6 NFL Backups Who Could Earn Starting Jobs in 2020

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2020

6 NFL Backups Who Could Earn Starting Jobs in 2020

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    Teams expect first-rounders to earn a spot in the starting lineup. Most players who hear their names called after Day 1 of the draft have to push a little harder for a top spot on the depth chart.

    Second-, third- and even late-round picks can seize starting opportunities with a strong showing during training camp or the preseason. Coaches can spot talent right away. A player's skills should outweigh his draft pedigree.

    Roster departures and in-house competition for position vacancies have left the door open for backups to win starting jobs in 2020.

    We'll exclude first-rounders, players with more than eight starts last year and veterans with a clear path to a prominent role. The six selections below highlight reserves who must battle for contested spots. Where could we see a shake-up in 55-man rosters?

RB Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams

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    The Los Angeles Rams released Todd Gurley after he averaged a career-low 14.9 carries per contest last season. The team likely factored the running back's lingering knee issue into its decision.

    Now, the Rams have three probable candidates to handle the majority load on the ground. Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson and rookie second-rounder Cam Akers will compete for touches in the upcoming season.

    Head coach Sean McVay didn't mention a particular tailback as the front-runner for the lead role. According to ESPN's Lindsey Thiry, he'll let the players distinguish themselves in a position battle.

    "We feel we've got three really good backs," McVay said. "What does that mean in terms of the distribution of carries? I think that's to be determined based on how things play themselves out."

    Akers seems like the favorite to see a fair number of touches. With that said, he has to pick up the playbook and scheme during a virtual offseason program, which prevents him from showing his physical readiness.

    As Gurley's backup for five seasons, Brown didn't make the most of his limited carries, averaging 3.9 yards per rush. He also hasn't shown much versatility, hauling in 20 receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown. 

    The Rams selected Henderson in the third round of last year's draft. He played sparingly, logging just 93 offensive snaps. The 22-year-old showed dual-threat qualities at Memphis, registering 4,303 yards from scrimmage (3,545 rushing and 758 receiving) with 44 total touchdowns.

    Akers had ball-security issues at Florida State, fumbling nine times through three terms. Henderson fumbled four times as a collegian. If the Rams choose between the two tailbacks, they may rely on the running back who's less likely to commit turnovers in a featured role.

WR Kelvin Harmon, Washington Redskins

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    The Washington Redskins need a wideout to blossom into a playmaker, or defensive coordinators will shift their focus to Terry McLaurin on the perimeter. He may see double-teams and bracket coverage without a complementary receiver elsewhere on the field.

    In 2019, Kelvin Harmon started eight out 16 games, recording 30 receptions for 365 yards. He only played 51 percent of the offensive snaps.

    The Redskins selected Antonio Gandy-Golden in the fourth round of April's draft. He logged 150 receptions for 2,433 yards and 20 touchdowns in his last two terms at Liberty. However, the adjustment in competition between low-level college opponents and the NFL may be a tough hurdle for the rookie.

    The Athletic's Ben Standig suggested the Redskins could add two veteran wide receivers who played under head coach Ron Rivera in Carolina.

    "If the Redskins add free agents, this position warrants more," Standig wrote. "Former Panthers Jarius Wright and Chris Hogan are just a phone call away."

    He also gave reason to expand Harmon's workload because of the wideout's ability to help out the rushing attack: "If the coaching staff wants to emphasize the ground game based on personnel and as help for Haskins, don't sleep on Harmon's blocking."

    Although he's a strong candidate to start, Harmon's rookie production didn't solidify his spot on the outside. Perhaps his size (6'2", 215 lbs) serves as an asset to the aerial attack and blocking schemes for what could be a run-heavy offense with Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice, Bryce Love and rookie dual threat Antonio Gibson in the backfield.

OT Trey Pipkins III, Los Angeles Chargers

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    The Los Angeles Chargers traded Russell Okung to the Carolina Panthers and signed Bryan Bulaga, which solves the right tackle spot but leaves a question mark on the left side.

    The Chargers selected quarterback Justin Herbert with the sixth overall pick and moved up to the 23rd slot for linebacker Kenneth Murray. General manager Tom Telesco passed on a strong incoming group of offensive tackles. He'll either regret it or has faith in a player's development.

    Trey Pipkins III and Sam Tevi are the likely candidates to replace Okung. The latter allowed eight sacks in both 2018 and 2019, per Pro Football Focus, and took most of his snaps on the right side.

