: Safety Desmond King
Some well-worn football cliches are still in wide use for a reason: Because they're true.
Without fail there's one defense that—wait for it—bends but doesn't break and gives up a whole lot of yards but few points. In 2016 that was the Kansas City Chiefs and their defense, which allowed 368.5 yards per game (24th) but only 19.4 points (seventh).
The Los Angeles Chargers, meanwhile, had a similar result, but specifically with their secondary. The Chargers gave up 249.2 passing yards per game (20th), but only 21 passing touchdowns (tied for eighth) and an opposing passer rating of 83.8 (sixth).
It was a reliable unit even without cornerback Jason Verrett for much of the year because of a torn ACL. Now the Chargers have added pieces to help take the next step, and that includes fifth-round pick Desmond King.
King was a four-year starter at safety for the Iowa Hawkeyes, piling up 33 pass breakups and 14 interceptions. He impressed throughout the preseason too, with an interception, two sacks, three passes defensed (two of which came on third down) and a third-down stop.
In the early going he'll be a quality depth piece. But if Tre Boston scuffles at all, the Chargers have a high-upside replacement waiting.
Los Angeles Rams: Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman
Nickell Robey-Coleman didn't carry the name value of A.J. Bouye or Stephon Gilmore when he was a free-agent cornerback on the open market. That tends to happen when you stand only 5'8" and are limited to a specific role.
But signing Robey-Coleman was an underrated move by the Los Angeles Rams because of that role and how well he plays the slot corner position.
He's still only 25 years old while entering his fifth NFL season. During that time, Robey-Coleman has quietly established himself as one of the league's best at making life miserable for shifty slot receivers. In 2016, he allowed a passer rating of just 74.9 from the slot, per PFF, which was second behind only the Broncos' Chris Harris.
Over four seasons with the Bills, he also recorded 28 passes defensed. He was a sneaky weapon as a blitzer and has five career sacks. Now he won't be in the Buffalo shadows any longer as the bright lights of Los Angeles await.
Miami Dolphins: Middle Linebacker Mike Hull
The Miami Dolphins suddenly have a dark swirling hole where their linebacker depth chart should be after the season-ending injury to Raekwon McMillan.
The second-round pick was supposed to anchor the Dolphins' front seven and solidify a run defense that was carved up every week in 2016 while giving up an average of 140.4 rushing yards per game. Now McMillan's rookie season is over before it began, as he's out for the year with a torn ACL.
McMillan was a ball-swarming menace at Ohio State and finished with 221 tackles over his final two seasons with the Buckeyes. It'll take more than one linebacker to replace the run-stopping production he was likely to bring.
The Dolphins signed veteran Rey Maualuga, and he'll take on most of the early-down work. But Maualuga is aging and slowing at 30 years old, and he will need support. That's where fellow linebacker Mike Hull comes in.
Hull was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He's played sparingly over his first two seasons, seeing the field for only 131 snaps. But a sparkling college career highlighted by 138 tackles in 2014—including 10.5 for a loss and two sacks—still isn't far in the rear view.
Minnesota Vikings: Defensive Tackle Jaleel Johnson
The most lethal draft strategy can be when a front office takes an existing strength and adds to it. That's what the Minnesota Vikings did by calling Jaleel Johnson's name on Day 3.
Minnesota's defense already had two great pass-rushers in Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison, and they added a fourth-round pick with high developmental potential. That's Johnson after his 7.5 sacks for Iowa in 2016 along with 56 tackles, 10 of which went for a loss. Johnson also ranked sixth in the nation with 43 pressures, per PFF.
The 23-year-old could contribute in a limited rotational role as a rookie. In the preseason, he showed his ability to collapse the pocket from the interior while also erecting a wall against the run. He finished August with one sack and 12 tackles.
He'll add another scary element to a pass rush that ended 2016 with 41 sacks (fifth).
New England Patriots: Linebacker Elandon Roberts
It feels like no team rolls with the robotic next man up philosophy more than the New England Patriots, the NFL's juggernaut that just keeps winning.
That applies most recently to Julian Edelman's season-ending injury, which is a blow the Patriots can sustain because of their wide receiver depth. And they should be just fine after linebacker Shea McClellin went down, too.
McClellin was placed on injured reserve with an undisclosed injury. That left a void at outside linebacker after he played 36.4 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps in 2016. It's a hole that Elandon Roberts should be able to cover up without much issue.
Roberts was a sixth-round pick in 2016, and the ultimate statement on his effectiveness is simply how much a Day 3 selection played as a rookie. Head coach Bill Belichick trusted Roberts to play 271 defensive snaps, most of which came during critical late-season games. Roberts responded with 45 tackles even though he started only five games (and played 13 total). It was a first year highlighted by his 11-tackle performance in Week 16 against the New York Jets.
His quick emergence played a role in the Patriots' willingness to trade Jamie Collins in the middle of a championship season. That's how much Belichick trusted his late-round rookie who had at least one run stop in every game he played in 2016, per PFF.
