1 Player on Every NFL Team Who Needs More Playing Time
As any NFL season progresses, circumstances change, as do lineups. Teams must adjust to things like injuries and differences in levels of performance.
For coaches, the approach should always be the same no matter what happens: Put the best players on the field to place the squad in a position to succeed.
It really is that simple.
A fine line exists between a player deserving and needing more time on the field. In either case, having those individuals in the lineup to see what they can provide through expanded roles serves the best interests of the team.
Some clearly see the writing on the wall with recent moves made around the league—like the Miami Dolphins' quarterback switcheroo and the Minnesota Vikings trading defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens—showing a willingness to make necessary changes for potential short- and long-term improvement.
As the league nears its halfway point, fixes can be found in lineups simply by playing those who deserve or need more snaps.
Arizona Cardinals: Edge Dennis Gardeck
Chandler Jones' season-ending torn bicep opens the door for others to contribute. Dennis Gardock already took advantage.
The special teams standout, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent from Sioux Falls, registered a pair of sacks against the New York Jets. The Cardinals can't replace Jones, of course.
However, Gardeck is exactly the type of player a staff wants in its defensive rotation. What he lacks in physical tools, relatively speaking, he makes up with his preparation and effort.
"He just keeps going and the play’s never over for him," head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters last week. "He's a guy that gets there earlier than everybody, studies harder than any player I’ve ever seen and it’s awesome to see what a great story he is."
Atlanta Falcons: DE Allen Bailey
The Atlanta Falcons and the NFL, in general, are going through a season unlike any other.
In Atlanta's case, owner Arthur Blank already dismissed head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. As a league, COVID-19 precautions and restrictions have limited the availability of some players, including key pieces along the Falcons' defensive front.
Marlon Davidson, John Cominsky and Deadrin Senat have all been quarantined in hopes of avoiding a further outbreak.
With those key role players out of the lineup, the Falcons had to lean more on veterans Allen Bailey and Steven Means. Bailey's role diminished this year after signing as a free agent last offseason, but he provides experience to help settle the group and played well Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings with a sack, tackle for loss and two quarterback hits.
Baltimore Ravens: WR Devin Duvernay
Rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay already showed he's an outstanding kick returner, and the explosive capabilities seen on special teams should translate to the Baltimore Ravens offense.
Currently, Duvernay ranks second with an average of 34.4 yards per kick return. He's also fourth among Ravens receivers with 90 receiving yards. Part of the problem is how offensive coordinator Greg Roman deploys Duvernay when he is on the field.
The third-round draft pick has the vertical speed to consistently threaten defenses, yet he's averaging only nine yards per reception. Yes, he works well in space. At the same time, Baltimore can continue to expand their offense with proper utilization.
A combination of Duvernay and Marquise Brown might be undersized, but the threat of both can pull a safety out of the box, which will only help Baltimore's ground-and-pound attack.
Buffalo Bills: DT Justin Zimmer
The Buffalo Bills coaching staff sent a message Monday when it benched and deactivated defensive linemen Trent Murphy and Harrison Phillips.
"Just, those two are good players, just wanted to get some looks at other guys who've practiced well and see if we can change things up a little bit," head coach Sean McDermott told reporters.
Justin Zimmer must have been one of the guys McDermott alluded to, because the journeyman didn't disappoint. Zimmer played well against the Kansas City Chiefs with six total tackles and half a tackle for loss. His effort throughout the contest was easily identifiable, and he thrived when playing over the center.
As a reward, the Bills signed Zimmer from the practice squad Wednesday after being a call-up during the previous contest.
Carolina Panthers: Edge Yetur Gross-Matos
Before stating why Carolina Panthers second-round draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos should see more playing time, his current injury situation must be addressed. As of now, Gross-Matos is on the team's injured reserve.
However, he's dealing with a high-ankle sprain, which means it's only a multi-week stay, not a season-ending scenario.