    Tevi hasn't shown the foot quickness to mirror edge-rushers in pass-blocking sets. Pipkins should be able to win the job with a solid showing through the preseason. At the University of Sioux Falls, he started on the left side and earned first-team Division II All-American honors for his performances as a senior.

    The Chargers selected Pipkins in the third round of last year's draft, so the team saw something in the Division II prospect to use a top-100 pick on him. Based on Tevi's past struggles in pocket protection, the coaching staff should turn to the upstart tackle to man the left side.

DE Rasheem Green, Seattle Seahawks

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    The Seattle Seahawks can view Rasheem Green's second-year performance from a glass-half-full or half-empty lens.

    Last year, Green led the Seahawks in sacks, but he only logged four, which illustrates the team's major need for a prominent pass-rusher.

    In 2019, Green played just 51 percent of the defensive snaps. He's not a lock for a starting role. The Seahawks signed Bruce Irvin, who registered 8.5 sacks with the Carolina Panthers last season. The 32-year-old played four years under head coach Pete Carroll from 2012 to 2015.

    Seattle also signed Benson Mayowa, who recorded seven sacks with the Raiders last year. General manager John Schneider double-dipped at defensive end during April's draft, selecting Darrell Taylor (second round) and Alton Robinson (fifth round).

    On top of the additions at the position, the Seahawks have made multiple offers to Jadeveon Clowney, per ESPN's Dianna Russini.

    The Seahawks can roll out a number of defensive end combinations for Week 1. Green will have momentum in his favor if he shines through the preseason and the rookies take some time to find their footing on the pro level.

    Without Clowney on the roster, Green has a prime opportunity for a big third-year leap. In a full-time role, he could lead the Seahawks in sacks with a number closer to the double-digit mark.

LB Jahlani Tavai, Detroit Lions

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    Through three seasons, Jarrad Davis has started all 41 of his games with the Detroit Lions. However, the front office declined his fifth-year option.

    General manager Bob Quinn selected Davis in the first round of the 2017 draft before Detroit hired head coach Matt Patricia in 2018. The Lions may fade the three-year veteran's role for a younger linebacker who's better suited for the current system.

    Patricia served as a linebackers coach for five seasons and a defensive coordinator through six campaigns with the New England Patriots. As an assistant under head coach Bill Belichick, he helped develop versatile second-level defenders such as Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. Collins signed with the Lions during free agency.

    Jahlani Tavai flashed the ability to play in space and supplement the run defense, registering 58 tackles, five for loss, two pass breakups and an interception while playing 52 percent of the defensive snaps.

    Last year, Davis became a target in coverage. He allowed a 78.4 percent completion rate in pass defense. The Lions may reduce his snaps or swap him out of the starting lineup to see how Tavai progresses through his second term. The 23-year-old linebacker started in his last two appearances of the 2019 campaign.

CB Anthony Brown, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Dallas Cowboys have multiple moving parts in the secondary.

    Cornerback Byron Jones signed with the Miami Dolphins during free agency, opening up snaps on the perimeter.

    According to Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News, the Cowboys may shift Chidobe Awuzie from cornerback to safety. In 2019, he started all 16 games on the boundary.

    If Awuzie's move comes to fruition, the Cowboys will have two new starters at cornerback. The team selected Trevon Diggs (second round) and Reggie Robinson II (fourth round) during April's draft. One of the rookies could claim a starting spot.

    The Cowboys also re-signed Anthony Brown. He has experience in the slot and on the outside, though Jourdan Lewis lined up inside for most of the 2019 campaign.

    Brown has played well in moments but also struggled in stretches through four seasons in Dallas. The Cowboys may value his starting experience. He's opened 34 out 56 contests with the first unit. Last year, the 26-year-old cover man suited up for nine outings (four starts) before landing on injured reserve with a torn triceps muscle.

    The Cowboys also signed Daryl Worley, who's played a majority of his snaps at cornerback on the boundary for the Carolina Panthers and Raiders. He could push for a full-time starting role as well.

    Nevertheless, Brown's physical play and decent production in coverage (32 pass breakups and four interceptions) could give him the edge in a highly contested camp battle. The Cowboys may have retained him to stabilize a secondary that's set to undergo notable changes.


    College statistics provided by TeamRankings.com.