NFL Backups Who Could End Up as Starters by End of 2017
Expanded NFL rosters are practically set as the 2017 season unofficially gets underway with organized team activities, but there's still plenty of room for all 32 depth charts to solidify themselves. Even when teams release initial depth charts this summer, there'll be plenty of room for pecking orders to evolve.
Starters will lose their jobs in August, September, October, November and December. Some of them will be cut or traded. Others, unfortunately, will suffer injuries. And many will be dethroned by surging backups.
Here's a look at 10 players in particular who appear as though they're backups right now but should have strong opportunities for promotions before 2017 has expired.
Texans QB Deshaun Watson
It's only a matter of time, right? The Houston Texans are saying Tom Savage is their starting quarterback right now, but that might just be a smart attempt to take some pressure off first-round rookie Deshaun Watson.
The Texans allowed relatively unproven free-agent acquisition Brock Osweiler to become king of Houston last offseason, and that backfired when he fell on his face after expectations had skyrocketed. Now, they're letting Watson walk before forcing him to run.
"I don't know if people believe us," Texans general manager Rick Smith said soon after drafting Watson 12th overall in Philadelphia, per ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop, "but we're comfortable with Tom Savage as our quarterback."
But a team doesn't give up two first-round picks for a quarterback and then have him hold a tablet on the sideline for his entire rookie season. That's especially the case in Houston, where the Texans are in win-now mode with a defense that ranked No. 1 in football in 2016 and will get three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt back in 2017.
Savage has a career 74.9 passer rating and zero touchdown passes on 92 attempts. He's a 27-year-old fourth-round pick who was projected to be a career backup coming into this league and hasn't done anything to change that in three years.
He'll eventually struggle in 2017, at which point the desperate Texans will be forced to go to Watson.
Raiders RB DeAndre Washington
Nobody expects freshly unretired running back Marshawn Lynch to be the only guy to carry the ball all season long for the Oakland Raiders, but Lynch is a local hero with a heck of a resume and the highest salary among Raiders running backs. So as the Raiders enter spring and summer work, he should probably be viewed as the top dog in that backfield.
But the reality is Lynch is 31, which makes him a dinosaur at that position, and he hasn't been effective since 2014. He averaged just 3.8 yards per carry while dealing with hamstring and groin injuries with the Seattle Seahawks in 2015, hitting the 75-yard mark just once in seven regular-season and playoff starts.
And then he retired.
It's tough to tell how much gas Lynch will have in the tank now, even after refueling during his season away. Father Time is undefeated, and the Raiders have two high-quality options behind Lynch in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard.
It wouldn't be surprising to see either player take the reins in the Oakland backfield. They're both young—Washington is 24 years old, and Richard is turning 24 in October—and coming off exceptional rookie campaigns behind departed starter Latavius Murray. In fact, they were better than Murray, with Richard averaging 5.9 yards per carry, Washington averaging 5.4 and Murray averaging just 4.0.
Both are small at 5'8", and they have similar skill sets. So if Lynch doesn't hold up, they could wind up essentially battling rather than platooning. Washington gets a small edge because he put up bigger numbers in college, he started two games last season (Richard started zero) and he was drafted in the fifth round (Richard went undrafted).
But the key takeaway is Lynch could become an afterthought if either Washington or Richard can pick up where he left off in 2016.
Packers RB Jamaal Williams
Drafted in the third round as a wide receiver just two years ago, Ty Montgomery is now the Green Bay Packers' starting running back. Head coach Mike McCarthy said so following the draft, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. To emphasize the point, Green Bay released veteran backs Don Jackson and Christine Michael soon after said draft, leaving Montgomery as the only back with NFL experience on the roster.
The Packers did, however, select a trio of running backs on Day 3 of the draft before signing two more as undrafted free agents.
Those who emerge from that group to make the 53-man roster will have opportunities to cut into Montgomery's carries. It's possible one of them could supplant the 24-year-old as the No. 1 guy in that backfield.
After all, Montgomery has carried the ball 12-plus times in only one game as a pro running back. He did pick up 162 yards on 16 attempts versus the Chicago Bears in Week 15 last campaign, but he followed that up by averaging only 3.9 yards per attempt in the final two games of the regular season before picking up just 91 yards on 25 carries (for a 3.6 average) in the playoffs.
Montgomery's overall numbers were strong, but he was either really good or MIA. That came while he was benefiting from the element of surprise. He doesn't have that anymore, and several hungry, young backs will be giving chase.
Jamaal Williams, the first of those three Saturday selections at No. 134 overall, is the one who stands out most. The fourth-rounder out of Brigham Young did big things in college, so he is probably more physically and mentally polished than most rookies.
He averaged 5.7 yards per attempt while putting up 1,233 rushing yards as a sophomore in 2013. He tore his ACL in 2014 and was forced to withdraw from the school in 2015 after violating its honor code—he had a woman in his room, he later told NFL personnel executives, according to Jason Wilde for the Wisconsin State Journal. He bounced back to average 5.9 yards per attempt while posting 1,375 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior in 2016.