When healthy, Gross-Matos already showed he's a capable edge-rusher with explosive capabilities, albeit in limited opportunities. For the Panthers, the team's defense needs more punch to pressure opposing quarterbacks. As a unit, Carolina is tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for dead last with only five sacks.
Brian Burns has the capabilities of an excellent pass-rusher, but he needs help. An expanded role for Gross-Matos upon his return should improve the situation because no one else is getting the job done.
Chicago Bears: TE Cole Kmet
Some balked at the Chicago Bears signing tight end Jimmy Graham to a two-year, $16 million free-agent contract this offseason, and rightly so.
Graham hasn't been the same explosive target he once was for years now. While he's been a solid option for Chicago this fall, he averages only 9.2 yards per catch.
The Bears doubled down at the position by making Cole Kmet the highest-drafted tight end in the 2020 class, and he's performed like a starting-caliber option.
"One thing I think is pretty obvious on Bears film...it's time for Cole Kmet to be the starter," former Bears center and current NBC Sports Chicago contributor Olin Kreutz tweeted.
Cincinnati Bengals: DT Geno Atkins
The Cincinnati Bengals' decision to slowly phase Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap out of their defensive line rotation is baffling.
Granted, no one expected the Bengals to compete at a high level, but the idea of pushing two veteran leaders out of traditional roles says quite a bit about the franchise's current trajectory.
The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tyler Dragon reported both Atkins and Dunlap "are frustrated with their lack of playing time" and "miffed by the team's defensive philosophy and approach."
Of the two, Atkins' lack of involvement makes less sense. At least the Bengals still feature Carl Lawson and Khalid Kareem at defensive end. Defensive tackle isn't as deep, and Atkins is an eight-time Pro Bowl performer, including six consecutive nods from 2014 to 2019 campaign.
The Bengals aren't good enough to sit talented performers.
Cleveland Browns: LB Malcolm Smith
The Cleveland Browns did very little to address linebacker this past offseason. Aside from bringing in B.J. Goodson on a one-year deal to replace Joe Schobert, the front office chose to rely on recent draft picks Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips in hopes of them developing.
Instead, the group continues to be counted among the league's worst.
However, a simple solution seems to exist in Malcolm Smith. The 31-year-old veteran signed shortly before the season began as others dealt with injuries. Smith has clearly been the Browns best linebacker in a limited role.
The Super Bowl XLVIII MVP is both an instinctive defender and comfortable playing in space. The Browns may have multiple young options, but Smith needs to be on the field for a team legitimately in the playoff hunt.
Dallas Cowboys: WR Cedrick Wilson Jr.
The Dallas Cowboys feature arguably the league's best trio of wide receivers in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and rookie first-round pick CeeDee Lamb. It's easy to argue a fourth target shouldn't receive more playing time considering how talented the previously mentioned group is.
However, Cedrick Wilson Jr. produced when called upon this season. The third-year pass-catcher grabbed 14 receptions for 173 yards and two scores when targeted in four of the six contests.
An expanded role could help offset some of the unit's current problems, too.
A spread offensive approach can protect a porous offensive line by spreading out opposing defenses with four wide receivers, thus forcing defenders out of the box while relying on a quick passing attack to keep quarterback Andy Dalton upright and effective.
Dallas has the weapons. The coaching staff must employ them properly.
Denver Broncos: TE Albert Okwuegbunam
With Courtland Sutton out for the season due to a torn ACL, the Denver Broncos' group of wide receivers aren't exactly inspiring. The emphasis in the passing game should shift to the team's athletic tight ends.
Noah Fant is clearly a favored target and he's practicing this week after missing Sunday's victory over the New England Patriots with an ankle injury.
Rookie Albert Okwuegbunam caught a pair of passes for 45 yards in Fant's stead. The athleticism both provide makes them difficult matchups for opponents.
Denver should be counted among the league's top teams in 12 personnel usage. Instead, the Broncos rank 14th, according to Sharp Football's Warren Sharp.
If Denver's season is all about quarterback Drew Lock and his maturation—which it is—the combination of Fant, Okwuegbunam, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick should be on the field for the majority of the team's offensive snaps.
