NFL Backups Who Deserve More Playing Time
Produce or move aside.
Draft-pick status, contractual obligations, experience and preseason roster projections only keep individuals in the lineup for so long if they're not performing well.
Eventually, another player will earn more reps based on his level of play if a starter isn't living up to expectations.
This is exactly how Kirk Cousins became the NFL's highest-paid quarterback (at least for a short while). The Washington Redskins chose a pair of quarterbacks in the 2012 NFL draft. Robert Griffin III went on to become the NFL Rookie of the Year and dazzled onlookers with his combination of athleticism and arm talent. Injuries and regression eventually set in and paved the way for Cousins to become Washington's starter. As RG3 faded from the limelight, Cousins threw for over 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons before becoming a high-profile free agent.
There are always those deserving of an opportunity with the potential to explode.
Organizations shouldn't hold these individuals back for whatever reason even though they continue to do so. The following 10 players are in a position to contribute and deserve far more playing time.
QB Kyle Lauletta, New York Giants
The New York Giants seem to be the only ones incapable of seeing the inevitable end of Eli Manning's career. Instead, the organization stubbornly believes he's not the problem.
"I know he's the punching bag right now," Giants co-owner John Mara told reporters at the NFL owners meetings Tuesday. "But a lot of guys need to play better when you're 1-5."
Yes, the offensive line is a disaster, the team's top playmaker makes more news with what he says than his on-field performance and the new coaching staff doesn't seem to be handling the transition well. All of this can be true while Manning's decline ensues.
In a league now geared toward quarterback success, Manning ranks 23rd in yards per attempt (7.23) with a three-to-two touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The next step is obvious: finding the right time to start rookie quarterback Kyle Lauletta, even though head coach Pat Shurmur doesn't want to talk about a quarterback change yet.
"I guess because he's not active on game day, naturally it feels like he's third," Shurmur said of Lauletta, per the New York Post's Paul Schwartz. "But during the week he gets as many reps as Alex [Tanney]."
The Giants' future is on the line. Manning is done. Lauletta, whom the team selected in this year's fourth round, needs to play before a crucial decision can be made next offseason.
RB Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns are loaded at running back, yet Carlos Hyde continues to receive the lion's share of carries this season.
The fact Hyde gets more opportunities in the running game as opposed to the electric Duke Johnson isn't surprising, since Johnson is more of a threat in the passing game. However, second-round rookie Nick Chubb has been criminally underutilized despite excelling each time he touches the football.
Hyde ranks third overall with 114 carries so far this season. Yet, his 3.4 yards per carry are fifth-worst among running backs with 50 or more carries this season.
Chubb, meanwhile, is averaging 10.8 yards per carry on his 16 attempts.
"We need to get more [carries]," head coach Hue Jackson admitted, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. "There's nothing else to say. We need to get him more chances, but sometimes the game changes, you get behind and you need Duke Johnson out there because that's what he does well—catch the ball and run it."
First-year running backs tend to struggle in the passing game, especially with blitz recognition and pickup. Plus, Johnson is one of the game's best third-down backs.
But there's no excuse for an explosive runner like Chubb not to be on the field far more when Hyde is the plodding alternative.
WR Curtis Samuel, Carolina Panthers
Curtis Samuel is a big play waiting to happen. The Carolina Panthers must devise ways to get him the ball, though. Otherwise, he's simply another misused target.
In two games since Samuel returned from a medical illness, the offensive weapon has two receptions for 37 yards, including an electric 25-yard touchdown against the New York Giants. The 22-year-old receiver needed some time to adjust after being out of the lineup for the first three weeks.
"As far as Curtis was concerned, he got winded a couple of times," head coach Ron Rivera said, per the Riot Report's Josh Klein. "You could see it—he hadn't been able to do anything for three weeks or four weeks or however long it was."
The solution isn't to scale everything back and barely play Samuel, like the Panthers did the following week against the Washington Redskins. He didn't get a single offensive touch during Sunday's contest even after receiving an endorsement from coordinator Norv Turner.
"We're trying to put him in a position where he can use his ability," Turner said, per Max Henson of the team's official site. "... We just have to continue to work to get him comfortable with more and more things so he can get the ball in space and do his deal."
