The star players in the NFL get all of the media attention, but often it can be the key reserves that separate the good teams from the great ones. Injuries are an inevitability of football, and those teams best equipped to overcome them will survive the annual war of attrition that is the NFL season.
Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs were decimated with injuries across their offensive line come playoff time, and made it all the way to the big game before succumbing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive front. But that very same Buccaneers front outlasted adversity as well, with arguably its best player in interior defender Vita Vea missing every game from Week 6 up until the NFC Championship Game. The rest of Tampa Bay’s roster picked up the slack, and then on the biggest stage, Vea had five quarterback pressures on Patrick Mahomes.
With the NFL expanding to a 17-game regular season, the value of quality depth is all the more clear. With only one first-round playoff bye available in each conference, every result is all the more important.
A recent data study using Pro Football Focus’ wins-above-replacement by PFF analyst Tej Seth found that teams on average lost about 2-3 wins per season due to injury from 2012-2020. For example, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is set to miss the first starts of his NFL career following a Week 5 injury to his throwing hand. Over the last three seasons, Wilson has generated about 3 wins per season on average. If he misses four games or a quarter of a 17-game season, Seattle would be losing .75 wins above replacement to his injury.
While replacing a franchise quarterback can at times be an impossible exercise, the Philadelphia Eagles and Nick Foles illustrated the value of depth at that position as well. Teams must do all they can to truly adopt the “next man up” mentality at the other spots on their roster to successfully endure the challenges of a 17-game season. So we took a look at the five teams with the most depth to lean on when injuries arise and the five teams with the biggest drop-off from their starting talent to their reserves.
Injuries to edge defender Bradley Chubb and wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler could have derailed most rosters out of the gate. But Denver boasts depth all along their offense and defense. Despite losing both rookie wide receivers, Denver has Courtland Sutton returning from injury after missing the 2020 campaign, and Tim Patrick stepping up once again after putting up 762 yards and six touchdowns on 51 receptions in 2020. Denver even traded one of its depth options at wide receiver in Trinity Benson to the Detroit Lions for a fifth-round pick before the season. If all else fails, Denver still has quarterback-turned-wide-receiver Kendall Hinton, infamous for his last-minute start against the New Orleans Saints last season.
Thankfully, young tight end Noah Fant is quickly becoming one of the best receiving threats at the position, and the offensive line has provided their quarterbacks with plenty of time, even with some injuries along the interior. Third-round pick Quinn Meinerz, a player who shot up draft boards this year out of Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, stepped up in Week 4 at left guard and allowed just one quarterback pressure on 44 snaps against the stingy Baltimore Ravens defense.
The cornerbacks are considered league-wide to be one of the deepest position groups in the NFL. A starting trio of Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby on the outside with Bryce Callahan in the slot could have been one of the league’s stronger units, and then the Broncos went ahead and used the No. 9 overall pick on Alabama star cornerback Pat Surtain II.
Up front, the loss of 2018 No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb is a big one, but future Hall of Famer Von Miller hasn’t missed a beat upon returning from an ankle injury that knocked him out for the 2020 season. The interior of the defensive line is equally loaded with young players like Dre’Mont Jones continuing to get better each week. We could go on … there’s a reason Denver is at the top of this list.
There were not one, but two former LSU defensive backs the Browns drafted with top-50 picks since 2019 that missed the entire 2020 season to injury — cornerback Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit. At cornerback, the Browns also used their first-round pick this year on Northwestern standout Greg Newsome II. Newsome started Weeks 1-3 and allowed just four receptions on seven targets with two pass breakups, giving up only 24 total yards. Newsome suffered a calf injury before Week 4 and a healthy Williams took his place in the starting lineup. Williams had a key interception off of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins late in the fourth quarter that went a long way in securing a big victory.
The Browns also signed veteran cornerback Troy Hill — who can play at a high level on the outside and in the slot — away from the Los Angeles Rams, along with safety John Johnson III. Johnson, Delpit and Ronnie Harrison Jr. combine to form a strong trio of safeties on the back end.
Cleveland also sought to bolster their defensive line this offseason, particularly at edge rusher where it added former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and former Atlanta Falcons 2017 first-rounder Takkarist McKinley. With Myles Garrett leading the way, this is the only trio of edge rushers in the NFL through Week 4 with at least 10 quarterback pressures each.
