The NFL’s Out-of-Nowhere Players

The National Football League is an enormous organization with a lot of players. It’s actually pretty staggering. The NBA mandates an average of at least 14 players per team, meaning there are about 420 active NBA players during the season. NHL rosters have a maximum of 23 players per team, for a total of 690 players. Major League Baseball’s 25-man roster bumps that figure up to 750. The NFL has more teams (32) and far larger rosters (53 players) than any other major professional league; there are 1,696 NFL players on active rosters at any given time in the fall. You can fit all of the NBA into two NFL divisions with room to spare.

That’s a lot of players. Throw in the complexity of the sport and the way that different players interact, and it’s even more difficult to break down. Practically, it makes knowing the league and the traits and tendencies of every single athlete close to impossible. That gets even more difficult as the season goes along, with attrition and changes in personnel thrusting unknown quantities into the lineup. Those players end up playing meaningful roles very quickly; just think about how Larry Donnell has morphed from being an unknown at the beginning of September into a fantasy football godsend just one month later.

Periodically, then, it’s a useful exercise to run through some of the late-round picks, undrafted free agents, practice squad journeymen, and forgotten college contributors who have moved into meaningful roles on NFL teams. It’s good to put their stories and paths into perspective, see how they got their new gigs, and evaluate how they’re performing. When we did this at midseason last year, players like Duke Ihenacho, Cole Beasley, and Melvin White1 stood out as unlikely contributors. Who’s making unexpected waves in the NFL this season? Let’s run through some of the more surprising regulars in football:

Marcus Burley, Seattle

Role: Rotation cornerback
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2013
How Acquired: Trade, August 2014
NFL Games Before 2014: 0
Got His Job Because: Offseason departures, injuries to other backup corners

It’s unfair. It shouldn’t work this way. The Seahawks already had the best secondary in football. Sure, they lost Walter Thurmond III and Brandon Browner at corner this offseason, but with Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon waiting to take over as the nickel cornerback, the Seahawks were set on the outside. Then Lane and Simon both got hurt. That thrust Burley, the team’s fifth corner, into a meaningful role just weeks after the Seahawks acquired him from Indianapolis on cut day.

He should have been a weakness for opponents to exploit. Instead, Burley’s play has made one NFL scout say he’s already better than Thurmond, while Sports Illustrated‘s Doug Farrar suggested that an injury to Burley was what allowed the Broncos to score on their final drive in Week 3. It shouldn’t be this easy to find worthwhile contributors at corner!

For the Seahawks, it is. There’s a lot to be said for playing next to Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas while suiting up for Pete Carroll, an incredible defensive backs coach. And it’s not like Burley wasn’t available to the rest of the league. After going undrafted in 2013, he caught on with the Jaguars, who cut him early in the year. He then bounced around the practice squads of the Eagles, Rams, and Colts, each of whom could use a cornerback. Burley then showed enough in the preseason this year for the Seahawks to send a sixth-round pick to the Colts, who were apparently about to cut the former Delaware star.

At 5-foot-10, he doesn’t fit Seattle’s known preference for bigger cornerbacks on the edge, but he fits in nicely as a slot corner. He played 58 percent of the snaps against Denver in Week 3, and while Simon will take some of Burley’s snaps when he comes back from knee surgery, Burley has shown enough to stay on the active roster. Just what Seattle needed: better defensive backs.

Ryan Hewitt, Cincinnati

Role: Starting H-back
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2014
How Acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent
NFL Games Before 2014: 0
Got His Job Because: Injury to Tyler Eifert, release of Orson Charles

According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the Bengals played with two tight ends (or six offensive linemen) on 58 percent of their snaps last year, the highest percentage in football. While the Bengals replaced departed offensive coordinator Jay Gruden with Hue Jackson this offseason, the offense he installed retained its reliance on two–tight end sets and contained a heavy dose of power running. Those two tight ends were supposed to be Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham on most downs, but Eifert suffered an elbow injury in Week 1 that has kept him out ever since.