Detroit Lions: RB Kerryon Johnson
More scuttlebutt currently exists about the Detroit Lions trading Kerryon Johnson than the running back possibly getting more snaps.
Quality depth is a good thing and the Lions should build around their talented backfield. Adrian Peterson is reliable and an all-time great, albeit at the tail-end of his career. D'Andre Swift is a gifted option. Johnson is more than capable if given a chance. Only injuries held him back the last two seasons.
"I'll even call the personnel with a guy's number on it and send that specific person in the game because that's a play that we want that individual to get," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told reporters. "So that's kind of how we’re handling it with the running backs."
An earnest three-back rotation makes a lot of sense, especially as Detroit tries to figure out how to close out games.
Green Bay Packers: RB A.J. Dillon
The Green Bay Packers already own one of the league's best rushing attacks by averaging five yards per carry with Aaron Jones ranking top 10 in rushing yardage (389), yards per carry (5.2) and rushing touchdowns (five).
Still, the Packers' ground attack can be even better once the coaching staff learns how to best utilize second-round running back A.J. Dillion.
So far, Dillion carried the ball 13 times through five games. The 247-pound back is a potential battering ram to use in short-yardage situations or as a changeup to Jones and Jamaal Williams.
Due to the injuries suffered at both wide receiver and the offensive line, Green Bay can lean on its talented trio of backs, but the Packers have to incorporate Dillon into the mix more than the staff has done to date.
Houston Texans: TE Pharaoh Brown
Tight end is arguably the deepest position on the Houston Texans roster and has been for some time. Even so, the reworked coaching staff shouldn't refrain from utilizing certain performers if they're excelling in the scheme.
Pharaoh Brown didn't join the Texans until Sept. 14 after being released by the Cleveland Browns on the final day of roster cuts. Brown started on Houston's practice squad but didn't stay there long.
As Jordan Akins deals with a concussion, Brown's role expanded over the last two weeks, and the Texans now have a capable blocker in the lineup.
Brown isn't a mismatch in the passing game, but he's caught three passes for 32 yards. It's more than enough to keep him on the field since he's doing the little things the Texans need from the position.
Indianapolis Colts: WR Marcus Johnson
Michael Pittman Jr. may return to the Indianapolis Colts lineup relatively soon after suffering from compartment syndrome in his calf, but his spot isn't guaranteed as one of Philip Rivers' preferred targets.
Marcus Johnson spent the last two seasons with the Colts, but general manager Chris Ballard decided to release the wide receiver during the final wave of preseason cuts. Eventually, Johnson re-signed with the practice squad due to Pittman's unavailability.
Over the last two weeks, the 26-year-old target found a groove with a combined eight catches for 161 yards. He's only been signed to the active roster for a week.
"He's consistently been making big plays in every game he's been in, so that's good; Philip has confidence in him," head coach Frank Reich told Andrew Walker of the Colts official site.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Collin Johnson
The Jacksonville Jaguars aren't committed to quarterback Gardner Minshew II after the team lost five straight contests. The uncertainly swirling around the organization at the moment expedites the next logical step to what's become a full-on rebuild.
An evaluation of all the young talent on the roster is important so the franchise can plan for its future. As such, a young wide receiver who already showed some promise, like Collin Johnson, should play more. The rookie fifth-round draft pick has five receptions this season for 47 yards and a touchdown.
At 6'6" and 222 pounds, Johnson's size provides the offense with a completely different dynamic.
The Jaguars already know what they have in DJ Chark Jr. A greater emphasis should be placed on Johnson, Laviska Shenault Jr. and other young players throughout the roster to better understand if they're going to be long-term building blocks.
Kansas City Chiefs: C Daniel Kilgore
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid chose to bench starting center Austin Reiter for last Monday's meeting with the Buffalo Bills in favor of 32-year-old veteran Daniel Kilgore.
