NFL Deep Cuts: Obscure Players Get Their Shot

Bob Levey/Getty Images Zac Stacy

As we near the halfway point of the 2013 NFL season, the teams and lineups we expected to see trotted out on the field this season are now shells of their former selves. The Falcons are already down seven starters from the guys they would have expected to be in the starting 22 in July. Of the 32 quarterbacks who were expected to start on the opening day of training camp, 12 have been benched or suffered an injury that has caused them or will cause them to miss time. If you can start the same guys who you were expecting to suit up over the summer, you’re the exception, not the rule.

Every team has some veterans that they can plug in as competent backups, but every team also has a few spots where they’re absolutely, positively screwed if their starter was to go down with an injury or suffer a dramatic decline in his performance. Others have found a diamond in the rough who has come out of nowhere to emerge as a viable starter at their position. In either scenario, there are now players on virtually every team who have risen out of professional obscurity to get meaningful NFL reps.

Chances are that you know that guy for your given team; if the Giants had an unexpectedly impressive player this season, I would know all about him. But it’s not always easy to find out about those guys for other teams until they’re bigger news. So, consider this your trip around the league highlighting the NFL’s unlikely regulars. Some are among the worst every-down players in football, while others are quietly emerging as standouts. If you’re a hard-core football fan, though, here’s your chance to find out about the NFL’s Deep Cuts.

Bradley Sowell, Arizona Cardinals
Role: Starting left tackle
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2012
How Acquired: Claimed off waivers from the Colts
NFL Games Before 2013: 10
Got His Job Because: The Cardinals traded left tackle Levi Brown to the Steelers
What the Fans Think:

You’re not supposed to take a guy you sign off of waivers at the end of August and insert him in your starting lineup at one of the most important positions in football before stores start selling Halloween candy, but that’s what has happened in Arizona. The Cardinals were already thin at tackle before they traded Brown, but Sowell represents a total disregard for Carson Palmer’s safety. It’s tough when the nicest thing the local beat guy has to say about you is, “[Sowell] struggled mightily, but he sits there after and answers all the questions.” If you watched some of Arizona’s pass plays from the Seahawks game last Thursday and wondered why their backfield seemed to resemble the mass outbreak scenes from World War Z, Sowell was a good chunk of the reason why. It’s not his fault — no team should be stuck turning to him at left tackle right now — but he’s in far over his head.

Joplo Bartu, Atlanta Falcons
Role: Starting outside linebacker
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2013
How Acquired: Signed after the draft by Atlanta
NFL Games Before 2013: 0
Got His Job Because: Atlanta’s outside linebackers are either injured or wildly disappointing
What the Fans Think:

Bartu has teamed with fellow undrafted rookie free agent Paul Worrilow to serve as two of the players desperately shoring up Atlanta’s sinking ship. Of the two, Bartu has been the more impressive and more visible player; he’s literally an every-down linebacker for the Falcons, suiting up for each of Atlanta’s defensive snaps last week in the win over Tampa Bay. He plays faster than the 4.85 40-yard dash time that kept him undrafted, and the Falcons trust his range and instincts enough to use him as a cover linebacker in the nickel. Bartu is not a finished product, but you notice him on tape showing up with a few good plays every game; that’s usually the sign of a guy who will grow into a valuable starter.

Marlon Brown, Baltimore Ravens
Role: Starting wide receiver
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2013
How Acquired: Signed after the draft by Baltimore
NFL Games Before 2013: 0
Got His Job Because: Jacoby Jones showed up to camp out of shape
What the Fans Think:

(Hey, I never said they would all be smart fans.) While you probably haven’t heard of Sowell or Bartu, everybody knows Marlon Brown because everybody plays fantasy football. Brown is a pretty rare case: How often does a Super Bowl–winning team sign an undrafted free agent and start him from Week 1 on the following year? Heck, this almost never happens with undrafted wideouts on bad teams; if Brown starts 10 games and picks up 500 receiving yards, he’ll be the first undrafted free agent to do that the year he comes out of school since Terrence Wilkins in 1999. Brown had help from Jones showing up to camp out of shape and then getting hurt, but he has showed frequent enough flashes to suggest that he can be a capable target for Joe Flacco.

