Slightly past the halfway mark of the 2020 NFL season, injuries, COVID-19 opt-outs and positive tests have knocked out some of the most high-profile names. The list reads like an All-Pro team.
The “next man up” adage has never been more true, as a host of understudies and backups have filled in admirably. Some have been cut from teams three or four times, perhaps were even out of football. One worked in a fast-food joint while pursuing the NFL dream, another runs his own hunting outfitter, hunts hogs and alligators, and lives in an RV.
And one player, who suffered through the indignation of going 0-40 in high school, now plays for the Jets. Go figure.
(l-r) Johnny Mundt, Robert Spillane and Jason Verrett have gone from no-names to starters in 2020. ESPN
What it amounts to is perseverance. If they didn’t have that, they wouldn’t be playing. And now that they’ve got their chance, they’re making the most of it.
Here are some players who are showing what they can do in this unusual season.
Note: Rookies were not considered; players must have had a snap percentage of 20% or less in 2019.
A product of the NFL’s International Pathway Program, Jakob Johnson stuck with the Pats last season and has continued to get better. Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini
Johnson was part of the International Pathway Program, which paved the way for him to initially land on the practice squad in 2019 as an “extra” player. If not, coach Bill Belichick doubted he would have initially stuck around. But Johnson has improved notably, to the point where he’s now a starting fullback/special-teams contributor. Few players have come so far, so fast in Belichick’s 46-year coaching career. — Mike Reiss
After playing sparingly the first two weeks, then being inactive in Weeks 3 and 4, Higgins has emerged as a key offensive player for QB Baker Mayfield and the Browns. After hauling in touchdowns in back-to-back games, Higgins broke out with 110 receiving yards in Cleveland’s 37-34 win over Cincinnati on Oct. 25, filling in for the injured Odell Beckham Jr. After a rough 2019 season in which he rarely played, Higgins re-signed with Cleveland, despite having a larger offer elsewhere — in large part because of two phone calls in a 24-hour span he had with Mayfield, who helped convince Higgins to stay. — Jake Trotter
WR Rashard Higgins gets both feet in pic.twitter.com/32VaeZE
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) Nov. 18, 2020
There are probably more deserving candidates, such as defensive tackles Christian Covington and Mike Daniels, but Spain takes the prize because of his ridiculous situation. The Bengals signed him days before their Week 8 game against the Titans. In the Friday walk-through, he was lined up at defensive tackle, learning the team’s terminology. A couple of injuries and an illness later, Spain suddenly became the team’s sixth offensive lineman. Even that was short-lived, as he ended up coming in at left guard and ultimately played 85% of the team’s offensive snaps in a 31-20 win. Because of the Bengals’ off week, Spain’s first padded practice with the team came 11 days after he played in a game. — Ben Baby
Sambrailo was originally a reserve offensive lineman who came in as a tackle-eligible on running plays. He is one of three Titans offensive linemen with a touchdown reception on their résumés. Sambrailo had a 35-yard touchdown last year with the Atlanta Falcons. It was the longest touchdown reception by an offensive lineman since 1950.
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The outlook was bleak when starting left tackle Taylor Lewan went down with a torn ACL in Week 5 against the Houston Texans. Sambrailo came in for Lewan and promptly gave up a strip sack to J.J. Watt, causing the Titans to lose the ball in their own territory. Sambrailo quickly bounced back and has done a solid job over the last three games. The veteran offensive tackle kept the Steelers’ Bud Dupree and the Bears’ Khalil Mack from being factors. — Turron Davenport
Allegretti, rarely used as a seventh-round pick of the Chiefs last year, became a regular this season during a Week 6 game against the Bills when injuries gave him an opening at left guard. Allegretti was a major factor in the Chiefs’ 245 rushing yards in that game and has played well ever since. He has been impressive enough that he’s in the conversation to keep the job even when the Chiefs get back to full strength. — Adam Teicher
Thrust into service first as an emergency right tackle to replace Trent Brown in the season opener and then as an emergency left guard in Week 2 with Richie Incognito going down, Good has been the Raiders’ “unsung hero,” according to coach Jon Gruden, the “team MVP,” per quarterback Derek Carr. Not bad for a versatile guy who replaced Gabe Jackson at right guard to start last season but played just one offensive snap between Weeks 7 and 15. This season, Good has played 96.5% of the Raiders’ offensive snaps thus far (319 at LG, 174 at RT); only Carr and center Rodney Hudson have played a higher percentage, with neither missing a snap. “It’s necessary,” Good said with a smile. “You ain’t got no choice. You’ve got to go out, put your head down and go to work.” — Paul Gutierrez
The grandson of 1953 Heisman winner Johnny Lattner, Robert Spillane has filled in well for Devin Bush and emerged as a fan favorite. Mitchell Layton-USA TODAY Sports
Spillane endeared himself to Steelers fans when he sacrificed his shoulder in making a goal-line stop of powerful running back Derrick Henry in a win against the Titans. That was Spillane’s first full game filling in for injured linebacker Devin Bush. An undrafted free agent from Western Michigan, Spillane is as unheralded as they come. After a stint with the Titans, he landed on the Steelers’ practice squad and was elevated to the active roster last season. He played only a single defensive snap for the Steelers in 2019, but after Bush’s injury, he has more than 200 this season. Not only did he make the monster tackle of Henry, he also scored on a pick-six against the Ravens a week later. He’s not as polished as Bush, a former top-10 pick, but he’s gritty and hardworking, and his grandfather Johnny Lattner played for the Steelers in 1954 as the only Heisman winner to suit up for the franchise. — Brooke Pryor