Don't expect Reid to reverse course after the Chiefs effectively ran all over the Bills defense. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire collected 161 rushing yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
"Well, it'll probably be that way this week," Reid told reporters. "I thought the guys did a good job up front. I thought it was good aggressive football, and they did a nice job for the runners. The runners had space and utilized it with good vision and pressing the hole, doing all the fundamental things that they do, and it allowed them to have a good day."
Coaches are adamant about placing the best five blockers on the field. Right now, Kilgore belongs in that group.
Las Vegas Raiders: DT Maurice Hurst
The Las Vegas Raiders have two solid veterans at defensive tackle in Johnathan Hankins and Maliek Collins. However, the coaching staff should find more snaps for Maurice Hurst Jr., who's been quite effective in a limited role this fall.
Hurst didn't play during the Raiders' impressive victory over the Kansas City Chiefs because he was placed on the COVID-19 list. However, he returned to practice this week, per the Las Vegas Journal Review's Vincent Bonsignore.
The third-year lineman is a disruptive interior presence when given the chance to play. He shoots gaps and collapses the pocket. The Raiders defense could use a little more of both since the unit ranks among the bottom eight defenses in both average yards per rushing attempt and sacks.
Some changes might be necessary for the Raiders' front to improve.
Los Angeles Chargers: RB Joshua Kelley
Rookie running back Joshua Kelley has been a solid contributor for the Los Angeles Chargers. Yet the coaching staff decided to place Justin Jackson in the starting lineup instead of Kelley after Austin Ekeler suffered a hamstring injury.
Jackson is more experienced and better at working in space, but Kelley has shown the capabilities of adding to both phases of the game.
The Chargers offensive line is in flux because of injuries. Kelley's toughness running between the tackles and breaking would-be tackles should help tremendously as the unit finds its way.
Kelley must protect the ball better, though, as he has lost two fumbles. At the same time, he gives the Chargers a potential workhorse when Ekeler isn't in the lineup. Even with a healthy Ekeler, Kelley is an effective option.
Los Angeles Rams: RB Cam Akers
Sometimes, coaches provide flimsy answers when asked why they're not playing talented individuals. In the Los Angeles Rams' case, the staff has yet to figure out what to do with second-round rookie running back Cam Akers.
"It was more the result of Cam not being able to get into the flow because we had such a minimal amount of drives in the first half," head coach Sean McVay told reporters after Akers played one snap against the San Francisco 49ers. "We got him in there a little bit in the second half, but we ended up throwing it on a one-play sequence where it's incomplete, so then it's 2nd-and-10 and we ended up putting Malcolm [Brown] in the game."
To be fair, Darrell Henderson Jr. has been good. But the point of playing Akers isn't about taking reps away from the team's lead back. Los Angeles will rotate its options. Akers is a potential dynamic runner and needs opportunities to show what he can do.
Miami Dolphins: QB Tua Tagovailoa
Everyone loves to watch Ryan Fitzpatrick play. His passion for the game is infectious, and his flair for dramatics and soul-crushing performances makes him one of the league's most interesting players.
With that said, Tua Tagovailoa is the face of the Miami Dolphins. He has been since the moment Miami chose the quarterback with this year's fifth pick.
While the Dolphins' announcement of the change surprised everyone after their 3-3 start, the switch is not about what Fitzpatrick did or didn't do. As with most other rookie signal-callers, the decision came down to when he was ready to start.
"Through practice and meetings and walkthroughs, he's ready," head coach Brian Flores told reporters. "That's how we're going to go moving forward."
Fitzpatrick has every right to be upset with the decision, but the move was only a matter of time.
Minnesota Vikings: RG Ezra Cleveland
Dru Samia wasn't getting the job done at right guard for the Minnesota Vikings, and the team doesn't need to revisit that option. Instead, rookie Ezra Cleveland started his first game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
"I've been in numerous positions here," the second-round pick told reporters. "They're trying to see where I'm comfortable and where I excel and stuff. My goal is to keep everything, take it in stride and do the best I can at whatever position they put me in."