Samuel has the speed and flexibility to create chunk plays in the passing and ground games, but he needs more touches for that to actually occur.
TE Rico Gathers, Dallas Cowboys
Every offseason, all 32 teams search far and wide for the next Antonio Gates.
The basketball-player-turned-tight-end exploration has almost become cliche, since the practice is so widespread. After all, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham played collegiate basketball. The difference is Gonzalez and Graham played football before being drafted. Gates didn't. Neither did Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers.
The Cowboys selected Gathers in the sixth round of the 2016 draft. He spent the past two seasons trying to acclimate himself to the game and learn from the now-retired Jason Witten.
Slowly but surely, the Cowboys are incorporating the 6'6", 285-pound target with 4.75-second 40-yard-dash speed into the offense to positive effects. Gathers caught two passes for 46 yards the past two weeks. It's not much, but his usage provided a glimpse into what he can become within the offense.
Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin are reliable options, but neither adds much as pass-catchers. Today's NFL is about mismatches. Gathers' physical tools make him a big play waiting to happen—whether he's working down the seam, the red zone or after the catch.
Dallas' offense finally appears to be getting on track with quarterback Dak Prescott leading the way. Gathers can bring a completely different dynamic if the coaching staff is willing to feature him throughout the rest of the season.
RT Orlando Brown Jr., Baltimore Ravens
Rookie Orlando Brown Jr. spent the majority of preseason at right tackle with the Baltimore Ravens' first-team offense. James Hurst, meanwhile, played right guard for the injured Marshal Yanda. Once Baltimore's medical staff cleared Yanda to play, the coaching staff immediately named Hurst the starting right tackle because of his previous experience.
It may not have been the right move despite the organization's four-year, $17.5 million investment in the 26-year-old blocker.
Hurst has been inconsistent on the strong side, while Brown has performed well in limited opportunities.
"Everyone in the locker room wants to play," Hurst said, per Penn Live's Aaron Kasinitz. "Not everyone in the locker room can or will play. Even though two plays isn't a lot, it's more than zero. [Brown's] excited to get in, he's been doing a good job with it, just getting in with high energy and executing his assignment well."
Brown doesn't have to outright replace Hurst at right tackle. Another option exists. The Ravens could move the veteran to left guard and unseat Alex Lewis, who may miss time due to a pinched nerve in his neck, according to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley.
Shuffling an offensive line midseason is difficult, but the goal remains the same: Put the best five blockers on the field.
"The coaching staff knows where I'm at as far as playing, and I'm just trusting them and their decisions," Brown said.
LG James Daniels, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears held a left-guard competition during the preseason. Veteran Eric Kush won the job over this year's 39th overall pick, James Daniels.
As the regular season progressed, the Bears coaching staff chose to rotate the two. Everything is already leaning toward Daniels taking over the spot permanently. It's just a matter of time for the 21-year-old rookie.
Kush has even helped the transition.
"Before I was going out," Daniels said, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Potash, "he was telling me, 'Make sure you do this. Make sure you do that.' So he's coaching me. Then, when I came to the sideline, he's telling me stuff like, 'You could have done this better. Did you see that? You did this good.' He's coaching me just how anyone else would coach me. He always helps me. I really appreciate that."
Every team needs a player like Kush, who can start at and back up multiple positions. His experience will continue to help Daniels once he's rewarded with a full-time starting role.
Daniels, who played center for the Iowa Hawkeyes, is extremely athletic. His injection into the lineup has made the Bears more effective overall because he's far more mobile, whereas Kush is better working in small spaces.
Experience is one thing; raw talent and potential are another. Daniels holds a massive edge in the latter.
DT Sheldon Day, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers chose defensive linemen with three straight first-round picks from 2015-17. All three are still on the team. At one point during Monday's contest against the Green Bay Packers, only one of them was on the field chasing quarterback Aaron Rodgers during a third-down play.
The fact the coaching staff can't seem to find proper roles to suit Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead's skill sets is disconcerting. Instead, Sheldon Day lined up alongside DeForest Buckner during the aforementioned play.
