The more I think about it, cover it, and analyze it, I realize the NFL is all about opportunity. Yes, simply, opportunity. It's not a by-the-book meritocracy. Sometimes, you don't get your shot, or enough of a chance to prove yourself in camp, or in a preseason game, or during in-season practice, you don't play on Sundays, and everyone assumes you just aren't good enough.
But that can't be true. Chargers wideout DeAndre Carter, who went undrafted out of Sacramento State -- yeah, Sacramento State -- is on his ninth NFL team, and looks to finally be part of a regular receiver rotation. He caught a touchdown in Week 1 from Justin Herbert. Nice diving one, too. He followed that up with three catches for 55 yards on Thursday night against the Chiefs. Carter's first career score came in 2021 in Washington four years and eight teams into his professional career. He didn't suddenly become significantly better. He just got a genuine opportunity and is now showing out.
Another example: Practice Squad Power Rankings alum Juwan Johnson wasn't drafted in 2020, hopped from the Saints' practice squad to the 53-man roster for the first two years of his career and is now, rightfully where he should be -- as New Orleans' TE1.
I banged the table for weeks and weeks in 2020 about wideout Jauan Jennings. He can be a YAC monster for you, Kyle Shanahan, I wrote. Over and over. Finally, after becoming a voracious PSPR reader, Shanahan called up Jennings often in 2021, and the former seventh-round pick caught 24 passes on 38 targets for nearly 300 yards with five scores, including six catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns in the damn NFC title game! Now he's the full-time No. 3 in San Francisco. And he hasn't changed. Still the same Jennings I had a blast watching at the University of Tennessee.
Dane Jackson was a PSPR mainstay in his rookie season of 2020. He had six pass breakups in six contests a season ago. Now, with Tre'Davious White still sidelined, he's Buffalo's top cornerback and snagged and interception and defended another pass in the Bills' statement win over the Rams in Week 1. Sure, development happens. But I think these cases are much more about opportunity than anything else. Thrust these unheralded, overlooked players into key contributor roles, let them make some mistakes -- like any player does -- keep them on the field, and they'll eventually get comfortable and prove they can hang with the big boys. Not in every situation. But in many more instances than we're led to believe by the constricted game day rosters that, frankly, need to be larger.
And no one in the NFL is a more shining example of a player simply needing a legitimate opportunity to prove himself than Travis Fulgham. He's the former sixth-round pick out of Old Dominion -- the only Division I program with the nickname Monarchs, for all you college football trivia nerds like me out there -- who spent time on the Lions' practice squad as a rookie, jumped around the league a bit before landing in Philadelphia. Sixth-round picks from Old Dominion aren't exactly at the top of the pecking order when it comes to receiving authentic opportunities. Until the Eagles had no choice. Riddled with injuries, poor play elsewhere at receiver, and coronavirus designations, Fulgham found himself as Philly's No. 1 wideout in 2020, and guess what, he led the team in receiving yards with 539 on less than 50% of the snaps. And, yes, he too has "Former Practice Squad Power Rankings Member" on his football resume.
And now he's sitting idly by on the Packers' practice squad. Imagine that. Give this man another chance, Matt LaFleur. He's shown he can play in this league!
For those who weren't around for the explanation of PSPR last week and never opened their computer or looked at their phone the past three years on a Friday during football season, this is what you missed.
The expanded, 16-man practice squads are about the only good thing to come out of the pandemic, and they're here to stay in the NFL. Because of this, I run the Practice Squad Power Rankings parallel to the league. I write about 16 individuals every Friday, 10 officially in the rankings and six honorable mentions.
But I'll always stay true to the origins of The PSPR, which were to highlight young players. That means I won't be featuring "veterans" this season. Selecting someone like Josh Gordon -- currently on the Titans' practice squad -- would not embody the fundamental intention of The PSPR.
So for the sake of the Practice Squad Power Rankings' dignity, I'll only be including practice-squaders who are rookies, second-year players, third-year players, or fourth-year pros. Players drafted from 2019 on. That's it.
As always, I'll track every single PSPR member who gets The Call -- aka elevated to his respective team's 53-man roster on gameday. At that stage, said player moves from being a PSPR member into the exclusive Practice Squad Power Ranking alumni fraternity. The running count will be known as the "Call Up Tally" or "The CUT" for short.
Here's to the Practice Squad Power Rankings flourishing this season, emerging as a legitimate superstar, earning a massive payday and starting to cement its legacy in the hallowed halls of the internet's football-media industry.
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10. Netane Muti, OL, Broncos
Muti was my No. 1 interior offensive lineman in the 2020 class. Mind you, it was not a stellar draft at those positions, but the effortless people-moving capabilities and balance in pass pro and for the run game appealed to me with Muti more so than anyone else playing guard or center. He went in the sixth round and has battled injuries early in his career. However, last season, the former Fresno State stud got an opportunity and shined in his final two starts, allowing one pressure on 61 pass-blocking snaps. Now, Muti underwent knee surgery recently, but his initial time frame to return was three-to-four weeks, and Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett announced it a month ago. If Quinn Meinerz's injury lingers, Denver has the perfect stand-in for the guard job.
9. Raheem Blackshear, RB, Bills
Blackshear played college football for six years. Thanks, COVID. No, really. He got that extra time due to a medical redshirt and COVID-19 granting everyone an extra year of eligibility. It didn't lead to him being drafted. But it did lead him to Buffalo, where Blackshear was jaw droppingly good in the preseason. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, amassed 93 yards on eight receptions, and scored two touchdowns. His ability to change directions without throttling down was super-impressive for a UDFA back.
8. Frank Darby, WR, Falcons
Darby was a sixth-round pick in 2021 and hardly got an opportunity in Year 1 -- as is the case for many late-round selections. He's someone who played with electric in-game suddenness and long speed in college, not at all appearing to be a 4.59 guy with a 34.5-inch vertical. In four seasons at Arizona State, he averaged 19.7 yards per grab (on 67 snags) with 13 touchdowns. The Falcons aren't exactly a club oozing with receiver talent after Kyle Pitts and Drake London. Darby deserves a shot as the downfield specialist in Hotlanta.
7. Jayden Peevy, DT, Titans
Peevy had a long and reliable career at Texas A&M battling against powerful centers and guards in the SEC, and he's a specimen at nearly 6-6 and 310 pounds with arms over 35 inches. He uses those tentacles outstandingly against the run, to keep blockers off his chest before dispatching them en route to the ball carrier. Peevy plays more athletic than his combine would indicate, with good range between the tackles. Tennessee has quality players inside along their defensive line, but Peevy can add more sturdiness on the interior if needed.
6. Janarius Robinson, EDGE, Eagles
Another Vikings cut from the 2021 class, you don't have to be a draft analyst to understand Robinson's supreme upside. That's why the Eagles swooped in and swiped him before their "Monday Night Football" game against the Vikings. He's nearly 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds with a high-caliber pro day workout on his resume. Plus, he's only 24 years old. The former Florida State standout -- and highly sought-after recruit -- spent all of his rookie campaign on injured reserve but flashed in the preseason.
5. Daviyon Nixon, DT, Panthers
Nixon was Carolina's fifth-round pick in 2021 after a dazzling career at Iowa. And at 6-3 and 320 pounds, he had a Muhammad Wilkerson-esque workout at Hawkeyes Pro Day. Long with some moves in the pass-rush holster and plenty of reps defeating blocks to halt the run, Nixon should be at the top of the priority list for the Panthers when they need more depth up front next to Derrick Brown on the defensive line. Dude can play.
4. Isaiah Hodgins, WR, Bills
Hodgins had to have been one of the Bills' final cuts after the preseason he pieced together. He had 16 grabs for 124 yards and a few of those receptions were of the highlight-reel variety. A sixth-round pick in 2020, Hodgins got early buzz as a rookie in training camp before two injuries derailed his debut NFL season. He spent the 2021 on Buffalo's practice squad, and now finally healthy, he showcased to Buffalo coaches the amazingly good ball skills he repeatedly demonstrated during his illustrious career at Oregon State. At 6-4, he'd give the Bills major size out wide.