On the other side of the trenches, the Browns have the second-most cap space in the NFL dedicated to their offensive line in 2021. Their depth will be tested with some injuries at the left tackle spot, but their third-stringer is a fourth-round pick out of Cincinnati in James Hudson III who has rare movement skills at the position. They could be a lot worse off with several injuries they’re currently dealing with, including alternating ailments to the two LSU Tigers on offense — wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Fortunately, Cleveland has three tight ends in the highly-paid Austin Hooper, former first-round pick David Njoku and fast-riser Harrison Bryant, who was a third-round pick out of FAU in 2020. All three were top-50 in receptions among tight ends in 2020 and are currently top-40 in receptions among tight ends for the 2021 season. Njoku’s 149 receiving yards in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Chargers was the most receiving yards by a tight end in any game this season.
Last but not least, Kareem Hunt is the best “backup” running back in the NFL, and it’s not particularly close. Hunt forces defenders to miss tackles at the third-highest rate of all running backs so far in 2021, with 18 forced missed tackles on 55 rushing attempts. Beyond Hunt, 2021 sixth-round gadget weapon Demetric Felton out of UCLA can carry the ball out of the backfield and play as a slot receiver.
The Bills were already loaded at wide receiver after their blockbuster trade for superstar Stefon Diggs, but added a key veteran presence in Emmanuel Sanders this offseason following his release by the New Orleans Saints. Sanders has been to the Super Bowl with three different teams thus far in his career, winning it all in 2015 with the Denver Broncos. Sophomore wide receiver Gabriel Davis now gets bumped down the depth chart — even following an impressive rookie campaign that saw him produce 599 yards and seven touchdowns in just 11 starts.
Buffalo recently extended both of its starting offensive tackles in Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams, but used consecutive picks in this year’s draft on tackles Spencer Brown (6-foot-9, 311 pounds) and Tommy Doyle (6-foot-8, 320 pounds). Williams was extended this offseason coming off a 2020 campaign in which he allowed a quarterback pressure on just 3.3% of dropbacks, the 10th-best mark among all tackles in 2020. He was moved inside to right guard for Weeks 4-5 and Brown stepped in and did not allow a QB hit or sack in either contest.
General manager Brandon Beane has always prioritized depth along the offensive line, with the fourth-most cap space dedicated to centers and guards through 2023 as well. Whatever it takes to protect quarterback Josh Allen.
On defense, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer form one of the league’s most versatile and underrated duos on the backend. Since 2019, Hyde and Poyer both rank top-10 in PFF coverage grade among safeties at 89.4 and 87.5, respectively. The duo has combined for seven interceptions since 2020.
The Bills have two talented linebackers in 2018 first-rounder Tremaine Edmunds along with elite coverage linebacker Matt Milano. They used their first picks in the 2019 and 2020 drafts on defensive linemen, and first- and second-round picks in 2021 on edge rushers. The young nucleus with a handful of veterans in the fold are working to make the last remaining weakness on this roster into a strength.
Much has been made of Tampa Bay returning all 22 of its starters from last year’s Super Bowl roster, but it goes much deeper than that. The Buccaneers brought back over 40 players that logged a snap for them in 2020, including the 16 players with the most snaps on offense, and 15 out of the 16 snap leaders on defense.
The Buccaneers thus had the luxury of drafting purely for depth and the future, and their first-round pick edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is off to a hot start taking on an increased role following an injury to Jason Pierre-Paul. Tryon-Shoyinka has three quarterback hits and two sacks already on just 82 pass rush snaps. The interior of the defensive line is loaded with talent, including two of the most special players of the last 15 years in Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea.
At off-ball linebacker, Tampa boasts perhaps the best duo in the NFL in Lavonte David and Devin White. In 2020, David finished with the sixth-best coverage grade among all linebackers at 83.8, and White finished with the best pass rush grade at 85.9. Both players can cover the full field sideline to sideline, and they provide a yin and yang of skill sets north and south.
On the backend at safety, Tampa Bay has three high pedigree players in Jordan Whitehead, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edwards that can all cover opposing receivers as well as drop the hammer over the middle.