At 6'0", 212 pounds, Williams is a big, powerful, decisive runner—sort of like Eddie Lacy. At 22, he might be ready to play a large role right off the bat.
Eventually, it might even be larger than Montgomery's.
Seahawks WR Paul Richardson
For the last three years, it's been a given that Jermaine Kearse is a starting wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. But Kearse performed quite terribly in two of those three seasons, catching just 59.4 percent of passes thrown his way while scoring just one touchdown in 2014. In 2016, he caught only 53.9 percent of targets while scoring one touchdown again.
Among 63 wide receivers who were targeted at least 75 times last season, that was the fifth-worst reception rate in the league. Throw in that Kearse also led the NFL in offensive pass-interference penalties, and it's safe to assume the 27-year-old is entering 2017 on a short leash.
With Kearse potentially on thin ice and active No. 3 receiver Tyler Lockett recovering from a broken leg, 2014 second-round pick Paul Richardson could finally have a chance to jump into a starting role in an offense that often uses three receivers as a base.
Richardson was pretty solid playing behind Kearse and Doug Baldwin as a rookie, but a torn ACL in the playoffs that season cost him virtually his entire second campaign. When he was finally healthy early in 2016, Lockett had emerged.
But Lockett went down with his leg injury in Week 16, and from that point forward Richardson caught 71.4 percent of the 21 passes thrown his way for 213 yards while scoring a pair of touchdowns in four regular-season and playoff games.
During the same stretch, Kearse caught nine of 22 passes thrown his way for 104 yards while scoring just once.
It might not be long before those two swap spots on the wide receiver hierarchy in Seattle.
Giants OL D.J. Fluker
It's not as though I believe freshly acquired New York Giants offensive lineman D.J. Fluker is too good to be left on the sideline. The 2013 No. 11 overall pick has been somewhat of a bust in the NFL. He couldn't cut it as a tackle or a guard in San Diego, and the Chargers released him in March after he posted negative grades from Pro Football Focus in four consecutive seasons.
But the Giants obviously see something in the 26-year-old Alabama product because they gave him a deal worth up to $3 million and didn't draft a single offensive lineman before Round 6.
That is despite the fact 2015 No. 9 overall pick Ereck Flowers surrendered more quarterback pressures than any other left tackle in the NFL in 2016. PFF graded him as the worst offensive tackle in football as a rookie. Also, PFF graded 2015 seventh-rounder Bobby Hart, the Giants' other OT, as the fourth-worst pass-blocker among 76 qualified players at that position last season.
It's unlikely both Flowers and Hart will wake up and become good NFL players in 2017, and the win-now Giants don't have the luxury of being able to wait too much longer for that to happen.
If or when they find it necessary to make a change at either tackle spot, they could decide to move 2013 first-round pick and solid all-around O-lineman Justin Pugh to one of them. But if Fluker isn't next in line to replace Flowers or Hart, he'll almost certainly be the top candidate to fill the guard vacancy Pugh left behind.
Point being, it'd be a shock if he didn't wind up becoming a regular starter sometime in 2017.
Bengals DE Jordan Willis
In his last three seasons as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals (2013, 2015, 2016), defensive end Michael Johnson has just 12 sacks in 47 games, 46 of which he started. Only 3.5 of those sacks came last season, despite the fact Johnson made 16 starts. He forced zero fumbles, and PFF graded him as the worst pass-rusher among 53 qualified 4-3 defensive ends leaguewide.
Johnson is a good run defender, and his $3.6 million base salary in 2017 might give him rope as a starter in Cincy. But he's on the wrong side of 30 now, and the Bengals can't afford to continue getting next to no pass-rushing help from an every-down edge defender.
It just so happens they got great value for Kansas State pass-rushing stud Jordan Willis in the third round of April's draft.
Willis registered 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss as a senior in the Big 12 last season. He has the motor and the pedigree, and he played more snaps than all but eight defensive linemen in the country in 2016.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. thinks Willis will "join the rotation immediately." Don't be surprised if he eventually overtakes Johnson and if that happens before the 2017 regular season has come to an end.
Titans DT Austin Johnson
The Tennessee Titans signed 2013 Denver Broncos first-round pick and three-year starter Sylvester Williams to a three-year, $17.5 million deal in March. With that pedigree and that contract, the Super Bowl champion nose tackle is kicking off spring and summer work as a starter.
But Williams could soon be challenged by 2016 second-round pick Austin Johnson, who had a few strong performances in relief of the now-departed Al Woods as a rookie.
See, Williams can wreak havoc, but he has struggled in run defense. Pro Football Focus ranked him 68th in that discipline among 73 qualified 4-3 defensive tackles last season.
Meanwhile, as PFF noted, Johnson "ranked third among the nation's interior defensive linemen against the run at plus-36.9 in 2015 after finishing 33rd in 2014 at plus-16.8." The Penn State product also posted a positive grade in run defense in limited action last season in Tennessee.