LB Robert Spillane picks off Lamar Jacksonpic.twitter.com/35P079A
— Pittsburgh Steelers(@Steelers) Nov. 1, 2020
Jones leads the Jaguars with seven pass breakups and has an interception despite not playing a significant role on defense until Oct. 11. From that point on, however, he’s been the Jaguars’ best cornerback and has remained in the starting lineup. Jones’ journey to the NFL wasn’t exactly smooth. He was supposed to be one of the best corners in the 2017 draft but tore his Achilles on his pro day and dropped to the second round (Philadelphia). He battled hamstring injuries in 2018 and ’19 and eventually fell out of favor with the Eagles, who cut him this past September. The Jaguars signed him to the practice squad, added him to the active roster and let him get up to speed over several weeks before putting him in the starting lineup. — Mike DiRocco
The injury bug hasn’t hit the Texans this season, and the team has just two starters on injured reserve: cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Benardrick McKinney. After playing just 22 defensive snaps in the first four weeks of the season, Adams has played 255 in the last four games (including every defensive snap in the last two weeks) after McKinney injured his shoulder and required surgery. Adams signed with the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and has had 10 different stints with an NFL team, including two each with the Seahawks, Chiefs and Texans. — Sarah Barshop
Williams, signed by the Broncos in August as a potential depth player, has now played more than 200 snaps on defense this season, putting him among the Broncos’ top 3 defensive linemen in what has been an injury-ravaged season. Williams might be the face of perseverance in this NFL season like no other.
Williams arrived in the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Bengals in 2015, has been waived eight times in his career, spent time on the practice squad of four different teams, was out of the NFL in 2019 and went more than 1,300 days between appearances in games, from Week 16 in 2016 to playing in the Broncos’ Week 3 game against the Buccaneers. He has 20 tackles this season, has knocked down two passes and made a diving interception.
“Every city that I went to — either I was there for practice squad or a short period of time — not one coach or GM told me that I can’t play,” Williams said. “It was just either a numbers game or, ‘We’re going to need this other position, so we have to make this cut.’ Nobody ever told me, ‘You’re not good enough to play.’ I know what I can do. I’ve showed it everywhere I went.” — Jeff Legwold
Sieler has become a key cog in the Dolphins’ defensive line rotation following Davon Godchaux’s season-ending biceps injury. After coming to Miami as a December waiver claim from Baltimore after playing 7% of his two teams’ total snaps last season, Sieler is now playing 27.8% of the Dolphins’ total snaps. He has a career-high 1.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits this season, quadrupling his career total coming into the year. Off the field, Sieler is everything you’d imagine in a blue-collar football player: He owns a hunting outfitter and hunts hogs and alligators, plus he lives in an RV. — Cameron Wolfe
Joey Bosa, king of the edge rushers, was out with a concussion. During that time, he was replaced by Nwosu, who has 22 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He was drafted in the second round, with the 48th pick, in 2018 and is just beginning to show what coaches believe is great potential. He’s 6-foot-2, 251 pounds and just 23 years old. — Shelley Smith
Franklin-Myers, who spent last season on the Jets’ injured reserve list after being drafted by the Rams in 2018, has emerged as a contributor in the defensive line rotation. His forte is pass rushing. He has 12 pressures in 107 pass-rushing snaps, an impressive 11.1% pressure rate, per NFL Next Gen Stats. It’s not easy to rush the passer on a bad team. The Jets usually are trailing in the second half, which means opponents aren’t throwing that much. Franklin-Myers should be used to this sort of thing. At Greenville High School in Texas, his teams went 0-40. — Rich Cimini
Travis Fulgham has turned into a star and the Eagles’ best wide receiver in 2020. Not bad for a guy who was cut by NFL teams three times. AP Photo/Don Wright
Cut by three teams since being drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2019, Fulgham was promoted from the Eagles’ practice squad in early October due to a rash of injuries and has been an absolute force. He leads the team in receiving yards (443) and receiving touchdowns (4) despite the late start and ranked as high as sixth among all NFL wideouts in receiving yards per game, but is currently 13th (73.8). With his parents both in the foreign service, Fulgham spent the majority of his childhood overseas and did not start playing football until he was 16 years old. He has all the makings of a late bloomer. — Tim McManus
The Bears turned to Bars in Week 9 after centers Cody Whitehair and Sam Mustipher were ruled out versus Carolina. Bars had never started at center, not even in high school. At Notre Dame, Bars played right tackle, right guard and left guard. “First you have to say what a great job the kid did,” Bears offensive line coach Juan Castillo said. “Probably one of the best performances I have ever been around as a coach for somebody in that situation.” — Jeff Dickerson
