The NFL’s 13 luxury positions

The NFL’s 13 luxury positions post thumbnail image

It takes more than stars to win the Super Bowl. In so many cases, backups and depth options play key roles for the teams that win the NFL’s title game. Ask the Kansas City Chiefs, who lost most of their offensive line and were overrun by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. Three years earlier, the Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LII in a shootout in which backup quarterback Nick Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He even caught a TD pass for good measure.

The Rams didn’t have some of their key replacements on the roster to begin the 2021 season, but they needed to make additions on the way in order to win Super Bowl LVI. Sean McVay & Co. traded two draft picks to both get pass-rusher Von Miller and convince the Broncos to eat all of his salary. L.A. signed wideout Odell Beckham Jr. when he was cut by the Browns, and when the defense lost both of its starting safeties in December, it signed Eric Weddle out of retirement. By the time the Super Bowl rolled around, Weddle was the defensive signal-caller.

We spend plenty of time focusing on the stars, and it’s for good reason. NFL teams can’t win without stars. There are also plenty of players around the league who qualify as luxuries; they’re either overqualified for their existing roles or contributors in some element of the game at an extremely high level. Those players might not be great at everything or look as impressive in a larger role, but their teams are spoiled to have them in their existing spot.

Let’s celebrate those players as the NFL’s luxuries. Deliberately, I’m not focusing on stars who could fit into secondary or limited roles. Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara might be the league’s best receiving back, but when I talk about the league’s best receiving back for this piece, I’m talking about a player whose primary role in the offense is to catch passes out of the backfield. The best blocking tight end in the league is probably George Kittle, but here, I want to talk about the player who still has a job strictly because he can block. You get the idea.

I’ll hit 13 different luxuries, starting with quarterback and ending with big nickel and punter:

Backup quarterback

Let’s start with the guy who plays behind the most important position in sports. While contenders are one injury away from starting players such as Brandon Allen (Bengals), Josh Johnson (Broncos) or Blaine Gabbert (Bucs) at quarterback, the Dolphins can rest easy. If Tua Tagovailoa gets hurt or struggles in his third season, Miami has a ready replacement in Bridgewater.

Nobody rides the line between No. 1 and No. 2 quite like Bridgewater. He was good enough to post a .500 record with the Broncos a year ago and finished right around league-average in most passing categories, but Denver still chose to upgrade on him with Russell Wilson. If given the opportunity, Bridgewater would likely produce better numbers than a handful of starters, a group that could include Tagovailoa.

Bridgewater signed a one-year, $6.5 million deal with the Dolphins this offseason to serve as Tagovailoa’s backup, at least to start the season.

His primary competition as the NFL’s top backup is likely Gardner Minshew (Eagles), who has posted a better passing DVOA than his fellow quarterbacks in each of his first three seasons. Like Bridgewater, Minshew is undersized for the position and lacks prototypical arm strength, but he has a track record of performing around league-average as a passer. Jimmy Garoppolo, who could get traded or released by the 49ers, would also qualify if he ends up as a backup somewhere in 2022.


Third-string quarterback

Turning to a third-stringer under center might seem like a rarity, but it’s not. One-quarter of the league’s 32 teams started at least three quarterbacks a year ago. Some of those teams were hopelessly cycling through options, but competitive squads including the Ravens and Browns were forced onto their third options. The Saints started four different passers, and while Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill combined to go 9-3 across their 12 starts, third-stringer Trevor Siemian and fourth-stringer Ian Book went 0-5. The Saints likely would have made the playoffs with a better option, which is why they reportedly called Drew Brees and Philip Rivers out of desperation.

Most third-string passers are developmental prospects who have no pro experience. Last year, the Bears had what must have been one of the best third-stringers of the last decade in Nick Foles, who started one game and spent the rest of his time “slinging it with the third-stringers” in practice. Having a great No. 3, unfortunately, doesn’t guarantee a team will have a great No. 1 or No. 2.

The line between backup and third-stringer might depend on who wins camp battles, like the one between Jarrett Stidham and Nick Mullens in Las Vegas. With apologies to Mason Rudolph in Pittsburgh, the player who stands out to me is White, who was shockingly impressive in a 45-attempt victory over the Bengals a year ago. He then got off to a hot start the following week before suffering a right forearm injury. Unfortunately, the 27-year-old then threw four interceptions in a loss to the Bills the following week and didn’t play again the rest of the season.

White didn’t exactly have excellent help with the Jets a year ago. That four-interception defeat also came against the league’s best pass defense by DVOA. White is probably not a superstar in the making, but there aren’t many third-stringers around the league who could go 37-for-45 passing for 405 yards in an NFL game, let alone one against the eventual AFC champions.


No. 4 receiver

With teams using three or more wideouts on just over 62% of their offensive snaps last season, having a useful slot receiver or third wideout isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. In 2022, teams with superlative depth at wide receiver can count on their fourth and fifth options as useful contributors, often both within the offense and on special teams.

Of course, one exception to that rule is in Tampa Bay, where this one was decided last week. The Bucs added yet another future Hall of Famer to their roster by signing Jones to a one-year deal worth up to $6 million. With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin locked in as the top two wideouts, I’d expect Russell Gage to run as the third option and Jones to spell the trio as the No. 4. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones figures in most notably as a red-zone option to help replace the retired Rob Gronkowski.

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Mike Clay breaks down why a loaded Buccaneers offense makes him not “super pumped” for Julio Jones from a fantasy perspective.

Jones doesn’t play special teams, which hurts his value a bit in relation to other fourth receivers, but he can still be a useful wideout. Injuries have limited the 33-year-old to 861 combined offensive snaps over the past two seasons, but even during a frustrating 2021 campaign with the Titans, he managed to average 1.83 yards per route run. He wasn’t much of a run-after-catch threat, which didn’t work in a Tennessee offense built around getting its receivers big-play opportunities in space, but he actually generated 31 yards after catch more than expected, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

Is Jones going to be the All-Pro candidate we saw a few years ago? Probably not, especially when you consider how often he has been impacted by injuries in recent years. If he can take advantage of one-on-one matchups, move the chains as a big-body receiver on third downs and threaten opposing teams for 15-20 snaps per game before the playoffs, the Bucs will be happy with their latest star signing.


No. 5 receiver

Fifth wide receivers have to play special teams. Harty would have been a viable candidate as the league’s best fourth wideout, let alone as his team’s fifth option. Of course, his primary role is realistically as a return man, where he was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie in 2019.

Harty is never going to be a top-tier wideout, but the 24-year-old was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise-frustrating Saints offense a year ago. With four different quarterbacks at the helm, Harty was more impactful than you would think in his role as an occasional deep threat. When he was on the field, he was targeted at the fifth-highest rate in football among wideouts (30.1%) and produced the fourth-most yards per route run (2.91) at the position. He produced four plays of 45 yards or more and averaged nearly 16 yards per catch.

Harty produced better per-snap numbers than stars such as Justin Jefferson or Ja’Marr Chase, but that wouldn’t hold up in a larger sample of snaps, which is why the Saints went after Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry this offseason. In his role as a return man and occasional deep threat for a few snaps per game, though, Harty looks like he could be extremely valuable. One year away from free agency, I’ll be intrigued to see if he keeps up his level of play and whether another team gives him a larger role in its offense in 2023.


Short-yardage back

Derrick Henry would certainly fit if we were considering stars for these spots, but if you want to focus on part-time or supplemental players, Edwards stands out as a difference-maker in short-yardage. If we look at backs on third-and-short or fourth down over the last three years, he has been a consistent chain-mover for the Ravens.

While the 27-year-old missed all of 2021 with a torn ACL in his left knee, Edwards’ performances in 2019 and 2020 are more than enough to justify getting him the rock. His 38 carries in these situations have generated 177 yards, a full 67 yards more than an average back would have gained in those same situations, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The same model suggests Edwards has gained three first downs more than a typical player would in the same spots, tying him with Henry (who has more attempts) for the league lead.

Henry has turned 36 of his 43 carries in those situations into first downs, for a conversion rate of just under 84%. Edwards isn’t far behind; he has gone 30-for-38, converting nearly 79% of the time. The fifth-year back undoubtedly is aided by defenses focusing on Lamar Jackson, but he has been a valuable short-yardage player for a team that loves to go for it on fourth down.


Receiving back

This was the James White award, but the Patriots back is still recovering from a serious right hip injury and might not be able to play in 2022. Leaving backs such as Christian McCaffrey out of the equation and focusing on players who primarily operate in part-time roles, McKissic’s consistency and effectiveness as a receiver is notable. Among backs who ran at least 100 routes last season, he ranked sixth in yards per route run (1.97). He ranked eighth in receiving EPA among running backs.

McKissic has also generated 17 first downs on third down over the past two seasons, five more than any other running back. It’s no surprise the Bills were pursuing him to serve as their third-down back this offseason, only for him to eventually re-sign with the Commanders. McKissic is not much more than an average runner, but he’s a valuable playmaker in the passing game.

Kareem Hunt (Browns) would also qualify, but his receiving workload has been diminished over the past couple of seasons.


Blocking tight end

We found something for the Packers’ receivers to brag about! Lewis played 478 offensive snaps a year ago and blocked more than 75% of the time. In his 16th NFL season, he was forced into a larger role by Robert Tonyan‘s ACL injury in his left knee, but the Lewis who caught 10 touchdown passes in 2010 is little more than a fourth or fifth option in the passing game.

Lewis is there to block, and with the retirement of Lee Smith, the 38-year-old is one of the best block-first tight ends in the business.


Swing tackle

The Saints lost much of their veteran depth before the 2021 season because of cap concerns, but general manager Mickey Loomis managed to keep Hurst. The former Ravens lineman was vital last season, playing 86% of New Orleans’ offensive snaps and starting each of its final 15 games. With stars Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk both missing time, Hurst started eight times at left tackle, three at right tackle, two at left guard and two as a sixth offensive lineman.

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Ryan Clark believes that with a healthy Jameis Winston and the help of a few new players, the Saints will surprise a lot of doubters.

It helps that Hurst was pretty good in those starts, too. ESPN’s pass block win rate metric ranked Hurst 18th among tackles a year ago, while he would have ranked among the best guards in football in the same category if he had played the position more often.

With Ramczyk entrenched at right tackle and rookie Trevor Penning drafted in Round 1 to take over on the left side, Hurst is expected to fall back into his role as the Saints’ swing tackle. Don’t be surprised if you see plenty of the 30-year-old again this season.


Backup interior lineman

Some teams would be happy with one or two above-average players on the interior. The Broncos might have four. Dalton Risner is entrenched at left guard, while Lloyd Cushenberry is a promising young center. At right guard, Quinn Meinerz flashed impressive traits as a rookie, but struggled for consistency. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Meinerz was the Week 1 starter after playing every snap during the second half of the season.

All of this leaves Glasgow as the odd man out. Signed to a four-year, $44 million deal before the 2020 season, he missed four games in his debut season in Denver before suffering a broken left ankle a year ago. He took a pay cut of just over $5 million to return to the team this season, but he doesn’t have a clear path to a starting job and has worked as the second-team center so far in camp.

If Glasgow starts the season as Denver’s utility lineman, his experience playing all three spots on the interior would make him a hugely valuable reserve for the new-look Broncos. Glasgow could also be a trade candidate for teams that need help at center or guard.


Situational pass-rusher

The line between “pass-rusher” and “situational pass-rusher” can be murky. There certainly are edge rushers who come off the field on early downs, and there are great edge rushers who make their presence most known on third downs, but we’re looking for players who only really play in passing situations as rushers. Micah Parsons, who was a dominant edge rusher in passing situations, isn’t included here because of his significant role as an off-ball linebacker.

Instead, let’s give more of a career achievement award to Addison, who left the Bills this offseason to join the Texans. With his role diminishing as he ages, the 34-year-old continues to be a useful pass-rusher in the right situation. Last season, Addison generated the initial pressure on 10.4% of his pass rush attempts, which ranked 22nd in the league. Buffalo spotted Addison for those pass-rushing opportunities, with the former Panthers player facing pass attempts on more than 63% of his snaps. He has been creating pressures for years, and it would hardly be a surprise if he ended up on a contender late in 2022, just like Melvin Ingram did for the Chiefs last season.

