NFL1000: Players with the Most Untapped Potential
The NFL isn't always fair. Many times, potentially great players are hidden on the depth chart because their teams are stacked at their position, or the coaches have a different favorite, or the player just hasn't demonstrated enough of a particular skill to get more snaps.
There's talent and potential all around the league, and it doesn't just belong to the stars and starters. Whether it's a player who starts out on special teams and gets the coaches' notice or a guy who fills in as an injury replacement and blows everyone away, there are all kinds of ways to announce your presence with authority in the NFL when you get your chance.
Here are nine players who, for whatever reason, have not yet been given the chance to realize their full potential, though their abilities are obvious from comprehensive tape study.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills
When the Buffalo Bills hired head coach Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison for the 2017 season, the thought was that quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who had excelled in 2016 despite playing for two different offensive coordinators in two different systems, would be a point of consistency at the game's most important position.
That obviously didn't happen. Dennison threw out a lot of the option runs and run-pass option plays that had helped Taylor use his athleticism and find openings as a passer against overwhelmed defenses, and when he had a really bad game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 10, the organization couldn't wait to bench him in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman, who promptly went out and threw five picks in the first half against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Taylor deserves better than this. He's thrown 49 touchdowns to just 15 interceptions in his three seasons as the Bills' starting quarterback, and though he's far from perfect, his combination of running ability, deep accuracy and adaptability to different schemes should be something that a coaching staff would love to build on. The right coaching staff would work with Taylor on his short and intermediate accuracy, expand his palette of reads and help him to the next level.
It won't happen under this current staff, but Taylor has shown the potential to work well in a system that plays to his strengths.
Duke Johnson, RB, Cleveland Browns
Coaches should aspire to get their best players on the field as much as possible. That seems like the most obvious statement one can make, but for a host of reasons, it doesn't always happen. Coaches can become fixated on a player's perceived strengths and weaknesses, and put that player in a box despite his potential to exceed previous performance.
Running back Duke Johnson of the Cleveland Browns would seem to be in that situation. Despite the fact that he's averaging 5.3 yards per carry this season to Isaiah Crowell's 3.8 yards per carry, Johnson has just 52 carries to Crowell's 145. Each back has two touchdowns, and Johnson also leads the team in receiving with 50 catches for 446 yards and two touchdowns.
The stats would have you assuming that Crowell is the better runner, and while Crowell is talented, it's Johnson who is the more powerful player through contact, both in the running and passing games. Johnson is a shifty back when running outside zone, and he can make defenders miss up to the second and third levels. At 5'9" and 206 pounds, he won't carry defensive linemen with him downfield, but if there's even a little gap in inside zone, Johnson has the speed through the hole to exploit it.
Having a back on your team with the ability to play every down and do everything required of the position is rare. The Browns have that in Johnson, whether they choose to exploit it for all it's worth or not.
Dion Lewis, RB, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots have won their last two Super Bowls with a committee of running backs, aligning players with their most obvious positive characteristics based on the situation.
That's happening again in 2017, as the defending Super Bowl champs are splitting touches between Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, James White and Dion Lewis, the 2011 fifth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles who's been in New England's system since 2015. Lewis currently leads the team in rushing yards with 498 on just 97 carries, and when you look at his tape, it's clear that he's earned more playing time.
Lewis is a powerful runner up the middle, with the patience and sudden speed to work well on draws and delay plays. Over time, he's learned to wait for blocks to develop, and he had the nifty feet to pick and spin through traffic, using his elusive style to bounce off defenders and make consistent gains after first contact. Perhaps most importantly, Lewis' style doesn't lead to a lot of negative plays—he can be trusted to forward the ball in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Moreover, Lewis is a good receiver out of the backfield, and though the Pats acquired Burkhead to play that role for the 2017 season, Lewis is more than capable. In a stable of backs designed to do one or two things, Lewis is the one guy who might just be able to do it all if given a chance.
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
That the Tennessee Titans offense has regressed in 2017 is no longer a subject for debate. Marcus Mariota is having issues with timing, velocity and consistency, and the run game, which was a feature of head coach Mike Mularkey's "Exotic Smashmouth" offense last season, hasn't been as effective, either.
The primary reason for the downturn in the run game is the simple fact that halfback DeMarco Murray, who excelled for the team in 2016 with a 1,287-yard season, has fallen off with his ability to generate power through gaps and use his speed in the open field. At times, Murray looks to be running in slow motion, and the fact that he has 452 rushing yards this season—and has seen his yards-per-carry average drop from 4.4 to 3.5—points to the need for a successor.
The Titans already have a successor, and he's a pretty high-profile guy—Derrick Henry, the Alabama alum who was selected in the second round of the 2016 draft. It was understandable that Henry would not get the lion's share of the carries in his rookie season, given the run Murray was on, but this season, it's a bit strange that Murray has 129 carries to Henry's 114 when Henry has more rushing yards and a higher yards-per-carry average—4.6 to Murray's 3.5.
Henry is a power runner with a bit of a boom-and-bust style—at this point in his career, he'll alternate short gains with the occasional explosive play. But he's so much more effective than Murray right now, and he fits the offense so well, it's a mystery why he isn't getting more chances to prove his worth.
Alex Erickson, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Andy Dalton hasn't thrown an interception in any of his last five games, an impressive statistic which becomes a bit less so when you look at the nature of the Cincinnati Bengals offense right now. Outside of the occasional deep throw to A.J. Green, this isn't a big-play offense, and Dalton's efficiency looks better on paper than it does on the field.
