NFL Backups Who Could Be Starters to Begin 2018 Season

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 22, 2018

NFL Backups Who Could Be Starters to Begin 2018 Season

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    NFL teams won't release initial depth charts for another 11 weeks or so, and even those won't carry much weight. But we can probably guess who'll fill the majority of starting spots come Week 1, and a lot of third-party depth charts either make educated guesses or give priority to those with seniority. 

    The 13 players listed here weren't regular starters last season (at least at the NFL level) and will probably have to work to change that this spring and summer. Only one—Bradley McDougald—started more than half of his team's games, and that was because of an injury to a starter. Six were still in college, while the other six have yet to poke completely through. 

    But clear paths do exist for all of them to jump from backup life to the depth-chart penthouse between now and the opening weekend of the 2018 NFL regular season. So keep tabs on this baker's dozen. 

       

Green Bay Packers RB Aaron Jones

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    Those who follow the Green Bay Packers closely won't be surprised by this one, because Aaron Jones averaged a fantastic 5.5 yards per carry as a rookie in 2017. But Ty Montgomery is still the senior member of that backfield, while Jamaal Williams received a much heavier workload than Jones after being selected one round ahead of him in the 2017 draft. 

    Montgomery and Williams are still listed above Jones on plenty of online depth charts, and at the very least, the Packers will probably have a training camp battle on their hands. 

    Even if he wins that battle, Jones won't suddenly become a bell cow, especially because Montgomery and Williams are better receivers. But if potential off-field issues don't become a major problem and he can continue to produce the way he did mainly as a backup in 2017, the 23-year-old should emerge as the top dog on the Packers running back depth chart. 

Cleveland Browns WR Antonio Callaway

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    The Cleveland Browns look as though their starting receiver corps is set with Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman outside and Jarvis Landry in the slot, but there's been plenty of chatter that Coleman could be traded before playing another game in Cleveland. 

    "If someone makes the Browns a decent offer, I believe they'd trade him," wrote Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot regarding Coleman earlier this month. But Cabot actually believes that rookie fourth-round pick Antonio Callaway "has a chance to steal some of Coleman's playing time" regardless. 

    And she's not alone on that beat. Ohio.com's Nate Ulrich wrote Callaway "will receive a chance to threaten Coleman's playing time, with the 2016 first-round pick’s future with the team already in question."

    The Browns also have veterans Ricardo Louis, Jeff Janis and Rashard Higgins on the roster, but Callaway has a significantly higher ceiling than those three. 

    Off-field issues cost the Florida product his 2017 college season, which at least partly explains why he dropped to the fourth round despite looking like a potential superstar during his first two seasons in the SEC. But if Callaway can keep it together, he just might wind up in a starting role by September. 

Los Angeles Rams TE Gerald Everett

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    Second-year fourth-round pick Tyler Higbee started all 16 games at tight end for the high-powered Los Angeles Rams offense last season, but it's probably only a matter of time before 2017 second-round pick Gerald Everett leapfrogs Higbee to become quarterback Jared Goff's No. 1 option at that position. 

    "Gerald is a guy that has a lot of ability," Rams head coach Sean McVay said in March, per Myles Simmons of the team's official website. "I think it's continuing to get more comfortable playing the tight end position at the professional level. And we ask a lot of our guys, being able to play in the run and the pass game, and sometimes compete in protection, and Gerald’s a guy that I think he's going to attack the offseason the right way and we're hoping to see him continue to improve."

    Everett has the speed, athleticism and catching ability to become a superstar. And at 24, he's ready for a much larger role in the Rams offense. Don't be surprised if he gets that this summer. 

Denver Broncos TE Jake Butt

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    After starting 16 games at tight end for the Denver Broncos in 2017, Virgil Green signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency and left last year's No. 2 tight end, Jeff Heuerman, as the presumed starter entering the offseason program. 

    But keep an eye on second-year, fifth-round selection Jake Butt, who missed his entire rookie season recovering from a torn ACL but has the size and skill set to play a major role if his body can hold.

    According to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, Broncos head coach Vance Joseph told the media in February that Butt should be a "full-go for OTAs" and has "a bright future." He certainly looks like a more intriguing option than Heuerman, who seems like less of a safety valve after catching just 18 of the 38 passes thrown his way during his first two pro campaigns. 

Carolina Panthers OL Taylor Moton

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    There'll likely be a heated competition among those looking to replace departed All-Pro Carolina Panthers left guard Andrew Norwell, with veterans Amini Silatolu and Jeremiah Sirles probably leading the way because of their experience. 

    But second-year second-round pick Taylor Moton has a much higher ceiling than both of those guys. And although the Western Michigan product was drafted as a right tackle, he also played guard during his four-year starting career in the MAC. 

    Moton is bigger than Silatolu and more powerful than Sirles, and he looked great in a limited sample in relief of Norwell and regular right tackle Daryl Williams last season. Now, after his first full NFL offseason, he should be ready to jump into that left guard spot by the time the regular season gets underway. 

Indianapolis Colts DE Tyquan Lewis

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    There's a clean slate in Indianapolis as the Colts shift from Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense to the 4-3 attack being installed by new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. As a result, the Colts have moved on from veteran defensive linemen Henry Anderson and Johnathan Hankins. 