The Titans might end up viewing Williams as too much of a liability. If/when that happens, Johnson should start receiving the lion's share of the snaps in that spot.
Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith is a 2016 second-round pick with first-round talent—and more of it than penciled-in starters Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson.
Smith slid into Round 2 last year for a reason—the Notre Dame product had to sit out his entire rookie season because of a knee injury and the resultant nerve damage. But it appears he's making major progress this offseason.
Earlier this month, the Notre Dame product said he expects to play in the Sept. 10 season opener against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium, per Nick Eatman of the team's official website. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stated before the start of OTAs that there's an offseason plan in place.
"Jaylon will be practicing," Jones said, per Eatman. "What we want to do is keep him fresh. We'll probably alternate days with him. When we get to those OTAs, you'll probably see him every other day."
Sure enough, Smith went through his first practice as a member of the Cowboys last Tuesday, according to All 22's Tyler Dragon.
If he can continue to make progress—Jones noted last month "doctors are very encouraged" that Smith is "getting feeling in his toes," per Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News—then he'll eventually get a shot to play a variety of roles within that linebacker corps.
Pro Bowler Sean Lee is locked in at one spot, but the other two are up for grabs. PFF graded Hitchens 80th among 88 qualified linebackers in run defense last season, and the three-year veteran was even worse in 2015. Wilson—a one-dimensional fourth-round pick from 2015—is probably better suited as a backup.
So long as he remains healthy, Smith should steal one of those spots.
Chiefs CB Terrance Mitchell
Top Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters is one of the top defensive playmakers in the game, and starting opposite a ball hawk like that is never easy.
2014 third-round pick Phillip Gaines had a shot at that role at the start of last season, but injuries and ineffectiveness cost him his starting job. 2015 third-round pick Steven Nelson moved outside after beginning the season in the slot, but he was inconsistent while earning a negative PFF grade in his first season as a starter.
Both should watch out for Terrance Mitchell this year.
The Oregon product seemingly came out of nowhere to play a huge role for the Chiefs late last season, holding opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of 42.9 and a passer rating of 55.5 in six games he was thrown at (including the playoffs). It's a small sample, but Mitchell was targeted 35 times opposite Peters during that stretch, and he surrendered just 4.3 yards per target while allowing zero touchdowns.
"He did a great, great job for us late at the end of the season, filling in," veteran safety Ron Parker said of Mitchell, per Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star. "Whatever came his way, he handled it. ... It's hard for guys to get open on him."
The Cowboys selected Mitchell in the seventh round in 2014 before he failed to catch on with the Bears and Texans, but it seems he has finally found an NFL home. The next step might be to steal a starting gig.
49ers S Jaquiski Tartt
Two questions about San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid as the 2013 first-round pick prepares for the final year of his rookie contract:
1. Is he healthy?
2. Is he good enough to keep starting, let alone earn another big contract?
The former LSU standout tore his right biceps in November, but he was struggling before that. He hasn't posted a positive PFF grade since he was a rookie. He's a question mark, and incumbent starting strong safety Antoine Bethea is gone. So even with versatile cornerback Jimmie Ward potentially sliding over to the free safety spot, there'll likely be an opportunity for 2015 second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt to seize a starting role.
The Samford product is big (6'1", 221 lbs), physical and athletically gifted, and he performed decently in relief of the injured Reid late last season. Both of those guys will probably move inside the box more frequently in 2017, which could favor the slightly larger and more aggressive Tartt.
Reid has more experience and a better pedigree, so he'll get the first chance to start. But it wouldn't be a surprise to see that become a competition before camp starts this summer.
A Note on Honorable Mentions
The exclusion of your favorite player or certain players you had in mind doesn't mean they couldn't join this group. I highlighted these 10 guys, but dozens of so-called backups will see their roles increase in 2017.
A notable omission on offense is Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, who might enter the year listed behind Jeremy Maclin and Chris Conley on Kansas City's wide receiver depth chart. But we all know he's a more dangerous weapon than either, and he should play a major role as a third receiver and a return man anyway.
On the other side of the ball, Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson might be jockeying for position behind presumed starters Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph, and there's a good chance Johnson—who is much younger at 24 and arguably better than Jackson and Joseph—could wind up in the top role A.J. Bouye left behind. But Johnson started the majority of his rookie season with the Texans in 2015, so it's not as though it would be an out-of-nowhere ascension.
There are also oodles of rookie candidates—Carolina's Christian McCaffrey; Cincinnati's John Ross and Joe Mixon; Philadelphia's Derek Barnett; Miami's Charles Harris; Atlanta's Takkarist McKinley; San Francisco's Reuben Foster; and Arizona's Budda Baker, to name a few. But most of those guys are no-brainers who aren't meant to be backups anyway. Watson was included as the only first-round quarterback who could take over, and Williams and Willis are here as middle-draft semi-surprises. But this was mainly about guys with NFL experience.
The theme, though, is a lot will change between now and when the regular season concludes Dec. 31. So don't get too stressed about your team's depth chart in May.
Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.