In the second and third rounds, Tampa Bay selected players with no shot of starting in 2021. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask now serves as Tom Brady‘s understudy, and Notre Dame right tackle Robert Hainsey fills a key reserve role along the offensive line.
At the skill positions, the depth is truly historic. Antonio Brown serving as the third option at wide receiver might make him the greatest WR3 a team has ever had. The NFC Championship hero, Scotty Miller, has to fight for targets as a vertical threat on the outside, as do recent draft picks in Tyler Johnson from Minnesota and Jaelon Darden out of North Texas. Tight end is no less stacked, with arguably the best to ever play the position in Rob Gronkowski, backed up by Cameron Brate and 2017 first-round tight end O.J. Howard.
The one area that is a cause for concern is at cornerback, where Tampa’s three starters have all gotten injured so far this season. Seattle Seahawks legend Richard Sherman was signed and was immediately thrust into battle. He could serve as a key depth/rotational piece later in the season and the playoffs.
The Ravens have been among the league’s most injury-ravaged teams thus far in the 2021 season, with key injuries to left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback Marcus Peters, first-round wide receiver Rashod Bateman and running back J.K. Dobbins, just to name a few. Despite all that, Baltimore sits at 4-1 atop a tough AFC North division.
The Ravens have made the fourth-most draft selections since 2017 with 45, which helps bolster their depth across the roster. Before the 2021 season began, Baltimore traded away 2021 fifth-round draft pick cornerback Shaun Wade and 2020 fourth-round pick guard Ben Bredeson. Baltimore has so much talent they’re excited about at each spot that it was incapable of carrying either player on their 53-man roster.
When you’re trading young players away because otherwise you’d have no choice but to cut them, and other teams are stepping up to send you draft picks, that shows just how deep your roster must be.
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The Falcons are facing the inevitable rebuild that follows a major spending spree — led by 2016 MVP Matt Ryan becoming the first player to average $30 million per year on his 2018 extension.
Even after trading away wide receiver Julio Jones, he impacts the Falcons ability to fill out the roster through the 2022 season. Jones has a $15.5 million cap hit for 2022. It can be tough to add depth when a substantial portion of your total salary cap dollars are going to so few players. Including Jones, who won’t even be there, just five players account for $131.7 million of Atlanta’s 2022 salary cap. The 2022 salary cap has a maximum of $208.2 million, meaning the Falcons are spending 63% of their total cap space on five players — only four of which are still on the team.
Atlanta has arguably the least talented defense in the NFL, with holes at all three levels. The two edge rushers logging by far the most snaps — Steven Means and Dante Fowler Jr. — are both free agents after the season, as are the two starting safeties in Erik Harris and Duron Harmon.
On offense, the only wide receiver drafted before the fifth-round is Calvin Ridley, and almost the entire unit beyond Ridley is set to hit free agency after the season anyway. Given their current offensive line woes, Atlanta will have a tough time competing with this roster in the near future. The Falcons drafted Michigan right tackle Jalen Mayfield, and he now starts at left guard, where his 24.7 pass block grade ranks second to last among all guards through Week 5.
The Lions are in the midst of a full-scale tear down operation after trading away long-time franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams. Detroit received first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 for Stafford, so it hasn’t yet capitalized on the spoils of the blockbuster trade. They also chose to let Stafford’s top wide receiver in recent years — Kenny Golladay — depart for the New York Giants in free agency to the tune of a four-year, $72 million contract. Detroit’s leading wide receiver through Week 5 this season is fourth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown with 19 receptions. The Lions have had the third-most total snaps played by rookies so far in 2021.
On defense, Detroit is lacking in both top-end talent and depth at almost every roster spot. The Lions used their second and third-round picks in this year’s draft on interior defensive linemen Levi Onwuzurike out of Washington and Alim McNeill out of N.C. State. Trench players don’t always transition quickly to the NFL game, as they struggle to deal with the size and explosiveness at the professional level, but these two are Detroit’s best interior options already.
The Lions cannot generate a consistent pass rush or cover, which is why they’re allowing a league-worst 10.9 yards per attempt against in 2021 and have allowed the highest rate of explosive pass plays in the NFL thus far, with 22.3% of opposing dropbacks resulting in a pass play of 15-plus yards.
