More Murphy: NFC's not-so-Mr. Irrelevants
Last week, we took a deeper look into the depth charts of the NFC teams, examining the players that could help solidify your favorite team's roster in its attempt to improve upon last season's results. We turn our attention to the AFC where a number of new faces and unproven names that could become much more recognizable.
The final few cuts, which occur right after the last preseason game, usually come down to a control issue. Special teams or line coaches will push for an inexperienced backup that has shown raw talent in practice. Conversely, the front office might decide to keep an overpriced veteran it signed in free agency or a mid-round draft pick that has failed to live up to his college hype.
Buffalo Bills – Cornerback Eric Bassey, an undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma, has a terrific combination of size and speed. Capable of contributing at both cornerback and special teams, Bassey played on a defense that featured a number of strong defensive backs, so he was more of a reserve despite possessing tremendous straight-line speed. The Bills will do everything within reason to keep him on either the active roster or practice squad. … Running back Lionel Gates did not see action in the regular season last year, but he possesses better size than his competition to become Willis McGahee's chief backup. The Bills could decide to use Shaud Williams as a change-of-pace runner and Gates on some short-yardage situations. Gates needs a solid preseason to become part of the team's weekly offensive attack. … Tight end Kevin Everett impressed the Bills with his athleticism and pass-catching skills leading up to last year's draft, but an early knee injury caused him to miss his rookie campaign. He is back and looking to make a move up the depth chart. … Fellow tight end Robert Royal, signed as a free agent, is more of a blocker. The Bills' strategy will be to exploit the middle of the field by throwing the ball to Everett early, then counting on Royal to help open up more running lanes for their ground attack.
Miami Dolphins – Safety Yeremiah Bell has displayed terrific awareness and better-than-advertised cover skills. He led the team in tackles against Jacksonville last weekend and could very well earn the starting safety position over the more well-known competition. The ability to blitz from the nickel/dime spot makes Bell a valuable member of the secondary. … Offensive guard Joe Berger from unheralded Michigan Tech has started to develop into a useful role player. He was signed as a free agent and played in three games late last season. He's looking to secure a full-time backup spot at right guard as camp progresses. … Running back Kay-Jay Harris, a former minor league baseball prospect that returned to the football field with two big campaigns at West Virginia, was signed as an undrafted free agent last year. With the loss of Ricky Williams, Harris now stands in position to take his 6-foot-2, 225 pound frame onto the active roster with a strong preseason. Harris gained 29 yards on seven carries and added one catch for 10 yards against the Jaguars.
New England Patriots – Defensive lineman Le Kevin Smith has worked with the second-team defense most of the time since being drafted in the sixth round last April. He has seen additional reps thanks to his strong play and Johnathan Sullivan's early lack of conditioning. Smith should earn a backup role if he continues to improve during the next few weeks. … Wide receiver Reche Caldwell was signed to replace David Givens and is now just one of two veteran receivers on the roster with Deion Branch currently holding out. Caldwell lacks explosiveness after the catch, but he has steady hands and runs good routes. He could grab 50 to 60 catches in this offense even with the expected return of Branch. … Outside linebacker Pierre Woods, an undrafted free agent out of Michigan, is fighting for a backup outside linebacker job. He also contributes on most special teams units and was the "wedge buster" in college. He has flashed some up-field, pass-rush moves but was a bit of an underachiever with the Wolverines. However, he is shaking that image thanks to his training camp performance so far.
New York Jets – Outside linebacker Trevor Johnson, a converted defensive end who began his college career at tight end, has flashed the type of pass-rush skills and athleticism that coach Eric Mangini craves at outside 'backer. He was also a very valuable member of the Jets' coverage units last season. … Wide receiver Reggie Newhouse, originally signed as an undrafted free agent by Arizona a few years back, has good size and speed. He has really caught the eye of the Jets' staff with his consistent hands and potential to gain yards after the catch. He's making a run at the final wide receiver spot.
Baltimore Ravens – Linebacker Mike Smith will see most of his reps on special teams this season, but he has started to show the kind of instincts and intangibles to earn playing time at both weak-side and inside linebacker. Tough as nails, Smith is a blue-collar guy that goes 100 mph on each down. He stood out in the preseason contest against the Giants, getting the start and notching 11 tackles. … Offensive tackle Adam Terry, one year removed from watching Orlando Brown start at right tackle, is in the mix against Tony Pashos. Terry has long arms, more balance and better footwork than his predecessor. He still needs to get stronger in order to anchor his side of the line, but is still seen as the long-term solution for the Ravens at that spot. … Outside linebacker/defensive end Dan Cody is currently running second-team at strong-side linebacker. The Ravens hope that his non-stop motor and pass-rush skills will benefit them, one season after he lost his whole rookie campaign because of a knee injury. He's versatile enough to also see some snaps at right defensive end if necessary. … Cornerback Ronnie Prude, a speedy undrafted free agent from LSU, could earn his stripes on special teams. The Ravens keyed in on this guy following his pro day, and he now looks to have a legitimate shot of making the final roster.