While he wasn’t competing with Eifert for playing time, Ryan Hewitt has unquestionably taken up some of the snaps left in Eifert’s absence. The 245-pound Hewitt played fullback at Stanford, and while he takes snaps there, he also lines up at tight end, giving him the H-back designation. Hewitt beat out 2012 fourth-rounder Orson Charles for the job in camp, and his offensive snaps have been increasing each week, getting up to 44 percent for Cincinnati’s last game against Tennessee in Week 3. He is quickly becoming a trusted blocker for the Bengals, and blocks like this against Kroy Biermann will help that along. He’ll help keep Chandler Jones off Andy Dalton this weekend.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers

Wes Horton, Carolina

Role: Starting defensive end
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2013
How Acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent
NFL Games Before 2014: 10
Got His Job Because: Placement of Greg Hardy on NFL’s exempt list

Through their first four games in 2013, star Panthers ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy had combined for six sacks. After the first four games of 2014, the duo has combined for just one sack, and that came from Hardy, who picked up the sack in Week 1, before the league’s domestic violence crisis led the Panthers to deactivate him. With Hardy on the exempt list and unlikely to return until the appeal of his guilty verdict for assault is heard on November 17, the Panthers have had to turn to a rotation of replacement ends.

The guy who leads that rotation is Horton, a four-year regular at USC whose father was American Gladiators star Gemini. Horton signed with the Panthers last year after going undrafted and had two sacks on 169 defensive snaps in 2013. He has started Carolina’s last three games after Hardy left the lineup and suited up for 123 defensive snaps without a sack or quarterback hit to his name.

The reviews, frankly, have not been great; Horton has offered little in run support, as evidenced in this GIF. Mario Addison has offered more as a pass-rusher, and Kony Ealy profiles as the long-term replacement for Hardy. Even before Hardy returns, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Horton’s snaps diminish.

James Hurst, Baltimore

Role: Starting left tackle
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2014
How Acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent
NFL Games Before 2014: 0
Got His Job Because: Injury to Eugene Monroe

A veteran-laden roster and the enormous contract provided to Joe Flacco has left Baltimore with precious little depth at some key positions. One such spot is on the offensive line, particularly tackle, where starting right tackle Ricky Wagner was already a massive question mark. Things went from bad to worse when left tackle Eugene Monroe suffered a knee injury that will keep him out for several weeks, pushing Hurst into the lineup. Having a rookie undrafted free agent protecting your franchise quarterback isn’t exactly optimal, but the Ravens found themselves in just that predicament last weekend.

It was natural to expect Hurst to be a liability in his debut as a starter, but he was entirely acceptable. He suited up, coincidentally, against the aforementioned Horton and the other members of Carolina’s end rotation, and he did a perfectly adequate job in pass protection, which was the biggest concern. The entire Carolina front four came away without either a sack or a hit, which is a credit to the work done by Baltimore’s offensive line. If Hurst plays like this, the Ravens won’t need to worry about rushing Monroe back into the lineup.

Danny Lansanah, Tampa Bay

Role: Starting outside linebacker
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2008
How Acquired: Signed from Jets practice squad, December 2013
NFL Games Before 2014: 6
Got His Job Because: Benching of Jonathan Casillas

Lansanah’s story of perseverance is actually pretty heartwarming, which is hard to do in the NFL in 2014. Lansanah made the Packers as an undrafted free agent out of Connecticut in 2008 and played on special teams before being cut the following year. He bounced around practice squads before playing in the United Football League and taking a day job counseling at-risk children. After a tryout with the Jets got him on their practice squad in 2012, Lansanah eventually made his way to the Buccaneers, where he suited up for the final game of the 2013 season, more than five years after his last appearance in an NFL game.

We knew there were going to be changes after Tampa Bay’s embarrassing loss to Atlanta in Week 3, and one of those changes came at strong-side linebacker. Jonathan Casillas was benched during the Atlanta game for Lansanah, who picked off T.J. Yates and took it to the house. Casillas didn’t play a single defensive snap in Week 4, while Lansanah suited up for 21 defensive snaps as a two-down linebacker. He got some attention on the web after the game for slapping down LeVeon Bell’s hand during the latter’s gesture for a first down.

At 29, Lansanah is probably not going to be a star, but you can imagine how many times he must have dreamed about the things that have happened to him over the past two weeks. It’s cool to see that come true.