Cleveland played left tackle at Boise State and could replace Riley Reiff in the future. But the opportunity to gain quality reps and experience, even at guard, shouldn't be overlooked.
These moments should help if Cleveland kicks back outside. At worst, he'll become a solid guard and the Vikings will be set at that position.
New England Patriots: LB Anfernee Jennings
Rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings is earning Bill Belichick's trust, which is no small feat. The New England Patriots selected the hybrid defender with the 87th pick.
Jennings contributes as both an edge-defender and off-ball linebacker.
"It's really hard to play one, and to play both takes a good level of instinctiveness and both mental and physical versatility because the skill sets are quite different between playing off the ball and only a few inches away from a good blocking tight end or a good receiving tight end," the Patriots' head coach told reporters.
Jennings started his first game Sunday against the Denver Broncos, and he's likely to get a much longer look for a bigger role as a versatile member of the defense.
New Orleans Saints: RG Cesar Ruiz
An organization doesn't draft a guard or center in the first round unless it feels that prospect is a special talent. The offensive interior doesn't hold as much value as other positions. As such, a player must jump off the film to be considered worthy of a significant investment.
The New Orleans Saints made Cesar Ruiz the top-drafted interior blocker in the 2020 class when the franchise selected the Michigan product at No. 24.
Ruiz's handling of the Wolverines' protections plus extraordinary movement skills from the pivot made him look like a slam dunk at the next level. Things haven't gone to plan. He's started one game, and an ankle injury slowed his progress.
While Nick Easton is a solid performer at right guard, the Saints saw something in Ruiz. A full-time transition to the rookie would give New Orleans a different look along its offensive line.
New York Giants: TE Kaden Smith
The New York Giants would be better off cutting ties with 2017 first-round pick Evan Engram than trying to force him into the offensive scheme when he's not producing.
As Pro Football Focus noted, Engram's 21 drops since the start of 2017 are the most by any tight end. Yes, he's a phenomenal athlete and a potential mismatch waiting to happen. But none of that matters if he's not going to catch the ball and if he's going to disappear for long stretches.
Instead, the Giants have a reliable option behind Engram in Kaden Smith.
The second-year player showed he's capable in the passing game with 25 receptions for 250 yards in December. He's yet to be targeted more than three times in any of New York's games this season.
New York Jets: Edge Bryce Huff
The New York Jets' search for a consistent pass-rusher dates back to the Qing dynasty. Maybe it hasn't lasted quite that long, but the organization hasn't had a threat off the edge since Calvin Pace left.
As the quest continues, undrafted rookie Bryce Huff is an intriguing option. Huff shows the first-step quickness and flexibility to get under offensive tackles, turn the edge and flatten to the quarterback.
"He has some things that I can't coach," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told reporters. "... He has only scratched the surface."
Huff secured his first sack in Week 6 against the Miami Dolphins. In a possible indication of the Jets' intentions for Huff's future, the organization traded fellow edge-defender Jordan Willis to the San Francisco 49ers this week.
Philadelphia Eagles: LB Alex Singleton
Alex Singleton appears to have finally found a home among the Philadelphia Eagles linebacking corps.
The well-traveled undrafted free agent went from the Seattle Seahawks to the Minnesota Vikings to the CFL for three seasons before signing with the Eagles.
"I just do everything I can for this team," Singleton told reporters. "Even after the pick [against the San Francisco 49ers] or whatever. I think it's been so long I don't think I'll even realize what it's taken to even get a defensive snap in the NFL until my playing days are over."
Singleton started Philadelphia's last two contests because of injuries, but there's no reason to pull him. He provided a spark for one of the league's worst units with 15 tackles during that span.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Edge Alex Highsmith
When a defense already features two outstanding edge-rushers such as T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, it's hard to find room for another—though different sub-packages can be employed to get a talented rookie on the field.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Alex Highsmith in the third round of April's draft. The Charlotte product has flashed on special teams. Usually, those performances don't go unnoticed.