Cincinnati Bengals – Wide receiver Kelley Washington, who has struggled since joining the team in 2003, has all the tools, especially the size (6-3, 220), but he has been inconsistent and injury-prone. The team is hoping he can start scratching the surface of his potential. His improved play would also help lessen the blow if Chris Henry were to be suspended by the league for his off-field issues. … Defensive tackle Shaun Smith, a former undrafted free agent that made his name first with the Cowboys, is now on the verge of taking a starting role in the team's front four. Smith is a very hard worker who gets the most out of his ability – he's more active than their current starters – but lacks the bulk size of Sam Adams. … Outside linebacker Rashad Jeanty, who failed to reach his potential at Central Florida, signed with Cincinnati after playing a few seasons in the CFL. He has shown good natural instincts as a pass rusher. He will work behind David Pollack this season, but he could continue to progress, especially the more the team goes to a 3-4 scheme defense.
Cleveland Browns – Safety Sean Jones is a big-time hitter who got the start this past week over Brodney Pool. The two will eventually play together in the secondary, but for now, the Browns prefer veteran Brian Russell at free safety so he can make all the calls. Jones is a bigger hitter and has shown the ability to make plays when healthy. … Outside linebacker David McMillan, a converted college defensive end, has a strong motor and could supply some much-needed pass-rush skills as a backup. McMillan recorded two sacks in the preseason opener against Philadelphia. … Offensive tackle Nat Dorsey, drafted and then traded by Minnesota after one season for center Melvin Fowler, has made seven career starts in two seasons, but he may have a chance to settle in as the Browns' future right tackle. Dorsey is currently the starter with Ryan Tucker sitting out with an injury.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Running back Verron Haynes is a veteran in this backfield considering the team's other options to replace Jerome Bettis are un-proven fullbacks and and a rookie (Cedric Humes). Haynes has good hands as a receiver and is capable of being the primary backup and short-yardage back behind Willie Parker. … Coaches are hoping for even bigger things from cornerback Bryant McFadden after he recorded 18 tackles and one interception last season. McFadden has good ball skills and could be a very important part of Pittsburgh's nickel and dime packages. … Defensive end Lee Vickers, an undrafted free agent from North Alabama, has very good size (6-5, 270) and could be brought along slowly on the practice squad. He stood out on his tapes against a lower level of competition and was brought to the Steelers' attention by one of their most respected area scouts. … Punter Mike Barr, a Rutgers product who has a big-time leg, will still shank a few kicks at times. He averaged 49 yards per punt in Pittsburgh's preseason opener and has been doing a very good job in training camp. Veteran punter Chris Gardocki has never had a punt blocked in his career and also doubles as the team's holder, but Barr's strong camp and preseason game performance could earn him a long look from other teams in need of a punter.
Houston Texans – Wide receiver Derrick Lewis is a great story as his entire family had gotten spread out after Hurricane Katrina. Lewis made the Saints' roster a few times but he never stayed long enough to make his mark. Tough and a hard worker, Lewis is getting a chance to make the Texans because of the injury to All-Pro return man Jerome Mathis. Lewis also has experience returning kicks, which could give him the edge over some of the other receivers fighting for the last wideout spot. … Running back Wali Lundy gained over 1,000 yards rushing each of his first three years at Virginia, but an early season injury caused him to slide to the sixth round on draft day. Capable in all areas, Lundy could be a surprise contributor to the Texans' ground attack if Dominick Davis' knee keeps him out of action. … Outside linebacker Shantee Orr converted from college defensive end and started to show off his natural pass-rushing skills last season. The switch to the 4-3 could hurt his game a little, but in terms of getting added pressure on opposing QBs, Orr will continue to improve in that area.
