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The NFL Reinforcements Who Could Change the League’s Playoff Picture

As teams enter the stretch run, a handful of postseason hopefuls could use a boost from late arrivals—from Nick Foles to Josh Gordon—to get over the proverbial hump

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL season is a long, brutal battle of injury attrition, and the best teams at the end of the year are often also the deepest and/or healthiest. As we head into the second half of the year, a handful of playoff-contending teams are bringing in crucial reinforcements at just the right time: From players coming off the injured reserve to those acquired via trade or the waiver wire, the 49ers, Seahawks, Ravens, Packers, and a few other squads should get a big boost from some difference-making late arrivals. Here’s a few second-half additions who could push their respective teams over the top.

OTs Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, FB Kyle Juszczyk, 49ers

The 49ers have ridden a suffocating defense and a smashmouth run game to a perfect 8-0 record to start the year, and impressively, they’ve done it despite stretches without two key starters on the offensive line. Staley, the team’s longtime blindside stalwart, has been on the shelf since Week 2 with a fractured fibula, and McGlinchey’s been out since Week 5 after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Both players could return to the field as soon as this week (Staley is on track to play, while McGlinchey is still working to get back into game shape), when San Francisco takes on Seattle on Monday Night Football. Their returns would be a potential boon for both quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the team’s already explosive run game.

The ground game has provided the foundation for everything the 49ers do on offense this year. The team has racked up an average 171.1 yards per game (second) and has found the end zone 13 times (tied for first). And while backup linemen Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill performed well in relief, adding two high-level technicians like Staley and McGlinchey back into the mix should make that unit even more dangerous. In head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone-heavy scheme, offensive tackles are frequently asked to make key blocks at the point of attack, sealing off defenders to spring runs outside or kicking them out to open up big cutback lanes. If either tackle gets blown back into the backfield at the snap or misses his block, those outside run plays are dead on arrival. With that duo back on the field, expect fewer stuffs and more breakaway runs from the San Francisco backfield.

We can’t forget about the imminent return of Juszczyk, either. The überversatile fullback plays a crucial role in both the team’s run game and passing attack, lead-blocking to open rushing lanes while lining up all over the formation to create coverage mismatches. Juszczyk, who’s missed four weeks with a sprained MCL, is set to return this week as well. With three cogs in the 49ers’ explosive offensive machine on track to return, San Francisco’s offense is poised to peak at the right time.

WR Josh Gordon, Seahawks

Gordon’s 17-game stint with the Patriots came to an end in late October when the Patriots released the dynamic pass catcher from the injured reserve, a move that made Gordon subject to waivers. The Seahawks were the only team to make a claim, and the 6-foot-3, 225-pound receiver is reportedly healthy following a Week 6 knee injury and is ready to make his debut for his new team this week against the 49ers.

Gordon’s just the type of addition the Seahawks need as they enter the toughest stretch of their schedule. Seattle’s once-dominant defense is nothing more than a memory at this point, with this year’s unit ranked 27th in Football Outsiders DVOA. Because it also has a subpar special teams unit (which ranks 29th), Seattle’s postseason hopes fall squarely onto the shoulders of the Russell Wilson–led offense. On paper, Gordon’s a perfect capstone to that unit: Wilson’s hucking it deep (defined as 20-plus yards downfield) on 16.7 percent of his dropbacks this year (third most, per Pro Football Focus) and has posted a league-best 138.0 passer rating on those throws, with seven touchdowns and no picks. Seattle’s dynamic receiving duo of Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf have regularly found ways to get behind opposing defenses, and adding Gordon into the mix should make Seattle’s downfield passing attack that much tougher to defend—while at the same time giving the team’s ground game some room to breathe, too. With three legitimate deep threats on the field on any given snap, opponents may be forced to pick their poison: Play one-deep coverage looks, and defenses risk giving up the big play downfield. Run more conservative two-deep coverage looks, and the Seahawks’ run game gets a mathematical boost up front.

Gordon’s history of drug-related suspensions likely scared off other teams from making a waiver claim, but if he can stay on the field in Seattle, he brings a field-tilting presence that could keep the Seahawks in the hunt in the NFC.