There are more possibilities for big plays in the passing game, and receiver Alex Erickson, a second-year undrafted free agent from Wisconsin, has shown that when he's targeted, he can make things happen downfield. He's only caught 10 passes for 160 yards this season—the Bengals use him primarily as a return man—but his one touchdown against the Denver Broncos in Week 11 showed what he could be as a receiver over time.
Erickson motioned from a trips right formation to a stack on the left, taking cornerback Bradley Roby with him and helping Dalton discern the coverage. At the snap, Erickson just blew right by Roby on a straight vertical route—Roby didn't even have time to turn and run before Erickson was past him—and brought the ball in for a 29-yard score.
Erickson isn't just a speed-burner, either. He can run a full complement of routes, he's especially effective at getting open in the slot, and he knows how to exploit areas in coverage. The Bengals should make him more of a factor in an offense that is in need of more explosive plays.
Brice Butler, WR, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys offense has regressed mightily in the wake of Ezekiel Elliott's suspension. The offensive line isn't pass-blocking as well as it has in the past, and quarterback Dak Prescott is struggling with the increased responsibility of an unbalanced offense. Big plays would help, but they've been in short supply of late.
Brice Butler, a seventh-round pick of the Oakland Raiders who has been on the Cowboys roster since 2015, has shown the ability to get open on deep routes, but he's been a bit player to date. This season, he's caught 13 passes on 20 targets for 267 yards—a 20.5 yards-per-catch average—and two touchdowns.
As an outside receiver, Butler isn't an outstanding route-runner, but he knows how to bend the edge in one-on-one matchups and use his speed to drive past cornerbacks and present himself as open. Through October 24, per Pro Football Focus' John Owning, Butler was responsible for the highest quarterback rating in the NFL among receivers with at least 10 targets.
As an adjunct deep threat to a fully functional passing offense, Butler could be even more of an asset to a team that needs to manufacture big offensive plays in any way possible these days.
Anthony Lanier II, DL, Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins picked up defensive lineman Anthony Lanier II as an undrafted free agent out of Alabama A&M in 2016 and liked him enough to keep him on the 53-man roster all season despite the fact that he played in just four games. He suffered a leg injury late in the season but impressed the coaching staff enough for a potentially increased role in 2017.
At 6'6" and 286 pounds, Lanier has the upper-body strength to deal with centers and guards as a nose tackle and the speed to shoot gaps as a 5-technique end in Washington's three-man fronts. He can throw offensive linemen aside with quick rip moves, and he has the speed to bend the edge. Lanier's most effective move is his inside counter—once he finds a gap and turns inside, he's great at rushing through to the pocket and creating disruption.
Add in his potential as a run-stopper, and the Redskins found themselves a steal in Lanier as a rotational lineman and quite possibly a starter down the stretch. He appears to have every attribute needed for success.
Tom Johnson, DT, Minnesota Vikings
Tom Johnson has been a rotational presence for the Minnesota Vikings' outstanding defensive line for a number of years—he signed with Minnesota in 2014 after seeing very little action with the Saints over a three-year period.
The Southern Miss alum immediately became one of the best sub-package pass-rushing tackles in the NFL, amassing 6.5 sacks in 2014 and 5.5 sacks in 2015 despite starting just 10 games over those two seasons. He didn't start a single game for the Vikings in 2016 and still racked up two sacks, and he's already matched that total in 2017.
What those stats don't tell you is that Johnson is also a great run-stopper, and he could very well be a full-time starter on several 4-3 defenses that weren't so stacked from front to back.
When Johnson lines up as a 1-tech nose tackle, he effortlessly takes on double-teams and can split them with hand movement, shift through to take down a ball-carrier or sneak into the pocket. He has a formidable bull rush, which he'll use without hesitation when he's single-teamed, and when he aligns as a 3-tech tackle, he gets off the ball very quickly and uses his upper body to move past guards to start harassing quarterbacks.
At 6'3" and 288 pounds, Johnson has the power of a good interior defender and the speed of a 3-4 end. Given his ability to move from gap to gap, it's possible that he'd fit well in any scheme.
Because Minnesota's defense is so deep at every position, Johnson has remained one of the NFL's best-kept secrets. But the tape doesn't lie—he's a very valuable asset to his team, and he has the capacity to do even more.
Jonathan Jones, CB, New England Patriots
Over the first month of the 2017 season, the New England pass defense performed far below expectations, as star free-agent acquisition Stephon Gilmore struggled to adapt to the schemes put forth by head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. The Pats have seen a major turnaround since then, though—they've given up a league-low 92 points over their last seven games, per Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit, and the coverage has improved exponentially.
Gilmore hasn't been the biggest reason for that, though he has played better after missing three games with concussion symptoms. The unheralded star of this defensive turnaround has been Jonathan Jones, a second-year undrafted free agent from Auburn who was tagged to replace Logan Ryan as the team's primary slot cornerback in 2017 and has done a lot more than that.
Per Pro Football Focus' Nathan Jahnke, only the Jacksonville Jaguars' A.J. Bouye and Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson have allowed a lower catch rate outside of press coverage than Jones' 46.4 percent. He has just one interception on the season, but as we know, successful cornerbacks are about far more than their interception totals.
When you watch Jones' tape, it's clear that he's an outstanding slot defender because he trails receivers so well on quick slants and drags; he's not prone to giving up yards after the catch. He's a tenacious tackler, which helps him in the run game, and he had a sack in New England's win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday on a cornerback blitz.
Belichick values those players who know their roles and can expand their palettes. It's clear that Jones is just such a player, and you can expect his role to increase over time.