Indianapolis Colts – After several years of searching for the right place, both quarterback Shaun King and the Colts might have found a perfect match. King previously played for Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay and has no pressure sitting behind Peyton Manning. However, he has the experience to pick up the offense if a veteran backup was needed to carry Indy through a few games. … Defensive lineman Darrell Reid is a little injury-prone, but he's capable of being a backup. He lacks ideal size for a tackle, but his quickness and high motor make up for it. He has also seen some reps as a short-yardage fullback in camp. … Cornerback/return man T.J. Rushing has primarily been getting his reps on special teams. He flashes a second gear of speed in the open field, and while the Colts' offense does not need any help getting into good field position, Rushing could provide just that for them, as well as a score or two.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Wide receiver/returner Chad Owens was drafted a year ago with the hopes that he might spark a lackluster return game. That did not happen right away, but the Jaguars' patience with him may be starting to pay off now. He made several big plays, including a touchdown catch against Miami in the preseason opener. … Offensive lineman Dennis Norman is a savvy, versatile veteran who can contribute anywhere along the line from center to tackle. An Ivy League education helps him learn quickly and adapt if moved around during the game. … Outside linebacker/defensive end Jorge Cordova, a converted college defensive end, is starting to get a long look. He has good natural pass-rush skills, so he could be used more in that role if he can stay healthy. He's capable of pressuring the QB and playing well on special teams.
Tennessee Titans – Safety Vincent Fuller missed all of his rookie campaign, but the Titans have high hopes for him to crack the nickel and dime rotation. He has very good ball skills and has experience at both cornerback and safety. … Offensive lineman Jacob Bell, a versatile lineman that has been receiving reps at both guard and tackle, can be used as a swingman, but he would prefer to find one spot to concentrate his efforts on improving his footwork and strength at the point of attack. He's a valuable asset in either role. … Wide receiver Courtney Roby has the best straight-line speed of the young corps of receivers Tennessee drafted two years ago. He's currently running behind starter David Givens, but he should also see time in the slot and on special teams.
Denver Broncos – Veteran wide receiver David Terrell, a former first-round pick, is attempting to shrug off the journeyman label. He got stuck with it last year after seeing very little reps on offense. He has the size and ability to contribute to this team, especially if Ashley Lelie is traded. Unheralded guys like David Kircus and Nate Jackson are fighting for the same spot, too. … Tight end has always been a mainstay of the Denver offense, so do not be surprised to see skilled rookie Tony Scheffler get his hands on the ball as the season progresses. Scheffler still needs to work on his routes and in-line blocking, but the fact that he can gain yardage after the catch will earn him additional chances while he learns. … Cornerback Karl Paymah has much better size than most of the team's younger defenders. He's also a good blitzer on third downs off the slot. A little stiff in man coverage, Paymah has pretty good ball skills and is a decent tackler. He could see more action than just playing on nickel and dime packages.
Kansas City Chiefs – Fans and coaches alike were sad to see All-Pro fullback Tony Richardson leave for Minnesota via free agency, but some insiders felt that Ronnie Cruz was more than ready to take over the role as lead blocker in this offense. Cruz is a well-built, hard worker that also has good hands. … It's hard to imagine offensive tackle Kyle Turley doing anything quietly, but he has started to earn back a starting spot. Willie Roaf's retirement opened the left tackle job, and with continued reps and increase in strength/weight, the "Tur-minator" might just be ready to hold down the left side of the Chiefs' line. … Wide receiver Chris Hannon, a late-round rookie who has good size and very good deep speed, is lanky with long arms and a fluid stride. He can get behind defenders and has improved his routes and hands. He could lock up one of the final wide receiver spots.
Oakland Raiders – Rookie offensive guard Kevin Boothe, who also has prior experience at tackle, is in a battle to start at one of the guard spots along a revamped line. Coach Art Shell likes his smarts and toughness. … Wide receiver Doug Gabriel has been inconsistent at times with his hands and routes, but he has deep threat potential. With Jerry Porter sidelined and asking for a trade, it would be a great time for Gabriel to step up his game. He has the talent to grab 50 to 60 catches in this offense, but he must continue to mature as a player. … Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is a very good find as an undrafted free agent. He gets good penetration and his athleticism for his size allows him to be a better-than-average pass rusher from his interior spot. He could also swing outside on some downs depending on the down and distance.
San Diego Chargers – Wide receiver Vincent Jackson saw limited action as a rookie, but his diving, touchdown catch in the team's preseason opener could be a sign of things to come. With Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates already established, most opposing defensive coordinators will have no choice but to cover him one on one. A high yards-per-catch and five to six touchdowns are not out of the question for Jackson this season. … Offensive guard Kris Dielman, a defensive lineman at Indiana, has now turned into a very respectable interior blocker. He has progressed so much that the Chargers are thinking about rewarding him with a new contract. If not, do not be surprised if he gets a big-time offer as a free agent next offseason. … Outside linebacker Marques Harris, a former Colorado prospect that transferred to play his final year at Southern Utah, is a situational pass rusher that may get to see more reps this season. That could translate into five to six sacks. … Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Jackson State, cornerback/return man Cletis Gordon has impressed the coaching staff early in camp with his extra burst and natural skills on both kickoff and punt returns. He could earn a final spot on the roster thanks to his special teams ability.