CB Jimmy Smith, Ravens

The Ravens’ once-fearsome defense has underwhelmed this year, ranking just 21st in DVOA through nine weeks. But that group has gotten some much-needed help for the homestretch over the past few weeks, starting with the trade for former Rams corner Marcus Peters and boosted by the return of Smith from an extended absence because of a knee sprain. In Smith’s first game back last week, the reliable playmaking veteran helped stymie the Patriots’ offense, recording three tackles and a pass breakup.

Together with ascending shutdown corner Marlon Humphrey and three-time first-team All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas, the recent additions of both Smith and Peters should help plug the leaks in Baltimore’s coverage schemes and bring the potential to transform the Ravens secondary into a strength during the second half.

WR Davante Adams, Packers

The Packers’ passing offense survived the four weeks Adams missed with a foot injury, but for a team primed to make a postseason run, a big-play guy you can rely on in high-leverage situations could provide a major boost. Sure, less-experienced receivers like Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Geronimo Allison fared better than expected while Adams was on the shelf, but pushing those guys down in the pecking order and giving quarterback Aaron Rodgers a proven playmaker will only pay dividends down the stretch.

Adams caught seven passes for 41 yards last Sunday in his first action since Week 4, but admitted after the game that he wasn’t quite 100 percent. Assuming he’s back to full speed soon, though, a fully operational Adams should return to his role as a red zone monster who changes the ways that teams play coverage in the back end. Adams has yet to find the end zone this season after reeling in 35 touchdowns from 2016 to 2018, so I’d expect those scores to start coming in bunches.

QB Nick Foles, Jaguars

The Jaguars made a bold—and for some, unnecessary—move on Tuesday in announcing that Foles would replace Gardner Minshew II and take back the starting job following the team’s Week 10 bye. Jacksonville may end up regretting that decision—and for the record, if I were coaching, I’d have stuck with Minshew despite his recent struggles—but perhaps the team couldn’t ignore the allure of Foles’s proven upside. Sure, the wildly mercurial Foles could end up playing worse than Minshew, and everything could fall apart for Jacksonville. He’s certainly looked like a bad quarterback for stretches of his career. But there’s always the chance that the Jags find a way to wake up the playoff-god version of Foles who helped carry the Eagles into the playoffs and to a Super Bowl win back in the 2017 season. That Foles could change things in Jacksonville.

At 4-5 and coming off its worst loss this season, Jacksonville needs a spark as it heads into a stretch of must-win games, starting out with a pair of road matchups with the division-rival Colts and Titans. If Foles can activate his Big Nick Energy that helped propel Philly to championship a few years back, it would give the Jags the bump they need to get over the top in a tough AFC field. We’ll see.

DT Michael Bennett, Cowboys

It’s tough to know exactly why Bennett wore out his welcome so quickly in New England, and it’s impossible to guess just how he’ll fit in the Dallas locker room in the second half of the year. But what’s become immediately clear in the short time that Bennett’s been with the Cowboys is that he’s still one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the NFL. Bennett dominated in his Cowboys debut last Sunday, racking up six pressures on 33 pass-rush snaps while adding two tackles in the run game and a sack.

As his brother Martellus explained so perfectly last week, Bennett’s greatness comes from the fact that he consistently just “messes up” opponents’ plays. He doesn’t always rack up sacks, but his ability to penetrate the line so quickly and get into the backfield can disrupt timing and render a play dead. Bennett’s ability to create that type of havoc snap in and snap out makes the move a low-risk, high-reward gamble. It could be just what the team’s middling defense needs to take the next step.

WR N’Keal Harry, Patriots

You can file this into the longer-shot category. The Patriots’ decision-making at the receiver position (from releasing Josh Gordon to trading for Mohamed Sanu) has been a bit hard to predict this year, but I’m intrigued nonetheless to see whether New England has anything planned for its big-bodied rookie receiver. Harry, who’s been on the injured reserve for most of the season after suffering an ankle injury in the preseason, was inactive in the team’s Week 9 matchup with the Ravens but now has a chance to work his way back on to the field following the team’s Week 10 bye.

In an offense that’s still looking for consistent playmakers to emerge around Julian Edelman, Harry’s combination of size and body control are unrivaled. For Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels—both of whom are renowned for their ability to scheme up mismatches and utilize the unique skill sets of their players—Harry could give the team a post-up threat in the red zone and a box-out target on third downs. If he can do enough to earn a spot on the field, it could be a boon for what’s been an up-and-down offense this year.