Top 10 Unexpected Players to Fill-In at Starter in 2007

Brandon Senior Analyst Pat Kirwan has written about some new starters that will take the field for their teams in 2007.  Here is the list he came up with, along with some thoughts of our own about how they are going to fare….

— Sooner or later, NFL players get a chance to start and have to step it up a notch.  It could be a rookie first-round draft pick with high expectations or a player who worked his way up the depth chart. There are a number of young veteran players that aren’t known by many yet, but by midseason everyone who follows football will have an outlook on them because they are ready to compete for a starting position. We already know about the 10 quarterbacks all lined up to start under center this season with less than one full season under their belt, but what about the guys who are expected to fill in to the starting role at other positions?

Some players deserve their spot, and over the tough journey of earning experience in the NFL, they have received their opportunity to start. Some were second, third, or even fourth-string, and a contract dispute or off-the-field issue took out the original first-team starter, causing the franchise to turn to the unheralded backup to make a contribution he has not made before. Situations of how the following athletes got to the top of the depth chart don’t matter; how they perform and if they hold on to their position will now be of importance.

For example, Tom Brady was sitting behind Drew Bledsoe and if it weren’t for a big collision between Jets linebacker Mo Lewis and Bledsoe, Tom Brady would be just another sixth-round draft choice waiting to play, unnoticed by the league. He stepped on the field as an unknown backup out of Michigan and the rest is history.

Life as a backup is over. After every camp practice instead of walking back to the locker room quietly, there will be reporters asking what they have to say to the camera about the day’s work. A reporter will ask the head coach about the progress of the young man trying to replace a former reliable veteran. Sure, the following players dreamed of getting their shot to play full-time, but nothing could prepare them for the pressure that might come once training camp begins.  They might have to deal with a little extra work at the end of a practice session in July or August, and they will have to face it with uncertainty.

1. Nate Salley, S, Carolina Panthers. Salley is a second-year player drafted in the fourth round from Ohio State. He did not start a game for the Panthers as a rookie in ‘06, but at 6-foot-1 and 219 pounds, he gets the first opportunity starting along with Mike Minter in the secondary. The Panthers need to turn it around this seasons as teams like New Orleans with Reggie Bush know how to isolate young safeties with formations and packages with different variations, setting out 5 WR’s at times.

2. Andrew Whitworth, G, Cincinnati Bengals. Whitworth, a 6 foot 7, 340 pound former LSU standout, will get the job of protecting the inside pass-rush and opening up holes for Rudi Johnson and the rush attack. He got 12 starts in his rookie season when injuries hit the Bengals line, but now it’s his turn as the permanent starter and he will be compared to Steinbach. The change in Cincinnati shows that he’s ready for the challenge.

3. Antonio Garay, DT, Chicago Bears. The Bears lost Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone during free agency and Garay moved up from third string to second string. With Terry Johnson being waived by the team, Garay now gets his chance to start. He will have other competition from the Bears backups fighting for a spot on the field next to all-world Tommie Harris, but the inexperienced Garay (originally drafted by the Browns) can make the jump from a non-performing year to a starter this season on the best defense in the NFL.

4. John McCargo, DT, Buffalo Bills.

5. Freddie Keiaho, LB, Indianapolis Colts.

6. Brandon Jacobs, RB, New York Giants. There are not any bigger shoes to fill in all of football than those of Tiki Barber’s. Barber was always good for 1,300 yards rushing, a ton of catches, and solid blocking and blitz pickup. Jacobs is a big power back, and with the season-ending injury to fullback Jim Finn, things could be very tough on Jacobs in the Big Apple. He will run the ball well, but the receiving and pass blocking may be too much to ask for in ‘07.

7. Stephen Cooper, LB, San Diego Chargers. Gone are Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey from the Chargers defense. Cooper, an undrafted free agent out of Division II Maine, has been on the roster for four years prior to this season. He started four games last year and went for 54 tackles, 2½ sacks and a forced fumble. His time has come, as he will now relish the switch from special teams and back-up ILB to starting alongside sack artist Shaun Phillips, aggressive pass rusher Shawne Merriman, and Co. for the Bolts this season.  Cooper has earned his way from all the way down at the bottom, to the top of the depth chart for San Diego.

8. D.J. Hackett, WR, Seattle Seahawks. This contract year player will have to be a consistent threat in the passing attack for Seattle and QB Matt Hasselbeck if they want to win the division this year.  He will have the responsibility in taking over for the departed Darrell Jackson, and has the size, hands, and toughness to do it.  He will be that #2 WR opposite of Deion Branch for Head Coach Mike Holmgren and the expectations could not be any higher for the former 5th round Colorado Buffalo.  Taking his game to another level will also help out Shaun Alexander and the run department, so look for Hackett to put up double-digit touchdowns, and get close to 70 catches.

9. LenDale White, RB, Tennessee Titans.

10. Kelvin Hayden, CB, Indianapolis Colts.

This is the “Under the Radar” group who might open up the eyes of you the fans and the opposing team’s offensive or defensive coach.

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