NFL Backups Who Could Earn Starting Jobs Before 2021 Season
For young players who intend to take a significant leap early in their careers, the work starts in the NFL offseason.
Although several teams will choose not to participate in OTAs, many players will work out independently before mandatory minicamp in June. During training camp, in-house competition raises the bar among teammates. Unlike last year, we'll see clubs play in the preseason with three games slated for the summer.
Leading up to Week 1 of the regular season, second- and third-year players can lay the groundwork for a promotion on the depth chart. Some of them will win camp battles and take on expanded roles.
Let's take a look at six players who held reserve positions in 2020 (fewer than eight starts) and haven't established themselves as clear-cut starters for the upcoming campaign. We'll highlight their competition and why they could start the 2021 season atop the depth chart.
Kyle Dugger, S, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots may have a Division II gem in Kyle Dugger.
Last year, Dugger had an impressive performance in his first start, making stops all over the field. The Lenoir-Rhyne product finished with a team-leading 12 tackles in a win over the Baltimore Ravens. Among the Patriots safeties, he played the third-most defensive snaps (518) behind Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips.
Although Dugger started seven out of the 14 games in which he was active during the previous campaign, he's not quite locked into a starting role. Adrian Phillips started all 16 games last year. The Patriots signed Jalen Mills, who played cornerback and safety with the Philadelphia Eagles.
New England uses multiple looks on the front and back end of its defense, which complicates designations for starters but forces opposing teams to prepare for a variety of formations in any given week.
We should see a combination of McCourty, Phillips and Dugger for most of the upcoming campaign, though the second-year safety has room to grow into a full-time player alongside McCourty with Phillips in a hybrid linebacker-safety role in sub-packages.
Dugger took on a heavy workload in the second half of the 2020 term with Phillips healthy. If he carries that momentum into training camp, expect him to earn a starting job.
Bryan Edwards, WR, Las Vegas Raiders
In 2020, Nelson Agholor reinvented himself as a big-play lead receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders. He led the team's wideouts in receiving yards (896) and averaged 18.7 yards per catch.
Following Agholor's departure to the New England Patriots via free agency, the Raiders need more out of their second-year wide receivers, Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards.
In all likelihood, the Raiders will attempt to feature Ruggs, who came out of Alabama as the 12th overall pick in the 2020 draft and started 12 out of 13 outings last year. We cannot say the same for Edwards, who faces some competition for snaps.
The Raiders signed veteran wide receivers John Brown and Willie Snead IV, who can line up on the outside and in the slot.
At 6'3", 212 pounds, Edwards projects as a possession-type X receiver on the outside. Because of his size and catch radius, he brings something to the passing attack that neither Brown (5'11", 178 lbs) nor Snead (5'11", 200 lbs) can provide downfield.
However, Edwards must prove he's more than just a big target inside the 20-yard line to claim and hold on to a starting job. The South Carolina product battled ankle and foot injuries and finished with just 11 catches for 193 yards and a touchdown for his rookie term. He still has a lot to prove in order to gain head coach Jon Gruden's trust.
Last offseason, Edwards had an impressive showing throughout training camp. With another strong summer and solid production in preseason games, he could find his way into three-wide receiver sets with Ruggs and slot wideout Hunter Renfrow.
Jordan Elliott, DT, Cleveland Browns
Jordan Elliott had a limited role through his rookie campaign. He played 307 defensive snaps in the middle of the Cleveland Browns front line. Sheldon Richardson (799) and Larry Ogunjobi (643) recorded the most snaps at the position.
The Browns released Richardson, and Ogunjobi signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, which creates a pathway for a new starting duo on the interior of the defensive line. Elliott will have some competition for a lead spot.
At 6'1", 328 pounds, fourth-year nose tackle Andrew Billings should move into a prominent role because of his run-stuffing ability. The Browns could pair him with 10th-year veteran Malik Jackson, who's started in 73 career contests, though going into his age-31 term, he may have a limited snap count.
As a rookie, Elliott didn't make much of an impact, logging just 15 tackles, so we cannot pencil him into the first-string role over an experienced starter. He'll have to earn that spot over the summer.
In his last two years at Missouri, Elliott logged 16.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, which shows his potential to play on all three downs.
Rashan Gary, OLB, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers selected Rashan Gary with the 12th overall selection in the 2019 draft. As a top-15 pick with his recent strides, he has a good chance to take Preston Smith's starting job on the edge. Nevertheless, the latter had a 12-sack season just two years ago.
As a pass-rusher, Smith took a step back during the previous term, recording just four sacks. He has some versatility because of his coverage ability, but the previous defensive coaching staff under play-caller Mike Pettine sprinkled in four starts for Gary in Weeks 3, 12, 13 and 15. The third-year veteran logged four tackles, one for loss, 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits in a solid Week 13 performance.
Green Bay replaced Pettine with Joe Barry, who coached the Los Angeles Rams linebackers over the last four seasons. With a new defensive coordinator, the Packers could change the pecking order at contested positions on that side of the ball.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Packers restructured Smith's contract, which now includes sack incentives. If not for a reworked deal, the Packers might have released him with Gary on the rise.
Last season, Gary logged the second-most quarterback pressures (19) for the Packers defense and had the same number of quarterback hits (11) as Smith. If the Michigan product makes a good first impression with the new defensive coaching staff, he should move into the starting spot opposite Za'Darius Smith.
Van Jefferson, WR, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams selected Van Jefferson in the second round of the 2020 draft. He had a reserve role behind Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds and Cooper Kupp. The Florida product played 256 offensive snaps and lined up mostly on the outside, catching 19 balls for 220 yards and a score.
The Rams didn't re-sign Reynolds, who inked a deal with the Tennessee Titans. As a result, Jefferson has an opportunity to fill a vacancy out wide, though he's going to face some competition for snaps with the addition of DeSean Jackson.
According to Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic, Woods and Kupp have clear-cut roles. She views Jefferson as someone who can "emerge" as the Rams use Jackson to stretch the field and for gadget plays.
Jackson has 13 years of starting experience, so he could open the season along with Woods and Kupp in three-wide receiver sets. Yet the 34-year-old has missed 24 games over the last two campaigns. So, head coach Sean McVay may want to use him sparingly and develop Jefferson with the first unit.
Zack Moss, RB, Buffalo Bills
Zack Moss saw his rookie campaign cut short because of an ankle injury that he suffered in the Buffalo Bills' AFC Wild Card matchup against the Indianapolis Colts.
Before Moss went down, he established a rhythm going into the postseason, logging 41 carries compared to 28 rush attempts for Devin Singletary. In three of the final four games of the regular season, the former logged more carries than the latter.
In 2020, Moss led the Bills backfield in rushing touchdowns with four scores—all of those plays started inside the 10-yard line. He also caught a four-yard touchdown pass.
Last season, Singletary started all 16 games, but he logged 88 fewer yards than in his 2019 campaign. Through two terms, the 23-year-old has just four rushing touchdowns.
Despite his move into the starting position, Singletary left the door open for Moss to take on a bigger role during the upcoming season. The Florida Atlantic product hasn't looked explosive or shown big-play ability with consistency, and the Bills relied on his running mate in goal-line situations.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Moss is expected to make a full recovery from minor ankle surgery. If that's the case, he could leapfrog Singletary for the lead position before the 2021 season starts in September.