Day played the second-most snaps of any 49ers defensive lineman Monday, according to The Athletic's Matt Barrows. It was his highest usage rate of the season. The trend should continue since he's far more effective as a disruptive pass-rusher with his ability to collapse the pocket.
Even with limited opportunities, Day is second on the team with a pair of sacks. Although, fitting the 2016 fourth-round pick into the rotation becomes problematic.
Day is a natural 3-technique, a role which is currently occupied by the team's best defensive player (Buckner). Thomas would be better served with more work along the interior. Somewhere, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina must make concessions. Either they continue to provide former top picks with ample opportunities or overlook those investments and place their best combination on the field.
LB Deone Bucannon, Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals coaching staff has no idea how to utilize Deone Bucannon's unique skill set, and the one-time starter is now languishing on the bench.
Sometimes, a system change doesn't work to a team's advantage. Statistically, the Cardinals are surrendering 83.4 more yards per game this season under defensive-minded head coach Steve Wilks than last year. While this is certainly concerning, the bigger issue is the coaching staff's inability to adjust to talent already on the roster.
Instead, the Cardinals are willing to move two former first-round picks, Bucannon and Haason Reddick, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora.
Reddick seemed to find his footing the last two weeks as a starter. Bucannon, on the other hand, doesn't appear to be a fit.
Arizona chose Bucannon in the first round of the 2014 draft and immediately converted him from safety to its newly minted money backer in a 3-4 base scheme. The 211-pound defender can't find a home in Wilks' more traditional 4-3 front, despite being a four-year starter.
The defensive staff could find ways to incorporate Bucannon into certain sub-packages and utilize his athleticism to their advantage. That's not the case, as he's barely played the last two contests.
The Cardinals can let the situation fester or integrate one of their most experienced defenders into the rotation, if he's not traded, that is.
LB Harold Landry, Tennessee Titans
The table is set for Tennessee Titans rookie outside linebacker Harold Landry to explode onto the scene after Derrick Morgan suffered a shoulder injury Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, according to ESPN.com's Turron Davenport.
Landry is the logical replacement after working in a rotational role to start the season.
This year's second-round pick already showed why some considered him a first-round talent during his time with the Boston College Eagles. Landry is extremely quick off the snap with tremendous flexibility as an edge-rusher. He's, by far, the team's most naturally gifted pass-rusher.
With Morgan expected to miss a few weeks, Landry must continue his development as a complete edge-defender.
So far, the rookie has been at his best when he can pin his ears back and get after opposing quarterbacks. However, questions lingered throughout the predraft process whether the 252-pound prospect could consistently hold the point of attack and set the edge.
"I just feel like [head coach Mike Vrabel] has high expectations for me and I have high expectations for myself," Landry said in September, per The Athletic's John Glennon. "He knows—just like I know—that there's a lot of meat left on the bone."
Talented pass-rushers always hold value. Landry is already a disruptive force in that area. He has a chance to show he's more than a situational defender, though.
CB J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots
Years of success have provided the New England Patriots plenty of leeway regarding their decision-making processes in all areas.
For example, rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson proved to be a fluid cover corner in his limited opportunities this season, yet the staff decided to deactivate him Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs' high-powered offense.
Kansas City torched the Patriots secondary for 352 passing yards. Obviously, Jackson's absence didn't lead to the poor performance, but the undrafted defender could have helped.
The Patriots originally wanted Jackson on the 53-man roster because of his competitiveness.
"He's been competitive all the way through whether he's been at the OTAs in the spring, training camp, preseason games," head coach Bill Belichick said after the team's fourth preseason contest, per Sporting News' Dan Berstein.
The goal is to place the best combination on the field so the Patriots can match up against high-flying offenses. Stephon Gilmore is the team's top corner man. Jason McCourty is an experienced vet who's seen everything. Eric Rowe provides size and versatility. Jackson may not be as fast as fellow rookie Keion Crossen, but the Maryland product has been more reliable in coverage so far, per Pro Football Focus.
Belichick will rotate his players based on matchups, like he always does. The rotation should include Jackson more often than it doesn't.