Credit to new head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes; they want their young guys to step up and learn through experience. Detroit cut linebacker Jamie Collins Sr., so another rookie in Derrick Barnes could get more playing time. Though the Lions have fallen to 0-5, they’ve been competitive in almost every contest.
The Saints began the 2021 offseason $100 million over the salary cap and had to part ways with a handful of talented players on both sides of the ball. A dominant defensive line for stretches of 2020 lost edge rusher Trey Hendrickson to the Cincinnati Bengals and interior defenders Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown to the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins departed for the Tennessee Titans, and rookie Paulson Adebo — a former Stanford Cardinal who opted out of the 2020 college football season — was thrust into a starting role almost immediately and has allowed 341 receiving yards as the nearest coverage defender through Week 5, the second most in the NFL.
The offensive side of the ball has their fair share of talent voids as well, though New Orleans boasts a stout offensive line with solid depth across the board. At wide receiver, New Orleans had to part ways with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who already has three receiving touchdowns with the Buffalo Bills. Following another injury to star wideout Michael Thomas, New Orleans is playing almost exclusively undrafted players at wide receiver.
New Orleans has made the fewest draft selections in the NFL since 2015 with just 23, though to its credit the hit rate has been quite high. Despite all of these issues, and to coach Sean Payton’s credit, the Saints get the absolute most out of every single player on their roster. It should be more of a storyline of what New Orleans has been able to do with a depleted roster.
Quarterback Russell Wilson had never missed a start since the Seahawks drafted him in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, with 149 consecutive contests through Week 5, 2021. Over almost a full decade, Wilson has also led all quarterbacks with 394 sacks taken. For the first time in a long time, the quarterback depth will now be tested as Geno Smith becomes the starting signal-caller for at least the next month.
Smith will be throwing to a receiving corps that is effectively just two players in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Seattle had the fewest draft picks in the league in 2021 with just three, and they used their earliest selection on wide receiver Dee Eskridge with the No. 56 overall pick. Eskridge has struggled to get healthy so far in his NFL career, but Seattle could certainly use his speed as soon as he’s available.
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On defense is where things really get ugly, as the “Legion of Boom” has become a distant memory. Seattle has continued to shuffle the bottom of its cornerback depth chart, trading for John Reid from the Houston Texans and Sidney Jones IV from the Jacksonville Jaguars in August, and then trading away Ahkello Witherspoon to the Pittsburgh Steelers in September. The string of moves at cornerback certainly may signal a lack of confidence in the depth there, and no matter who has been playing in the secondary for the Seahawks so far this season, it hasn’t been pretty.
Seattle has allowed 1,608 yards in the air through Week 5, the ninth-most a team has allowed through their first five weeks since 2015. Fortunately and unfortunately, this is an improvement over 2020, when Seattle allowed 1,865 passing yards through Week 5 — the most since at least 2006. The lack of a quality pass rush certainly plays a role in the historically poor pass defenses, too.
Poor contracts handed out in recent years led to a slew of cuts this offseason, most notably cornerback Kyle Fuller and left tackle Charles Leno Jr. At left tackle, the Bears traded up in the second round for Oklahoma State right tackle Teven Jenkins and planned to start him from Day 1. A back injury knocked Jenkins out for much of the 2021 season, and Chicago didn’t have his replacement on the roster. With just two weeks until the regular season kicked off, the Bears signed 39-year-old Jason Peters to start at left tackle.
A similar scenario played out at linebacker, where veteran Alec Ogletree was signed roughly a month before the season kicked off and immediately jumped to the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. Ogletree was forced into a starting role following an injury to Danny Trevathan, and through Week 5, he has a 29.5 overall PFF grade, 109th out of 114 eligible linebackers.
As for cornerback, the Bears starting slot cornerback in Week 1 was journeyman safety/slot cornerback Marqui Christian. He has since been replaced by 2019 sixth-round pick Duke Shelley. Shelley has missed two tackles already as a run defender, an important component of playing slot corner, leading to a 38.6 run defense grade that ranks sixth-worst among cornerbacks. The Bears have just 31 draft picks since 2017, the second-fewest in the league over the span, which has led to them searching for depth on the open market like Christian or starting late draft picks like Shelley.
Despite the issues at cornerback and linebacker, the Bears defensive line is loaded with talent and several men deep at each spot. That unit carries a roster that needs overhauling at almost every other spot.