    That could result in some serious competition up front, because defensive end Jabaal Sheard and defensive tackle Al Woods look like the only surefire starters along that four-man defensive line. Seniority and experience might give Margus Hunt the edge to start opposite Sheard after the 30-year-old had the sixth-highest defensive snap count on the team last season. But versatile rookie second-round pick Tyquan Lewis has a lot more potential. 

    The Colts traded up to draft Lewis, who looks ready to make an impact immediately after serving as a four-year starter at Ohio State. He had 23 sacks during his final three years with the Buckeyes and has the size and explosion to contribute as a rookie.

    Look for the Colts to realize this summer that they're often better off with him on the field than Hunt or presumed defensive tackle starter Hassan Ridgeway. 

Cincinnati Bengals LB Carl Lawson

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    Carl Lawson started just one game as a rookie with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017, but the fourth-round pick out of Auburn led all first-year players with 8.5 sacks. So it's not surprising that the Bengals haven't been shy about their desire to use Lawson more often going forward, and it looks as though they're prepared to get creative in order to turn the 22-year-old into something more than a rotational pass-rusher. 

    "According to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, they want to rush him from different positions just to get him on the field more," wrote ESPN.com's Katherine Terrell in March. "Lawson could see more time at linebacker in base defense while rushing from the edge in nickel packages."

    Per Terrell, Lewis suggested Lawson could establish a role similar to the one linebacker Peter Boulware played while Lewis was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore at the turn of the century. 

    So Lawson might not replace one particular player between now and early September, but he might wind up in a de facto starting role by stealing snaps this year from outside linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil as well as defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. 

    Expect Johnson in particular to be in danger. The longtime starter hasn't recorded more than five sacks in a season since 2012, and new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has no allegiance to him.

Washington Redskins CB Fabian Moreau

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    The natural assumption is that Washington expects veteran Orlando Scandrick to start opposite Josh Norman at cornerback, since they're paying Scandrick $3.5 million a year. But Scandrick is 31 now, and he was ineffective, inconsistent and often injured during his last couple seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. 

    So with Kendall Fuller (definitely) and Bashaud Breeland (seemingly) gone, the top candidate to challenge Scandrick for his starting role is second-year third-round pick Fabian Moreau. 

    The UCLA product was hardly a factor as a rookie after suffering a torn pectoral in the lead-up to the draft, but prior to that, he was viewed as a potential first-round pick. He has the size and coverage skills to handle big receivers on an island outside, and he's in the right place at the right time considering the cornerback situation in D.C. 

    The key now is for the 24-year-old to stay healthy. 

Seattle Seahawks S Bradley McDougald

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    Reserve Seattle Seahawks safety Bradley McDougald intercepted four passes while starting 31 games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015 and 2016, but a lack of consistency and too many missed tackles cost him on the open market last offseason. The Seahawks brought him in as a cheap insurance policy, which paid off when star Kam Chancellor became unavailable due to a serious neck injury. 

    McDougald excelled in relief of Chancellor, particularly in coverage. He'll never be a stud like Chancellor, but he's shown time and again he's good enough to start in this league. And at 27, he might get the opportunity to start the 2018 season if Chancellor remains out. 

    The Seahawks have expressed concern about Chancellor's future, and their actions spoke as loud as those words when they signed McDougald to a fresh three-year, $14 million contract in March. They know they may have to lean on him this year even more than they did in 2017. 

Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen

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    Lastly, there are the four rookie top-10 picks at the quarterback position. Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen make up the first quartet of signal-callers in NFL history to be selected together in the top 10, but as of right now, none are penciled in as Week 1 starters. 

    Mayfield's Cleveland Browns traded for Tyrod Taylor in March. And in early May, Browns head coach Hue Jackson stated, per Scott Petrak of Browns Zone, that "Taylor is the starting quarterback of this football team," adding "that will not change."

    Darnold's New York Jets re-signed Josh McCown to a one-year, $10 million deal in March. And after the team took Darnold third overall in April, Jets head coach Todd Bowles told NJ.com's Darryl Slater that "there is no timetable" for when Darnold will take over. 

    Allen's Buffalo Bills signed AJ McCarron in March, while Rosen's Arizona Cardinals gave big money to Sam Bradford

    "We got Sam to be our starting quarterback, and I would still say that is the case," Cards head coach Steve Wilks said after the team drafted Rosen in April, per Kent Somers of AZCentral.com. "I'm very excited about Josh...[and] what he can bring. Every position is open for competition."

    That left the door open a crack, as did Bills general manager Brandon Beane when he said the following in April, according to Matthew Fairburn of NewYorkUpstate.com

    "We're not going to rush him, but you know if he somehow wins the job, he wins it. There's other players out there. There will be 52 other players out there, and if they see that he's clearly the best, I don't think we could do that. We wouldn't do that at any other position, so we'll let it go. But he's got a lot of catching up to do, that's the thing. AJ [McCarron] and Nathan [Peterman] are a long way ahead just getting in here with [offensive coordinator Brian Daboll] when the offseason conditioning program started."

    The reality is that regardless of what the brass has to say, all four have a shot at earning or backing into starting jobs during training camp and/or the preseason. Each situation will be fun to monitor, so stay tuned.