Denver Broncos vs. Indianapolis Colts

Josh McNary, Indianapolis

Role: Starting inside linebacker
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2011
How Acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent, April 2013
NFL Games Before 2014: 5
Got His Job Because: Injury to Jerrell Freeman

Speaking of great stories, Indianapolis has one in Josh McNary. A walk-on at West Point who played safety in high school, McNary was eventually moved to defensive end and became Army’s all-time leader in sacks. After graduating, he spent two years in the military before his brother encouraged him to pursue his passion for football. He turned heads with a great pro day performance, leading Colts GM Ryan Grigson to sign him after the draft as a possible fullback. Although he tore his hamstring in camp, McNary eventually made it back onto the team and emerged as a nickel linebacker, playing in yet another new role.

This year, he has filled in for the injured Jerrell Freeman as an every-down inside linebacker next to D’Qwell Jackson. I would love to say that McNary has been phenomenal, but he struggled mightily in coverage against the Eagles in Week 2 before settling in with better work over the last couple of weeks. One thing I would recommend against: picking a fight with McNary, as Leon Washington seemed to do last Sunday. The average NFL player is tough. Josh McNary is hardly your average NFL player.

Darryl Morris, Houston

Role: Rotation cornerback
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2013
How Acquired: Signed off waivers, August 2014
NFL Games Before 2014: 13
Got His Job Because: Little competition

The San Francisco 49ers are awfully thin at cornerback these days, which makes it weird that they’ve been giving away young secondary talent at bargain-basement prices. Last year, the Niners couldn’t find a spot for seventh-round pick Marcus Cooper and cut him at the end of training camp. He caught on with the Kansas City Chiefs, quickly impressed in a situational role, and became one of the better free-agent acquisitions of the year.

Morris could be this year’s Cooper. The 49ers also cut Morris at the end of camp last year, but stuck him onto their practice squad before putting him on the active roster shortly thereafter, where he lined up on special teams for 13 games, taking just seven defensive snaps all year. San Francisco cut him at the end of camp again in 2014, and Houston used its top waiver priority to nab Morris.

Morris took the spot of failed 2011 second-round pick Brandon Harris, whom Houston cut at the end of camp, and never looked back. The Texas State product immediately became Houston’s fastest cornerback, which came in handy against a speedy Bills offense last week. After playing 46 defensive snaps through the first three weeks, Morris saw 54 defensive snaps last week, as he took over for the injured A.J. Bouye as Houston’s primary nickel corner. Morris excelled in the role, staying step-for-step with the likes of Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins before coming up with a game-sealing interception on his own 15-yard line with 1:14 to go. It was enough to earn Morris a game ball, and while Bouye will come back soon enough, Morris isn’t going anywhere.

Darrin Reaves, Carolina

Role: Starting halfback
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2014
How Acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent, May 2014
NFL Games Before 2014: 0
Got His Job Because: Top four running backs all injured

The Panthers have two of the 10 highest-paid running backs in football on their roster in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, which must have left Reaves’s chances of getting double-digit carries in a game as a rookie at just about zero. Injury variance happens, though, and while the Panthers have paid a premium to have a very solid running back available at all times, injuries have overtaken their deepest position. Williams has a high ankle sprain. Stewart has a sprained knee. Mike Tolbert has a hairline fracture in his leg. Fozzy Whittaker, the team’s fourth-choice ballcarrier, has a quad injury.

For now, that leaves Reaves atop the Carolina depth chart. The Alabama-Birmingham product declared early for the NFL draft after receiving a fourth-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, only to go undrafted. Carolina saw the possibility of adding a power back to its roster and signed the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Reaves as an undrafted free agent. Reaves didn’t make the team, but he did make it to the practice squad before Carolina activated him two weeks ago. He carried the ball 12 times for 26 yards behind a struggling offensive line last week, and with the surprisingly competent Bears run defense in town this week, Reaves will have to hope for a better showing.

There will be plenty more to come. We’ll keep tabs on these out-of-nowhere contributors and identify another batch later in the season.

Filed Under: Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, NFL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Marcus Burley, Ryan Hewitt, Wes Horton, James Hurst, Danny Lansanah, Josh McNary, Darryl Morris, Darrin Reaves

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell