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Searching for Olivier Vernon

The 32 names to know for the NFL’s second half

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With so many players on a roster and so few games to play, there’s unused talent across the NFL. And whether an injury forces them into action or a philosophical shift gives them a bigger role, every year plenty of first-half nobodies become key contributors over the final eight games of the season.

Last year, Olivier Vernon broke out for the Dolphins pass rush after Cameron Wake tore his Achilles in Week 8. Vernon racked up eight sacks, 24 hits, and 25 hurries in relief and earned himself the second-richest contract ever for a defensive end. Derek Wolfe came on extremely strong for the Broncos in Week 14, and he tallied six sacks in Denver’s last seven games (including playoffs) after picking up just two in the team’s first 12. In Baltimore, 56 of Kamar Aiken’s 75 catches came from Week 8 onward as he filled in for an injured Steve Smith.

Here are 32 names to watch out for in the second half of 2016.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills: RB Jonathan Williams

The Bills run the ball an average of 28 times per game and rely heavily on LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee to carry the offensive load. But both are banged up. McCoy has a hamstring injury and Gillislee a foot injury, both of which can be nagging, multiweek injuries for a position that relies so much on explosion and cutting. That’s where the 220-pound rookie out of Arkansas comes in. He’s an explosive, powerful runner with quick, choppy feet to make sharp cuts downfield. He’s a perfect fit in the Bills rush attack, which has carried Buffalo to a 4–4 record at the midway point.

Miami Dolphins: WR DeVante Parker

Parker got off to a quick start with an eight-catch, 106-yard outing against the Patriots in his first game this year in Week 2. He’s been quiet since (just 15 catches for 189 yards in five games), but with Jay Ajayi’s emergence as a productive, explosive ballcarrier for the Dolphins, the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats factor might be in play. Ajayi’s success should give the passing game plenty of opportunities to throw the ball downfield off of play-action, and Parker should be a heavy target.

New England Patriots: LB Elandon Roberts

New England felt comfortable enough dealing former All-Pro linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns because of Roberts’s performance backing Collins up in Matt Patricia’s defense. He’s raw, but the rookie sixth-rounder has shown instincts to quickly diagnose a play and get himself in the right spot, both in coverage and against the run. His performance is going to be key to the Patriots defense in the second half.

New York Jets: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

Seferian-Jenkins has all the physical attributes you could look for in a pass-catching tight end — he’s physical, long, and can move — so once he gets healthy, look for the former second-round pick to find his niche in New York’s offense. As a big, athletic target in the slot, we could see Seferian-Jenkins take over part of the role that Eric Decker played prior to hitting the injured reserve, running routes from the slot and being a danger in the red zone.

AFC North

Getty Images
Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens: DE Elvis Dumervil

This one all depends on how quickly Dumervil can return from a foot injury that has sapped him of some of his explosiveness. But even if he’s not as quick as he once was, a healthy version of the 32-year-old will provide a badly-needed boost to Baltimore’s pass rush, which currently has just 16 sacks on the year (tied for 16th in the NFL). The wily vet notched six sacks last year and anything close to that rate would be huge for the Ravens over the second half.

Cincinnati Bengals: TE Tyler Eifert

Eifert isn’t a new name, but after missing the first six weeks of the season to a back injury, he looks ready to take back up the mantle of Red Zone God. In his first significant action back with the Bengals last week, he caught nine passes for 102 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati’s 27–27 tie with Washington. Eifert is Andy Dalton’s favorite target inside the 20-yard line — 11 of his 12 red zone catches in 2015 ended up in the end zone — so now that he’s back, look for the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder to rack up touchdowns in the second half.

Cleveland Browns: WR Corey Coleman

The 15th-overall pick from April’s draft looked like a breakout star in Week 2, catching five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns, but he broke his hand in practice the next week and has been out since. He was cleared to practice this week, though, and should return to the field soon. Once he does, whether it’s Josh McCown or Cody Kessler throwing the passes, Cleveland’s quarterback is going to get a dynamic downfield threat to pair opposite Terrelle Pryor. The Browns passing game might actually be dangerous for the first time in forever.

Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Eli Rogers

The shifty second-year pass catcher emerged in Week 1 with six receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown, but that’s where the production stopped. He fought through a toe injury in Weeks 4 and 5 and was inactive Week 7 after apparently finding himself in the doghouse with Mike Tomlin. But with neither Darrius Heyward-Bey (five catches for 68 yards and two scores) nor Markus Wheaton (four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown) really separating themselves in the Steelers’ passing game, Rogers could leapfrog both to become a regular feature in Pittsburgh’s three-wide formations alongside Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates.

AFC South

Houston Texans: TE Stephen Anderson

In the Texans’ 20–13 win over the Lions on Sunday, Houston’s three tight ends (C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin, and Anderson) combined for 10 catches, 94 yards, and one touchdown on 12 targets. Until Brock Osweiler starts pushing the ball downfield with more confidence and accuracy to DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, the Texans will rely heavily on Osweiler’s underneath safety-net options at tight end. Anderson is only 230 pounds, but he’s quicker and more athletic than Fiedorowicz or Griffin, so he could start to see more snaps running short, fast-developing routes over the middle as head coach Bill O’Brien adapts to Osweiler’s weaknesses.

Indianapolis Colts: WR Donte Moncrief

Moncrief missed Weeks 3 through 7, and his return is already paying dividends for Andrew Luck, who found him four times for 41 yards and a touchdown last week. With Moncrief on the sidelines, Luck’s only viable downfield target this season has been T.Y. Hilton. (Phillip Dorsett, who has 18 catches in seven games, hasn’t emerged as quickly as the team would have hoped.) The former Ole Miss pass catcher is explosive on the outside, has plenty of size to body smaller corners, and should also see plenty of targets in the red zone in the second half.

Jacksonville Jaguars: LB Myles Jack

Jack featured on special teams for the first three games of his career and assumed the starting job at Jacksonville’s “OTTO” strongside linebacker spot in Week 4. He’s done some good things and some not-so-good things, as you’d expect from a rookie, but his elite size-speed combination should allow him to make a bigger impact in the second half of the year.

Tennessee Titans: WR Kendall Wright

Remember this guy? The former first-round pick had 94 catches for 1,079 yards and two touchdowns back in 2013, followed that up with 57 receptions for 715 yards and six scores in 14 games in 2014, but has since fallen off the map. He’s still playing a part-time role in Tennessee, but has made a pretty strong case to be a bigger focus in the Titans offense down the stretch. He’s caught 14 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns in the past three games, and looks to be developing some rapport with Marcus Mariota.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: RB Devontae Booker

Booker shrugged off a shoulder injury in the first quarter of his first start on Sunday and finished with 19 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown in relief of an injured C.J. Anderson. He also added five catches for 30 yards. With Anderson out indefinitely with a knee injury, the Broncos run game will flow through the talented rookie out of Utah who has both speed and power at 219 pounds. His first start (2.8 yards per carry) wasn’t an indication of what this guy can do — he’s got some real burst and can get skinny through even the smallest crease that his offensive linemen create, so expect big things from Booker in the second half.

Kansas City Chiefs: WR Tyreek Hill

Hill has caught six passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games for the Chiefs, emerging as an top-end speed threat for the Kansas City offense. The diminutive receiver can fly, but he also has a knack for making the tough catch:

Oakland Raiders: SS Karl Joseph

Joseph has started at strong safety in Oakland’s past six games, and if you haven’t heard much about the rookie out of West Virginia yet, that won’t last for long. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound defensive back packs punch behind his pads and has brought a new intensity to the Raiders pass defense that ranks 28th in DVOA. As he continues to acclimate to the speed of the pro game, he’ll only get better.

San Diego Chargers: DL Joey Bosa

Bosa hit the field in Week 5, and quickly became the first player since 2006 (when the stat first started getting tracked) with two-plus quarterback hits in each of his first three career outings. Through his four professional games, he’s registered more quarterback pressures (26) than any debut rusher over the past 10 years. This guy is a legit pass rusher, and he’s already well on his way to superstardom.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: FS Byron Jones

After a rotational role as a corner and safety for the Cowboys as a rookie, Jones inherited the starting job at free safety in the offseason and has acquitted himself well thus far. He’s fluid in coverage, providing help over the top, and can thump in run support. He’s an excellent athlete with elite range and has allowed Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to play him in single-high looks, allowing Dallas to do more things — blitz, mix up zones, and support the run — with its other defenders.

New York Giants: SS Landon Collins

The second-year safety out of Alabama has quietly been playing really well in New York’s defense. He’s a tone-setting hitter in run support, is versatile as a coverage defender against the pass, and as he continues to play smart, disciplined ball in the Giants defense, the big plays — like his meandering interception-return touchdown against the Rams in Week 7 — are going to come a lot more often.

Philadelphia Eagles: RB Darren Sproles

Ryan Mathews remains the nominal lead back in Philly for now, according to head coach Doug Pederson, but his grip on that job feels tenuous. Sproles has been more consistent and has just looked better for the Eagles, plus he logged 63 snaps to just eight for Mathews last week against Dallas. Sproles is the most explosive, shifty, and versatile of the Eagles running backs, and he’s averaged 5 yards per carry on 46 totes and has averaged 10.3 yards per catch on 22 receptions. He’s earned more touches in DVOA’s 23rd-ranked offense.

Washington Redskins: RB Rob Kelley

When Matt Jones went out in Week 7 with a knee injury, the Redskins starting job fell to Kelley, who took it and, uh … ran with it. In Week 8, he rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, showing shiftiness and vision to find gaps in the defensive line. He may cede carries to Jones when the former Florida Gator returns to the lineup, but it’s going to be hard for offensive coordinator Sean McVay to not keep giving Kelley carries down the stretch.

NFC North

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Getty Images

Detroit Lions: RB Dwayne Washington

The Lions backfield has been a mess. Theo Riddick is more of a receiver than a running back, Zach Zenner had just three rushes for 2 yards last week against the Texans, and the recently signed Justin Forsett looks like nothing more than a veteran stopgap. That leaves rookie Dwayne Washington to pick up the pieces. The power back out of Washington impressed in short spurts early in the year before going out with an ankle injury, leaving him at 4.2 yards per carry on 18 totes. Despite being a healthy scratch last week, Washington looks like the best of the bunch, and he should stick whenever he gets his chance.

Chicago Bears: OLB Pernell McPhee

McPhee missed the first six games rehabbing a knee injury, but in his first full game back, he showed exactly why the Bears signed him last year for $38.75 million over five years. He recorded a sack and three more quarterback hits Monday night in the Bears’ 20–10 win over the Vikings, providing steady pressure off the edge. Not much has gone right for Chicago this season, but a healthy McPhee is something for fans to look forward to.

Green Bay Packers: WR Ty Montgomery

Injuries forced Montgomery into a key role in Week 6, and he caught 10 passes for 98 yards. The versatile athlete came back the next week and did it again, catching 10 more passes for 66 yards while adding nine rushes for 60 yards. With Green Bay’s running back situation in flux (injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks means they’re leaning on a guy named Don Jackson), Montgomery could continue to see time in the backfield, along with featuring in the passing game.

Minnesota Vikings: WR Laquon Treadwell

Treadwell has too much talent to continue languishing on the bench. The first-round pick out of Ole Miss has played just 12 offensive snaps all year and hasn’t made a single catch, but with the Vikings forced to make a change at offensive coordinator, perhaps the 6-foot-2, 215-pound rookie will finally get his shot at a role in the offense. Minnesota’s passing game has stalled over the past two weeks amidst issues protecting Sam Bradford. Bradford needs a reliable big man over the middle and down the sidelines, and neither Charles Johnson nor Cordarrelle Patterson has yet proven to be that guy. Why not Treadwell?