Melvin White, Carolina Panthers
Role: Rotation cornerback
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2013
How Acquired: Signed after the draft by Carolina
NFL Games Before 2013: 0
Got His Job Because: Everybody else got hurt
What the Fans Think:

With Carolina’s secondary a perpetual work in progress, it was inevitable that some young player would emerge amid the ranks of mediocre veterans to score a meaningful role. At the moment, it looks like the 6-foot-1 White is pushing past the likes of Josh Norman and Josh Thomas for a starting job in Carolina. It’s pure wishing to look at every big cornerback with speed concerns and suggest he could be the next Richard Sherman, but White’s 203-pound frame allows him to be a sound defender against the run and the endless number of screens and quick hitches that cornerbacks have to face in 2013. White is the sort of athlete that good franchises mold into a useful player. If it can pull the feat off, Carolina could get a much-needed big cornerback for its defensive backfield.

Cole Beasley, Dallas Cowboys
Role: Slot receiver
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2012
How Acquired: Signed after the draft by Dallas
NFL Games Before 2013: 10
Got His Job Because: Tony Romo needed an underneath receiver
What the Fans Think:

(I didn’t say the fans wouldn’t occasionally be Grantland contributors, either.) Beasley is yet another example of why paying slot receivers big bucks tends to be a fool’s errand. I’ll spare you the names you’re going to expect me to throw out there and compare him with another slot guy from the past two seasons. Whom would you rather have: Beasley at the league minimum, or Tavon Austin for $12.75 million over four years? Or, to be more specific: Would you rather have Austin and a street free agent or Beasley and some other player whom you could have taken with the eighth overall pick in the draft? The Austin book is far from finished, but Beasley’s that rarest of birds: a bargain on the Cowboys.

Duke Ihenacho, Denver Broncos
Role: Starting safety
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2012
How Acquired: Signed for the fourth time by Denver in January
NFL Games Before 2013: 2
Got His Job Because: Won starting spot in camp over incumbent Mike Adams
What the Fans Think:

It’s fair to say that the former San Jose State star has come out of nowhere to earn himself a starting job in Denver; the Broncos cut Ihenacho three times last year before finally putting him on the active roster for good this season. He surprisingly beat out the veteran Adams for the strong safety spot in camp, and while Ihenacho is borderline dangerous in deep coverage, he’s a useful run defender who deserved a forced fumble for the game-shifting Trent Richardson turnover last Sunday.

Josh Evans, Jacksonville Jaguars
Role: Starting free safety
Drafted: 2013 sixth-round pick
How Acquired: Drafted by the Jaguars
NFL Games Before 2013: 0
Got His Job Because: Chris Prosinski was the only thing in his way
What the Fans Think:

If the Jaguars have anything to build upon from their terrible start to the season, it’s the play of their safeties. After years of overspending at one of the league’s most fungible positions, Jacksonville has a pair of safeties it can build around. The more notable player of the two is second-round pick Jonathan Cyprien, but the Jaguars have also gotten big hits from Evans, whom they selected out of Florida in the sixth round of this year’s draft. With little pass rush and nothing at cornerback, whatever success the Jacksonville secondary has had this season has come from the guys at safety.

Marcus Cooper, Kansas City Chiefs
Role: Slot cornerback
Drafted: 2013 seventh-round pick
How Acquired: Claimed off waivers from the 49ers
NFL Games Before 2013: 0
Got His Job Because: Keeps making plays
What the Fans Think:

One of the downsides in having a deep roster and a ton of draft picks is that you can’t keep everybody who shows some promise on the active roster. The 49ers drafted Cooper in the seventh round even though he wasn’t a full-time starter at Rutgers. Cooper has always had the size and the speed, but he had never gotten a chance to really play serious reps and prove he could be a viable NFL cornerback. The 49ers couldn’t keep him on the active roster and tried to sneak him through waivers, but the 2-14 Chiefs saw an opportunity and nabbed him for themselves. All he has done this year is make plays; last week, he broke up a key pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone. With nominal nickelback Dunta Robinson “resting” as an active scratch against the Texans, Cooper became a meaningful part of the league’s best defense, and he has been on the field for 82 percent of the team’s defensive snaps during the past three weeks. Cooper is a player.