New Orleans Saints: Linebacker A.J. Klein
Linebacker A.J. Klein has spent time with the Carolina Panthers learning behind one of the best tandems at his position. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis can do whatever is asked of them, whether that's being punishing tacklers or swatting away balls in coverage.
The New Orleans Saints desperately needed a linebacker to anchor their defense who approaches the game with a similar anger and ferocity. They may have found it in Klein, who was signed as a free agent after replacing an injured Kuechly for much of the 2016 season.
"He's brought a lot of the things that we were looking for, so that's exciting," Saints head coach Sean Payton told ESPN.com's Mike Triplett in late August. "I think one of the elements is being smart and trying to acquire as many guys that understand the game and can diagnose and solve problems. The mental errors and missed assignments, those things will get you beat. It's an area that we've struggled with, quite honestly, in the past."
Klein's experience and the development time he had for four years in Carolina will help in those areas. His vision and instincts as a run defender led to 31 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2016, both fine totals considering Klein played a modest 350 snaps and started just seven games.
He'll now look to apply his nastiness to a larger role and improve a defense that was pummeled weekly in 2016, allowing 375.4 yards per game.
New York Giants: Running Back Orleans Darkwa
The New York Giants spent an offseason putting the pieces in place to squeeze every last bit of production from quarterback Eli Manning's fading arm. They did that first by signing wide receiver Brandon Marshall and then by using their 23rd overall pick to secure the services of tight end Evan Engram.
But that meant not doing much to address a backfield that averaged only 88.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Which in turn means running back Orleans Darkwa is about to get an elevated role.
Darkwa is still young at the age of 25 after being an undrafted free agent in 2014. He's done enough to stay on the Giants' roster and was solid during his first career start in 2016. In a Week 4 loss to the Vikings, he finished with 48 yards on 12 carries and scored one of his two touchdowns on the season.
That touchdown total actually stands out, as does how frequently Darkwa has scored during fleeting opportunities. The 5'11", 219-pound power back has rumbled his way to four career touchdowns on only 75 carries, which is why he could be a solid secondary option on early downs as a backup to Paul Perkins.
New York Jets: Outside Linebacker Dylan Donahue
The New York Jets are about to hold one long, and likely unwatchable, 16-game audition for their 2018 roster. So anyone with youthful vigor and even a tablespoon of potential should see snaps.
Which means outside linebacker Dylan Donahue is a name to remember, and one you may be saying often soon.
Donahue is a small-school prospect who showed impressive pass-rushing potential at West Georgia. Impressive enough to be a fifth-round pick despite not playing against a high level of competition.
It's not hard to see why the Jets took the leap on Donahue. Living in the opposing backfield has a way of making scouts open their eyes wide. The 25-year-old set a Gulf South Conference single-season record with 13.5 sacks in 2016, and he also recorded 20 tackles for a loss.
Sure, he'll need time to develop and adjust in the pros after lighting up Division II offensive linemen. Which is fine, because the 2017 Jets have nothing but time in front of them—along with glaring holes to fill.
Oakland Raiders: Wide Receiver/Returner Cordarrelle Patterson
Ever since he was a first-round pick in 2013, Cordarrelle Patterson has presented a puzzle for offensive coordinators.
The riddle they've been unable to solve is this: How can his incredible speed be utilized beyond kick returns?
Patterson isn't a great route-runner. To be effective, he needs to get the ball in space. So early during his time with the Minnesota Vikings, plays would be installed with the intention of making that happen. There would be a flicker of hope every so often, but generally Patterson has fizzled as a receiver. He's four years into his career, and we're still waiting on his first season with 500-plus receiving yards.
Now after signing with the Oakland Raiders, he'll have another chance to become an effective receiver. Seth Roberts, the Raiders' No. 3 wideout in 2016, is mediocre at best, and he finished last year with only 397 receiving yards. If Patterson can be threatening enough to draw the opposing defense's attention away from Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, then he's done his job.
And if he fails, the Raiders still have one of the league's best kick returners. Patterson gives his offense the gift of quality field position often and has a 100-plus-yard kick-return touchdown in three of his four NFL seasons. He's also logged two seasons with 1,000-plus total return yards.
Philadelphia Eagles: Safety Chris Maragos
The true NFL hipsters wear customized jerseys with a player's name on the back who sees the field for only a handful of snaps every game but still manages to make his mark often. If you're thinking about ordering the jersey of a special teams ace, then Chris Maragos is your guy.
Maragos is listed as a safety for the Philadelphia Eagles. But he's quietly been a special teams stud for a while now, and that surely won't change in 2017.
The 30-year-old led the Eagles in special teams tackles in 2014, then finished second in 2015 and was again a difference-maker on kick coverage in 2016. He might not get much attention or flashy headlines. But Maragos is a name you'll hear mentioned often after a key play at a key time.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Tight End Jesse James
The tight end position isn't as prominent in the Steelers offense because of the deep stable of other talented pass-catching options elsewhere. But Jesse James has shown an ability to capitalize on whatever opportunities come his way.
He finished with 131 receiving yards over the Steelers' final two playoff games in 2016. His connection with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger grew as the season went on and peaked with his 83 receiving yards against the Chiefs in the divisional round.
James doesn't have much after-the-catch speed, which is why he's not leaned on in an offense with plenty of other options to generate yards on their own. But at 6'7", he's an appealing red-zone target with a wide catch radius.
San Francisco 49ers: Fullback Kyle Juszczyk
Getting more than nothing from a fullback as a pass-catcher always feels like a rare find on an archaeological dig. That's why Kyle Juszczyk is well worth the $9.75 million in guaranteed money he received from the San Francisco 49ers during free agency.
Juszczyk is a reliable lead blocker, which is the main part of his job description. But during an era when his position has become endangered, the 26-year-old is much more than just a bulked-up sack of bricks who runs into other large bodies. He's also a dangerous pass-catcher by fullback standards.
There's a reason Juszczyk played 115 more snaps than any other fullback in 2016, per PFF. He's able to add another element to the offense by being a weapon out of the backfield. Over the past two seasons, he's used his quality route-running skills and burst after the catch to pile up 587 yards and four receiving touchdowns.
Seattle Seahawks: Running Back Chris Cason
Remember those days when life was simpler in the Seattle Seahawks backfield?
That's when running back Marshawn Lynch was the foundation for everything the Seahawks did offensively. In fact, toward the end of his Seahawks tenure, Lynch became a consistent pass-catching option, too. In 2014, he finished with 367 receiving yards, a single-season career high, and it was his third straight season with 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage.
He's long gone now though, and in his place is some uncertainty. Will Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise be able to stay healthy? Will Eddie Lacy ever return to his early-career form and stop being a plodding mess?
As those two key questions remain unanswered for now, seventh-round rookie Chris Carson has steadily worked his way up the depth chart. The 5'11" and 218-pound runner has dazzled so much in the preseason that he's listed next to Lacy as the No. 2 running back, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times.
Carson earned the spot by blasting off throughout the preseason. He finished August with 166 yards from scrimmage, which included a 37-yard catch in Week 3.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Wide Receiver Chris Godwin
It's difficult to project how often third-round rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin will be called up in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers loaded offense. He's behind wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson in the pass-catching hierarchy, and likely also tight end Cameron Brate. He could be fighting off Adam Humphries for touches, too.
But whenever he does get an opportunity, Godwin has the body type and speed to become a defense-stretching vertical threat.
His blend of size and quickness led to separation in college, and he has the body control to snatch contested catches. In 2015, that translated to 1,101 receiving yards on 69 catches for Penn State, and in 2016, he averaged 16.6 yards per catch while scoring 11 times.
He also showcased his talent at the NFL level during his first chance to start with the first-team offense in the Buccaneers' third preseason game. That's when Godwin finished with four catches for 56 yards.
He might not explode immediately, but Godwin has the skill set to make a meaningful contribution as a rookie and grow to become another key piece in a young offense.
Tennessee Titans: Fullback Jalston Fowler
The Tennessee Titans' rushing offense soared when they finished installing the required muscle up front, climbing from 92.8 yards per game in 2015 to 136.7 in 2016. Adding running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry helped too, of course, as did the presence of steady lead blocking.
That last piece of the puzzle is still coming from fullback Jalston Fowler.
Unlike Juszczyk, Fowler is a more traditional fullback in that he seldom does more than collide with massive humans. Over two seasons, he's only received eight carries and caught six passes.
But when Fowler is called upon to block, he's often the one springing Murray or Henry on those long gallops into the open field. In 2015, PFF graded Fowler as the league's second-best fullback, and in 2016 he was part of a backfield that averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
There's always been a lack of sex appeal to the fullback position, and the continued passing-era boom is why they're a dying breed. But some still fit well into an offense and are the secret sauce for the rushing attack. That's what Fowler is for the Titans.
Washington Redskins: Wide Receiver Ryan Grant
The Washington Redskins need to replace two wide receivers who were targeted a combined 214 times in 2016.
Prized free-agent acquisition Terrelle Pryor will do his part to replace DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Jamison Crowder will too after his 847 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2016, even as the third receiving option.
The overlooked third or fourth option in the passing game is Ryan Grant. The fifth-round pick in 2014 has only reeled in 39 career receptions for 412 yards. But that hasn't stopped the Redskins coaching staff from pumping plenty of air into Grant's little-used tires.
"I'm easily Ryan Grant's biggest fan," Redskins receivers coach Ike Hilliard said, via John Keim of ESPN.com. "He's always been our best pure route-runner out of everyone, even with Pierre and DJax here. He's been a consummate pro. He says nothing and he works all the time."
Grant will get his chances in 2017 with all the departures at wide receiver and Josh Doctson still struggling through hamstring issues. Now it's a matter of seeing whether he can carry that quality practice play over into Sunday when it matters.