"Alex has really shown that he belongs in the NFL," Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler told reporters. "... Do we really know that until we get him in live action? Probably not. But what we have seen him do here in practice and stuff like that is encouraging in terms of us putting him in and having enough confidence in him that when he goes in, it won't be a huge drop-off from those two other guys."
Butler should work Highsmith into the mix more and more during the second half of the season.
San Francisco 49ers: RB JaMycal Hasty
The Shanahan offense has always been a running back-friendly system.
Raheem Mostert, who burst on the scene during the San Francisco 49ers' playoff run last season, suffered an ankle injury against the Los Angeles Rams and will likely be placed on injured reserve. With Mostert's absence, undrafted rookie JaMycal Hasty entered the fray with nine carries for 37 yards.
He impressed and should split time with veteran Jerick McKinnon.
"The moment wasn't too big for him," head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters. "We like to keep our guys fresh. Once we lost Raheem, Jet [McKinnon] had been going for a while. It was a perfect time to change the pace and bring in a fresh guy, and [Hasty] was the guy that we had left."
Seattle Seahawks: DB Ugo Amadi
Injuries thrust Seattle Seahawks defensive back Ugo Amadi into the lineup, but he should never leave.
The Seahawks have been historically bad at defending the pass. Even so, Amadi thrived when asked to fill in for Jamal Adams, who has a groin injury.
The 2019 fourth-round draft pick excelled on special teams as a rookie and contributed as a nickel corner to varying degrees of effectiveness. This year, he's a versatile piece to the puzzle playing over the slot and executing some of the unit's safety duties.
Versatility to contribute in multiple roles will help Seattle as the team presses ahead because opponents will find fewer opportunities for mismatches. Amadi may not be the best in coverage, but he can be a solid presence in the alley, play near the box and work through underneath trash.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Tyler Johnson
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers feature a tight end-heavy offense, but the unit should start transitioning to a more wide receiver-diverse scheme.
The Bucs employ two or more tight ends on 39 percent of their snaps, which is the fifth-most among teams, per Sharp Football's Warren Sharp. To be fair, Tampa Bay's tight end rotation is deeper than any other squad's with Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
Still, the talent found at wide receiver is just as exciting. Mike Evans' and Chris Godwin's exploits are obvious. Scotty Miller has developed a niche in the scheme. Plus, the organization reached an agreement with free agent Antonio Brown on a one-year deal, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
But Tyler Johnson presents so much potential. In his first two games, the fifth-round draft pick caught a touchdown pass against the Green Bay Packers then posted four catches for 61 yards in a meeting with the Chicago Bears four days later.
Tampa Bay should be four-wide formations quite often in the coming weeks.
Tennessee Titans: OT Isaiah Wilson
Teams invest first-round picks in certain prospects for a reason. While those players may never reach their ceilings, they are viewed as the type of talents capable of creating change throughout a lineup.
The Tennessee Titans spent the No. 29 pick on mountainous offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson.
The 6'6", 350-pounder is physically imposing, but he's far from a polished prospect. As such, his career didn't start in the same manner as other highly touted draftees. Wilson sat behind veteran Dennis Kelly. Also, the 21-year-old old was arrested Sept. 11 on a DUI charge.
Now, left tackle Taylor Lewan is out of the lineup with a torn ACL. It's time to find out what Wilson can do. The Titans should move Kelly to the left side and use the rookie at his natural position on the right side.
Washington Football Team: QB Dwayne Haskins Jr.
Head coach Ron Rivera stunted the Washington Football Team's developmental curve when he went with his gut and played Kyle Allen at quarterback over 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins Jr.
Washington is only marginally better with Allen in the lineup.
"It's better, not to be confused with good, and we have to get better, starting with myself and the coaches and everything," offensive coordinator Scott Turner told reporters.
The team is 0-2 since the quarterback change. While that doesn't fall directly on Allen, the poor situational awareness by the coaching staff damaged the organization's long-term health.
If the team is going to struggle anyway, Haskins needs to play and gain valuable experience so Washington can see if he's going to be its guy beyond this season or it needs to address the position next offseason.