Joe Vellano, New England Patriots
Role: Starting defensive tackle
Drafted: Undrafted free agent, 2013
How Acquired: Signed by the Patriots after the draft
NFL Games Before 2013: 0
Got His Job Because: Everyone else is hurt
What the Fans Think:

With Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly out, the Patriots’ best defensive tackle has been a rookie free agent they added for a signing bonus of exactly $0. Vellano is not as big as those starters, and he lacks athleticism, but he has good instincts for reading opposing blocking schemes and seems to regularly manage to slip his way into a crease and disrupt plays. He is also acting mean every time I notice him during Patriots games, which can be a plus if you’re into that sort of thing. He’s a starter now and will be a meaningful member of New England’s interior defensive line rotation, even when Kelly comes back.

Antonio Allen, New York Jets
Role: Starting safety
Drafted: 2012 seventh-round pick
How Acquired: Drafted by the Jets
NFL Games Before 2013: 7
Got His Job Because: Bit of solid play, bit of no hope around him
What the Fans Think:

With the feared Rob Gronkowski returning to action for the Patriots, who did the Jets assign to cover New England’s top receiving option? Of all the people on their roster, it was Allen, the anonymous backup safety who beat out former second-round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett for the starting job in New York. Gronkowski did finish with 114 receiving yards in his return, but it took him 17 targets to get there, and Allen was in or near coverage on Gronkowski for many of them. The biggest reason the Jets are competitive in the AFC East has been the play of their young defenders, something you can chalk up to Rex Ryan’s talents as a developer and schemer on the defensive side of the ball. Allen is another shining example of what Ryan can help produce.

Tony Pashos, Oakland Raiders
Role: Starting right tackle
Drafted: 2003 fifth-round pick
How Acquired: Free agency
NFL Games Before 2013: 92
Got His Job Because: Sheer desperation
What the Fans Think:

This appears to be the only tweet that has mentioned Pashos’s name since October 13. While everybody else on this list is a young player struggling to prove himself in the league, Pashos is a veteran whose presence is shocking. The 33-year-old somehow became the Oakland starting right tackle despite not playing a single snap last year and starting just 16 games between 2009 and 2011. He has actually been serviceable this year, but it’s shocking that Pashos is in a starting lineup in 2013.

Zac Stacy, St. Louis Rams
Role: Starting halfback
Drafted: 2013 fifth-round pick
How Acquired: Drafted by the Rams
NFL Games Before 2013: 0
Got His Job Because: Guys in front of him are awful
What the Fans Think:

(It’s AD, man.) Again, you already know about Stacy because you play fantasy football; he’s the guy who is overvalued in re-draft leagues and undervalued in keeper leagues. I know this much: Stacy is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. The other halfbacks on the roster — Benny Cunningham, Daryl Richardson, and Isaiah Pead — have averaged just 2.9 yards per carry this season. Stacy’s numbers will likely decline a bit now that teams can tee off on the run and dare Kellen Clemens to somehow beat them. Stacy is a bruising, undersize back with something to prove to the teams that passed on him. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him hold on to the starting job the rest of the way.

Tim Wright, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Role: Starting tight end
Drafted: Undrafted free agent
How Acquired: Signed by the Buccaneers
NFL Games Before 2013: 0
Got His Job Because: He went to Rutgers
What the Fans Robert Mays Thinks:

I don’t have a direct quote from Mays on this one, but let’s finish with Wright, who has been anointed as the patron saint of our twice-weekly NFL podcast by my cohost. Wright might be the only person within 100 miles of Tampa Bay who actually wants Greg Schiano (his former college coach) to keep the Buccaneeers job. Wright is a totally forgettable tight end whom Mays will hype up for all eternity because he wants to be the guy who finds the useful talent out of nowhere, which is sort of what this article is about, so I can’t be too hard on Mays.

Filed Under: Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, New York Jets, NFL, Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell