In 1987, the NFL faced a player strike that saw full rosters of replacement players compete for three full weeks in the middle of the season. Hundreds of undrafted and otherwise unsigned players took over for holdout stars like John Elway, Jerry Rice, and Reggie White as the league fought to keep its product on the field. Although the players eventually voted to end the strike and pursue the right to free agency in court, some of the replacement players made the most of their brief opportunity and stuck in the league. Players like LB Eugene Seale and DB Robert Williams got their first shot during the strike and built long careers on the back of that opportunity. COVID-19 and the large numbers of players who have been unavailable in recent weeks has presented a similar opportunity. Here are six players who have gotten playing time due to teammates hitting the COVID list and may be able to stick around.
FS Jonathan Owens, Houston Texans
Although he’s not as well-known as his girlfriend Simone Biles, the 5-11 safety from Missouri Western finally got his first real defensive playing time when he started in place of Terrance Mitchell in Weeks 15 and 16.
Interestingly enough, these have been two rare wins for the Texans, beating both the Chargers and Jaguars by double digits while Owens played every snap. What’s more, Owens was stout in coverage those two weeks, allowing only 0.14 yards per coverage snap (11th among safeties allowing 1+ catch). He’s an explosive player with good athleticism and tallying an interception against LA was a turning point that led to Houston scoring 17 of the next 20 points in the game. Mitchell has now returned from the COVID reserve, but Owens should continue to see the field.
RB Craig Reynolds, Detroit Lions
The 2019 UFDA spent two full years bouncing around the Washington, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Detroit practice squads, logging a total of one whole carry and three offensive snaps through his first two years and thirteen weeks in the NFL. This all changed suddenly in Week 14 when the dual absence of injured D’Andre Swift and COVID-reserve Jamaal Williams pushed Reynolds into the primary role. His first carry went for five yards, his third for 35. Although the game got out of hand late, Reynolds gained 7.55 yards per touch on his 11 carries and earned himself the starring role the next week: 26 carries and 112 yards in a wholly unexpected win (read: blowout) of Arizona.
With Williams back and Swift soon to follow, Reynolds won’t likely get that volume again anytime soon but the 215-pound back has been tough to bring down between the tackles and won’t be so easy to stash on a practice squad anymore.
RB Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Penny is a bit different from the other names on this list. As a first-round selection he’s had an abundance of chances, racking up 85 carries his rookie season alone. However, he’s never been the primary choice for the Seahawks and had slowly been worked out of the rotation as injuries have mounted up. With seven games missed so far in 2021 to leg injuries and following an 11-carry 2020 season, Penny’s contract is up after this season and his career was at risk. Not so much anymore.
With Chris Carson hitting IR, the Seahawks still turned to Alex Collins and even Adrian Peterson first. When Collins was placed on the COVID list, Penny got only his second career start. He responded by putting up 137 yards and two touchdowns. With a bit of a lesser run-out against the Rams the following week, Penny went off again against Chicago for a 17/135/1 line. Even if Collins makes it back for the end of a lost season in Seattle, Penny has finally shown flashes of the ability that got him drafted before the likes of Nick Chubb, Darius Leonard, and Ronald Jones.
WR Malik Turner, Dallas Cowboys
Another Seahawks find, Turner spent two seasons with Seattle and actually saw some action before Seattle decided to rescind his tender in the 2020 offseason. After eventually landing with Dallas, he was largely silent behind the highly-drafted trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, failing to surpass Cedrick Wilson on the depth chart. With each of those four returning in 2021, it figured to be another quiet year but various injuries and COVID ailments have gotten Turner back into the action.
Turner’s touchdown production has been great (three on only 16 targets) and he’s 10th in the NFL in yards per route run since Week 9 with 2.53 (min 10 targets). The other players with 3 TDs and 2.3+ YPR over that span? Davante Adams, Elijah Moore, Tee Higgins, Cooper Kupp, and Justin Jefferson. The difference, of course, is that Turner has only been targeted 15 times over that span. It might not be with this version of the Cowboys, but Turner’s performance this season has earned him offseason suitors.
CB Thomas Graham Jr, Chicago Bears
Sliding in the 2021 NFL Draft due to substandard athletic testing, the sixth-round pick out of Oregon didn’t so much as see a special teams snap through the first 14 regular-season weeks of his career.
With the entire starting secondary out in Week 15, the Bears were forced to rely on Graham every snap against the talented receiving room from Minnesota. Quite simply, TG4 was phenomenal. Allowing only two catches for 10 yards, he broke up three passes and made a name for himself on MNF. The encore against Seattle was merely decent, but Graham is still a young, promising player who should get some time to continue to prove himself at the end of the year.
CB Jarren Williams, New York Giants
The biggest longshot on this list, Jarren Williams went undrafted in 2020 to little fanfare. As that year’s Giants went through 8 starters in the secondary alone, Williams never saw a snap on defense. By now, the remainder is a familiar story: the positive tests of Adoree’ Jackson and Aaron Robinson pushed Williams into the starting lineup, and outstanding performances followed.
Despite facing the Cowboys full complement of receivers for 70 snaps, he allowed only 16 yards and a single first down. Week 16 wasn’t quite as difficult against the run-focused Eagles, and Williams wasn’t even targeted in 61 snaps. Robinson and Jackson will return before long and take the starting spots back, but keep an eye on Williams as a strong depth piece.