Reinforcements: Next Man Up, Wk 5
This is the spot where I typically look at the NFL’s biggest injury losses and how teams will survive the misfortunes that have beset them. However, perhaps in a search for some optimism, we’re going to switch it up this week. There are a dozen players who are returning to play after serving four-game suspensions, including six who will will likely immediately slide into key roles for their teams. How have each of their squads coped in their absence, and what kind of boost will these reinforcements bring?
Returning Player: Daryl Washington, ILB ARZ
Incumbent: Jasper Brinkley
What They’ve Missed: Washington has shown a tremendous amount of versatility in his short career, excelling as a run defender, pass rusher, and cover linebacker. His nine sacks last season made headlines, but he also was a force against the run, tying for the second-most defensive stops of any inside linebacker in the league.
How They’ve Survived: Brinkley has shined in the ground game, posting the highest run defense grade of any inside linebacker this season. But the coverage issues that plagued him last year in Minnesota remained, as he struggled to keep up with opposing tight ends and running backs.
Outcome: Brinkley performed admirably in Washington’s absence, but the Cardinals will now welcome back an elite defender who can contribute in all phases of their defense.
Returning Player: Bruce Irvin, OLB SEA
Incumbent: Malcolm Smith
What They’ve Missed: Irvin’s combined 22 sacks and quarterback hits gave the Seahawks a powerful pass rush opposite Chris Clemons. But when Clemons was lost to injury, Irvin buckled under the workload of an every-down lineman, struggling in particular against the run. That encouraged the Seahawks to move him to linebacker this offseason, where he can rely more on his speed than his strength.
How They’ve Survived: The Seahawks have put a lot of faith in Smith, a 2011 seventh-round pick, to replace long-time veteran Leroy Hill at strong side linebacker. He’s repaid them with solid run defense, but hasn’t made much of an impact as a pass rusher.
Outcome: The Seahawks can now play this duo as they originally intended: with Smith on early downs and Irvin subbing in passing situations. This will ideally make best use of each of their strengths while limiting their weaknesses.
Returning Player: Justin Blackmon, WR JAX
Incumbent: Ace Sanders
What They’ve Missed: Blackmon saw a lot of targets last season and racked up a good amount of yards for a rookie, but his 64.9 WR Rating was one of the lowest in the league. Part of that can be attributed to his subpar quarterbacks, but he also didn’t help himself with some dropped passes.
What They’re Getting Back: Sanders has been the Jaguars’ primary slot receiver this season, but he’s struggled when moving to the outside in place of Blackmon. His four dropped passes on 23 targets are also one of the worst rates in the league.
Outcome: Though Blackmon had some struggles, they weren’t anything out of the ordinary for a rookie wide receiver. Now the Jaguars get their 2012 top pick back on the field, allowing Sanders to slide to his more comfortable role inside. Now whether the Jaguars’ quarterbacks can take advantage of these weapons is another question entirely.
Returning Player: Mike Goodson, RB NYJ
Incumbent: Chris Ivory
What They’ve Missed: Goodson has often stood out for his ability to force missed tackles. His 124.5 Elusive Rating last season was second only to the Jets other offseason acquisition, Ivory.
What They’re Getting Back: Always a regular near the top of our Elusive Ratings, for years we’ve wondered how effective Ivory could be in a feature role. However, his other habit of chronic injuries have detailed any chance we had to take the Jets’ top running spot.
Outcome: While Bilal Powell’s consistency has made him a more reliable option than either member of this duo, Goodson now gives the Jets two possible backups who could make some plays for them off the bench.
Returning Player: Jo-Lonn Dunbar, 4-3 OLB STL
Incumbent: Will Witherspoon
What They’ve Missed: Dunbar took big strides as a run defender last season, moving from one of our lowest-graded linebackers in that category in 2011 to one of our highest in 2012. However, he continued to be a liability in coverage.
What They’re Getting Back: Witherspoon has been solid, if unspectacular, as an early-down run defender this season. His five run stops are just three short of his total from all of last season.
Outcome: Relying on the 33-year old Witherspoon for a full season would not have been ideal for the Rams. With Alec Ogletree proving capable of handling an every-down role, the Rams use Dunbar against the run while limiting his snaps in coverage.
Returning Player: Jarvis Jenkins, DE WAS
Incumbent: Kedric Golston
What They’ve Missed: Like many of the players in this group, Jenkins was a bit one-dimensional last season, playing stout against the run but not having much impact as a pass rusher.
What They’re Getting Back: Golston’s play last year was similarly uneven, and his ineffectiveness versus the pass has continued this season with a low 4.8 Pass Rushing Productivity mark.
Outcome: Jenkins isn’t guaranteed his starting spot back, though he and Golston will likely be part of a rotation regardless of who lines up on the first snap. He provides some depth, but don’t expect a big boost here.
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