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons: NT Grady Jarrett

The second-year pro out of Clemson has come on of late for the Falcons, using what Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter has called a “lightning-fast, quick first step” to disrupt offensive lines from the interior, stuffing runs, and moving the quarterback off his spot in the pocket. Nose tackles never get a whole lot of love, but the undersized Jarrett is fun to watch.

Carolina Panthers: DB Leonard Johnson

The Panthers desperately needed some help at defensive back, and they got it when Leonard Johnson returned to the field after nursing an Achilles injury for the first six games of the year. He racked up eight tackles and a sack in the Panthers’ win over the Cardinals, and the veteran could help turn around a secondary that has given up the third-most yards per game (286.9) in the league this year.

New Orleans Saints: RB Tim Hightower

When Mark Ingram got benched last week after another fumble, Tim Hightower assumed the role of lead back in the Saints offense and rushed for 102 yards on 26 carries. The sixth-year veteran is 30 years old but his tires still have a lot of tread left with just 664 career rushes. With Ingram losing Sean Payton’s trust, look for Hightower to remain in a primary role.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Vernon Hargreaves

Hargreaves struggled last week against the Raiders, but a lot of defensive backs tend to against Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Otherwise, the rookie first-rounder has been a solid addition on the outside for the Bucs this year. The Florida product plays with confidence and swagger, and is athletic enough to play with receivers of all sizes. We haven’t heard a whole lot of good things about the Tampa Bay defense this year (they rank 20th in DVOA through eight weeks), but Hargreaves will be one of the few bright spots by the time the season is over.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals: WR J.J. Nelson

Michael Floyd is struggling with confidence and a case of the dropsies and John Brown has been battling a hamstring injury, so second-year speedster J.J. Nelson has stepped up. He exploded for eight catches, 79 yards, and two touchdowns in Arizona’s Week 8 loss to the Panthers. Nelson’s 4.28-second 40 speed was on full display last weekend, and early returns suggest he might be able to help Arizona’s struggling deep-passing attack.

Los Angeles Rams: QB Jared Goff

Case Keenum and his 62 percent completion rate, 8-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and 77.5 quarterback rating is just bad — even for the bridge-the-gap-to-Goff game manager the Rams were hoping he’d be. The lack of a downfield passing attack has helped to neuter the Rams’ run game. With the success of Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz, the Cowboys and Eagles have provided the Rams with a blueprint for managing a raw, rookie quarterback: design an offense that gives him clear, quick reads; get the ball out of his hands; and take a few shots downfield. Oh, and put him on the field.

San Francisco 49ers: RB DuJuan Harris

San Francisco starting running back Carlos Hyde has been sidelined with a shoulder injury since Week 6. And while his timetable to return is still up in the air, even when he returns, Chip Kelly may look to cut down on Hyde’s second-half carries to keep him fresh. Hyde’s backup, second-year pro Mike Davis, underwhelmed in relief in Week 7 against the Bucs, rushing seven times for 21 yards and a touchdown; instead, it was the veteran Harris who impressed. He ran the ball 11 times for 39 yards and caught two passes for another 18, and as Kelly said afterward, “He’s playing himself into a role.”

Seattle Seahawks: RB Thomas Rawls

The Seahawks run game needs a boost. Christine Michael (4.2 yards per carry) has been an explosive runner, but he hasn’t provided the same tackle-breaking, run-you-over element that Rawls brings to the table. Rawls finished his injury-shortened rookie season first in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (total value), second in DVOA (value per rush), and first in running back success rate while racking up 830 yards and four touchdowns on 147 carries. He’s been on the shelf most of this year with a leg fracture, but once he gets back he’ll assume a big role in Seattle’s struggling run game.