3. Zonovan Knight, RB, Jets
Knight only averaged 3.8 yards per carry in the preseason I'm fine with that. He had no business going undrafted out of NC State, where he was bounced his way to three consecutive 700-plus yard seasons at 5.5 yards per and did accumulate 31 yards on four rushes in the preseason finale for Gang Green. This is compact runner with an exquisite blend of power through contact and elusiveness to avoid said contact in tight spaces.
2. Travis Fulgham, WR, Packers
Fulgham, man did he ever get a raw deal over the past few seasons. And we're a game away from everyone in Wisconsin losing their minds about the youthful Packers receiving corps that's not quite on the same page as Aaron Rodgers. Now, sure, Fulgham and Rodgers don't have a connection. Yet. Fulgham is at least experienced and feels like a relative unknown Rodgers would gravitate toward after a couple of beautifully executed back-shoulder grabs.
1. Tom Kennedy, WR, Lions
There's a saying that a team ultimately becomes an embodiment of their head coach. Kennedy is the receiver version of Dan Campbell. This is a 5-10, 190-ish pound former undrafted free agent from Bryant College who roasted NFL cornerbacks in the preseason to the tune of 16 catches for 143 yards with two touchdowns. Gritty. Football. Guy. Kennedy can give the Lions a two-headed monster in the slot with Amon-Ra St. Brown. He just needs to get THE CALL.
Nazeeh Johnson, DB, Chiefs
Johnson was a stat-sheet filler at Marshall with 302 tackles, seven picks, and 19 pass breakups in five seasons. He can man the nickel corner spot. Free safety. Strong safety. He tackles well and plays with authority on every snap.
ZaQuandre White, RB, Dolphins
White was the No. 1 junior-college running back recruit in the class of 2020. On 88 totes for South Carolina last season, he averaged 6.6 yards per. And, on film, his juice jumps off the screen. Dynamic cuts, Tesla-like acceleration, power through contact. It's still a shock he went undrafted. I guess teams like to see more of a workload in college for a runner? I love the minimal wear on his body. The Dolphins have Raheem Mostert and Chase Edmonds in their backfield. White can step in and contribute in Year 1. He's very talented.
We have Mercer on the PSPR board! Poe, a Mercer alum, was a wrecking ball in college, and he tested like a high-caliber athlete at the Georgia Pro Day. Yeah, the Bulldogs gave him the opportunity to showcase his skills, and he thoroughly impressed. Poe feels like an athletic brawler of a guard Kyle Shanahan will eventually get the most out of in San Francisco.
Deven Thompkins, WR, Buccaneers
No big deal with Thompkins here, just a wideout who went for 1,704 yards on 102 receptions last season at Utah State. Yes, he's small, which is why he went undrafted. But aren't we in an era of the NFL where smaller and faster is better than bigger and slower? Dude can separate, he's lightning-fast down the field and proved his explosiveness with a 4.44 time and an 11-foot broad jump at his pro day. Of course, the Buccaneers have droves of receivers, but Thompkins absolutely could become a favorite underneath and occasional downfield target for Tom Brady. He doesn't care about draft position.
Kennedy Brooks, RB, Eagles
Brooks won't wow anyone athletically. That's usually not good at the running back spot. But he legitimately may have been the most naturally skilled running back in the 2022 draft class. I sincerely believe that. Vision, subtle cutting capability, and downright insane balance through contact. He was a joy to watch at Oklahoma, where he had three 1,000-plus yard seasons. He forced 60 missed tackles on 197 rushes last year. 60!
Curtis Brooks, DT, Colts
Brooks was a late-bloomer at Cincinnati but may have been the most dynamic purely pass-rushing three technique in the 2022 class. I mean that. On just 304 pass-rushing snaps, Brooks registered 43 pressures thanks to an awesome blend of first-step quickness, leverage, and power at the point of attack.