I also need to mention a player who had zero sacks in 2021. Arizona’s Dennis Gardeck was limited by injuries for stretches, but his 2020 numbers seem impossible. He was on the field for 89 defensive snaps that season, rushing the passer 69 times. Those 69 rushes produced seven sacks. Seven! If Aaron Donald sacked quarterbacks as frequently as Gardeck did in 2020, he would have had 52 sacks.

Obviously, Gardeck is not the greatest pass-rusher in NFL history. He had a couple of coverage sacks against the Giants, and he managed to sack Jared Goff without laying a hand on the then-Rams quarterback. Watch Gardeck from 2020 and you’ll also see a player who won with bull rushes against NFL tackles and was quick enough to chase down Jalen Hurts from behind for a sack.

Gardeck also generated a 23.5% pass rush win rate in 2020 and produced the first pressure on 20.3% of his pass-rush attempts, with the latter mark ranking third among pass rushers with at least 50 attempts. That mark fell to 9.3% in 2021, but if a healthy Gardeck can bounce back, he’ll help fill the role vacated by the departed Chandler Jones.


Two-down defensive tackle

We’re not looking for players who come off the field altogether on third down here, because just about everyone who lines up on first and second down still plays a handful of snaps on third down. The most obvious recent example might be Vita Vea, who helped fuel some of the league’s best run defenses in Tampa during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The Bucs slipped a bit in 2021, falling to 12th in rush defense DVOA, although Vea has become a household name and made his first Pro Bowl appearance.

In an attempt to nominate someone who isn’t Vea, let’s highlight another player from an NFC standout. If you watched the Super Bowl tape, you probably saw plenty of Robinson, who played a huge role in helping to neutralize Joe Mixon. Robinson, who had the fourth-largest gap between rush snaps and pass snaps of any player in the league, was one of the key interior linemen who helped the Rams stay in light boxes while letting Aaron Donald roam into the backfield after ball-carriers.

Sebastian Joseph-Day, another of those tackles, left in the offseason to play a similar role with the Chargers. Owing in part to the Donald effect, per the new Football Outsiders Almanac 2022, Joseph-Day made 10% of the plays for his defense while he was on the field, the third-highest mark in football. Robinson wasn’t far behind, as his 7.2% rate was 15th. Robinson is never going to draw headlines, but he was a valuable part of a Super Bowl-winning defense.


Big nickel

Most teams bring a third cornerback onto the field when they get into their nickel package with five defensive backs. Others bring a safety on instead in what’s known as a “big nickel” look. The safety who comes onto the field also gets that moniker. He has to be stout enough to defend against the run as a linebacker and quick enough to hold his own in coverage against slot receivers and tight ends. Derwin James (Chargers) has that sort of versatility, but he’s an every-down player. We’re looking for players who come off the field more often.

With Mike Edwards moving into a starting role for the Bucs after the departure of Jordan Whitehead, Dugger might qualify as the quintessential big nickel. Splitting time with fellow candidate Adrian Phillips, his combination of size and strength allows him to figure in at all levels of defense.

As the new Football Outsiders Almanac noted, Dugger posted some of the best run defense marks of all the league’s defensive backs in terms of making plays near the line of scrimmage. He was also one of the biggest reasons why the Patriots posted the best DVOA in football against opposing tight ends. He played 77% of the defensive snaps when healthy a year ago, so he’s close to being too busy for this nomination. He’s a building block for the Patriots.


Punter

Let’s finish up with a master of field position. Great offenses don’t want to count on a punter, of course, but having a good one is extremely valuable. There’s no Justin Tucker of punting in terms of consistently spectacular dominance, but one punter stood out from the pack a year ago.

By Football Outsiders’ metrics, the Raiders generated the sixth-most points of field position of any team in the league on punt plays. That measure includes punting and coverage combined. The measures at Puntalytics attempt to isolate the punter’s role, and by that measure, Cole narrowly beat out Logan Cooke (Jaguars) to be the most productive punter in football on a punt-by-punt basis.



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