NFL Backups Who Can Break Out in Season's 2nd Half
It feels like the NFL is on the cusp of a second-half takeover from a wave of backups.
This might be no better personified than by Miami Dolphins rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who finally hit the field in Week 6, making him the last of the big three—along with Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert—from the 2020 draft to see action. He's now leading the backups-turned-starters charge after ESPN's Adam Schefter reported he's earned the starting gig for Week 8 after Miami's bye.
Across the league, rookies and backups (based on snap counts and sometimes rotational splits, not necessarily depth charts) should start to see more playing time because of injuries to others and underperformers in front of them.
These are the names to know a few weeks out from the season's second half.
Ezra Cleveland, OL, Minnesota Vikings
The 1-5 Minnesota Vikings aren't squeaking into contention anytime soon, so the team is looking toward the future.
That shift was evident in Week 6 when offensive lineman Ezra Cleveland finally got the nod in front of quarterback Kirk Cousins.
"I think Ezra's putting himself in position that he deserves opportunities," Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said, according to Mark Craig of the Star Tribune. "I think before this thing's said and done, you're going to see him get an opportunity to produce and be a part of our team. I'm really proud of how far he's come."
Cleveland, the 58th pick this year, got 100 percent of the snaps during his team's Week 6 loss, and in a real trial-by-fire moment, had his struggles against an elite player in Atlanta's Grady Jarrett en route to a 43.8 Pro Football Focus grade.
But the flashes were there, and Cleveland is playing out of position at guard. He'll adapt, if not get to move to tackle and let his natural traits blossom.
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Based on talent, it feels inevitable J.K. Dobbins will become the workhorse back for the Baltimore Ravens.
Through six games, Dobbins only has 25 carries. Among the team's rushers, he's behind Lamar Jackson (50), Mark Ingram II (50) and Gus Edwards (48).
But Dobbins is Baltimore's only running back with a per-carry average north of 4.5. He's turned his looks into 154 yards and two scores on a 6.2 average and caught 11 of his 14 targets.
Dobbins still isn't getting his fair shake, even with an ankle injury sidelining Ingram. He's played 37 percent of the offense's snaps yet picked up seven first downs on the ground, with two outbursts of 20-plus yards on his limited chances.
With fresh legs and obvious upside, the 2020 second-round pick has breakout star written all over him.
Andy Isabella, WR, Arizona Cardinals
How long can Arizona Cardinals coaches deny wide receiver Andy Isabella a big role?
He's fifth on the team in targets with 15, which he turned into 10 catches and two touchdowns over his last five games. That was typical for the 2019 second-rounder, who caught nine of his 13 targets for 189 yards and one score as a rookie.
But Cardinals coaches keep trying to make Christian Kirk a significant presence in the pecking order behind DeAndre Hopkins. Kirk has played 57 percent of the team's offensive snaps in his five games, catching just 13 of 24 targets. By comparison, Isabella has played just 29 percent of the snaps in six games but has scored almost as much and is under 100 yards shy of Kirk's total (240 yards, 3 TDs).
It's clear why the Cardinals used a second-round pick on the Massachusetts product, and it is apparent he can be a reliable option for Kyler Murray, especially if he can replicate his production across a much bigger workload.
La'Mical Perine, RB, New York Jets
A handful of running backs always seem to break out over the season's second half, and the New York Jets' La'Mical Perine seems like he could be the next.
All that's stopping the fourth-round rookie from getting more touches, besides embattled head coach Adam Gase, is the presence of 37-year-old running back Frank Gore.
Gore has taken 75 rushing attempts over six appearances compared to just 22 for Perine over his five outings. Yet the veteran averages a paltry 3.3 yards per carry. Perine is averaging 3.8 yards and boasts more utility in the passing game.
With Le'Veon Bell (19 carries) in Kansas City and the Jets 0-6, turning Perine loose to let him develop and absorb punishment normally reserved for quarterback Sam Darnold is both a smart move and one likely to help the rookie break out as a lead back.
Cam Sims, WR, Washington
Cam Sims has been a favorite breakout candidate of Washington fans since he made the leap from Alabama to the pros as an undrafted free agent in 2018.
However, Sims has seen little playing time for an organization undergoing continual change to the coaching staff, never mind the quarterback position. But as a 6'5", big-play target, he's got all the potential necessary to have a breakout second half.
Look at Week 6, when Sims received a single target and scored on a 22-yard strike. The team is getting minimal production from guys such as Steven Sims and Antonio Gandy-Golden behind Terry McLaurin, as it has just one wideout among its three receptions leaders.
Whether it's Dwayne Haskins or somebody else under center, Sims is the type of developmental player a 1-5 team sorely missing receiver Kelvin Harmon (torn ACL) could deploy to great effect as Ron Rivera's coaching staff considers the future.
Darrell Henderson Jr., RB, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams are already seemingly admitting the obvious: Darrell Henderson Jr. should be their featured back.
It was fun to think head coach Sean McVay could keep up a committee approach with Henderson, rookie Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown.
But Henderson, who received just 39 carries last season, got 14 in a Week 6 loss to San Francisco compared to two for Brown and none for Akers, using the opportunity to gain 88 yards on a 6.3 average. He's up to 348 yards and three touchdowns on a 4.8 average through six games despite 55 carries for Brown and 26 for Akers.
There's a reason Henderson grades at an 86.9 at PFF. He's bound for workhorse-style usage given his quality of play, which will put him among league leaders at his position.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins
Everybody, Ryan Fitzpatrick included, seemed to know it was coming eventually.
Tagovailoa got his first taste of NFL action during the Miami Dolphins' Week 6 blowout of the New York Jets, completing both of his attempts for nine yards in relief of Fitzpatrick, who was more than happy to pump up the crowd for his replacement.
Tagovailoa got quick-footed on a bootleg and lofted a pass over defenders, and it was a small taste of what's to come, as the rookie will take over starting duties following this week's bye.
The Dolphins are 3-3, but while Fitzpatrick's completed 70.1 percent of his passes, he's thrown all of 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
It wasn't that long ago—before Joe Burrow's 2019 breakout at LSU—that Tagovailoa was the consensus top quarterback prospect. He'll have a chance to put his skill set to work after sitting and learning from one of the league's best mentors, likely wowing in the process.
Mo Alie-Cox, TE, Indianapolis Colts
Given Philip Rivers' historical propensity for leaning into big tight ends to keep the offense moving, the 6'5", 267-pound Mo Alie-Cox could turn into a star.
A relative unknown who hadn't played football since his freshman year of high school when he joined the Indianapolis Colts in 2018, the former VCU basketball player has 11 catches for 194 yards and two touchdowns this year, the last number tied for a team high.
That's with Alie-Cox missing Week 6 because of a knee injury and getting outsnapped by Jack Doyle each of the prior two weeks.
But Doyle has caught just seven passes over five games, and Trey Burton has turned 16 looks over three games into 11 catches for 107 yards and a score. Alie-Cox is averaging more than 17 yards per catch and in Week 2 had the highest solo game grade at PFF since Rob Gronkowski in 2017.
If the bulk of the work shifts to Alie-Cox, Rivers and all involved should benefit.