Christian McCaffrey might be the best all-around back in the NFL, but the Panthers went on a three-game winning streak when Davis replaced him in Week 3. He showed a little McCaffrey-like versatility in his ability to run and catch. He averaged 98.7 yards from scrimmage during the six games McCaffrey missed and became quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s safety valve with five catches a game. Where the Panthers weren’t as efficient without McCaffrey was in the red zone, but Davis still managed two rushing touchdowns and two receiving while the NFL’s highest-paid back was out. — David Newton
RB Mike Davis rumbles in for TDpic.twitter.com/3fcKNbi
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) Nov. 18, 2020
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Simmons was an afterthought heading into this season after spending last year on injured reserve in a continuation of the tough luck he’s experienced since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2017. But he’s been healthy in 2020 and filled in more than capably at both guard spots. He stepped in at right guard for Damien Lewis in Week 3 and then started the next four games at left guard for Mike Iupati. Through Week 7, Simmons had the seventh-best pass block win rate among NFL offensive linemen at 96.3%, which was third best among guards. He fell to 48th overall through Week 9 at 92.9%. — Brady Henderson
Cam Sims, WR, Washington Football Team
Washington lacked receiver depth to open the season, but Sims, a 2018 undrafted free agent, still couldn’t make the initial 53-man roster. Eventually his special-teams play and more injuries provided an opening; he has seven catches, but they’ve gone for 171 yards. He enjoyed a three-catch, 110-yard day in Week 9; he had 88 yards receiving in his first two seasons combined. He’s not a budding star, but he is becoming a solid contributor. But know this about Sims: He’s always been immensely talented. The 6-foot-4 Sims has a 34-inch vertical leap, runs a 4.59 40-yard dash and was the eighth-rated receiver in his recruiting class. But he’s had to overcome injuries — two torn ligaments and a fractured tibia in 2015 and a high ankle sprain in 2018. — John Keim
Injury provides opportunity. Schultz was a bit player his first two seasons with the Cowboys and was expected to see a little more action in 2020, but then Blake Jarwin suffered a torn ACL in the season opener. Three weeks into the season, he had more catches than he had in his first two years. He has become a reliable target for Dak Prescott, Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci or whoever has played quarterback for the Cowboys. What does it mean for the future? The Cowboys can feel better about their tight end combination in 2021. but the job is Jarwin’s if he returns to full health. — Todd Archer
The Rams are among teams that have stayed relatively healthy this season, but when starting tight end Tyler Higbee was sidelined for a game because of a hand injury, Mundt stepped up. In a 24-10 win over the Bears, Mundt caught three passes for 48 yards. “He’s a great player for us and a guy that we rely on quite a bit,” quarterback Jared Goff said. Mundt is a third-year pro who signed with the Rams after he went undrafted from Oregon in 2017. — Lindsay Thiry
Dennis Gardeck worked in fast-food joints to put himself through school en route to fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL. AP Photo/Seth Wenig
If Disney made a movie based on this year’s All-Replacement Team, Gardeck would come straight out of central casting. He didn’t play the first defensive snaps of his career until Week 5 of this season — his third in the NFL — after Chandler Jones was lost for the season. He had two sacks in that game against the Jets and has seen sporadic action since. But when he’s on the field, Gardeck is effective. In four snaps in Week 9 against the Dolphins, he rushed the passer on three and had a 33.3% pass rush win rate. The guy is nicknamed “The Barbarian” because of his long blond hair and obsession with the weight room. Gardeck has come a long way from a fast food job in college that helped put himself through school. — Josh Weinfuss
In 2015, Verrett went to the Pro Bowl and was considered one of the league’s rising stars at cornerback. From there, a series of devastating injuries limited him to just six games over the next four seasons. But Verrett kept at it, is finally healthy again and has regained form in stepping in for Richard Sherman as the Niners’ No. 1 cornerback. Since he became a starter in Week 3, Verrett has consistently ranked among the top 10 cornerbacks in the league in passer rating allowed and has emerged as one of the injury-ravaged 49ers’ best and most reliable players. — Nick Wagoner
He started the season as a sub-package player behind Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines. Fackrell is now close to a 100% snap guy, after playing less than 20% of the snaps with Green Bay last season. It’s as if the Giants see him as their Clay Matthews, minus the free-flowing locks. Fackrell, a free-agent acquisition this offseason, is second on the Giants with 3.0 sacks and six tackles for loss. — Jordan Raanan
Not even the Saints saw this coming from the fourth-year defensive end, since they tried so hard to sign Jadeveon Clowney before the season. Hendrickson started the year as an injury replacement for Marcus Davenport. But now he has started every game — and he was tied for sixth in the NFL with 7.5 sacks. Hendrickson, a third-round pick from Florida Atlantic, was the forgotten man in New Orleans’ spectacular 2017 draft class behind stars like Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk. But he is earning a bigger payday by the week as a pending free agent. — Mike Triplett
DE Trey Hendrickson beats Sam Tevipic.twitter.com/36Ll6uu
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) Nov. 18, 2020