Identifying the NFL’s Best Backup Players


Football is a violent sport, making quality depth absolutely critical. Just look at last season’s Super Bowl champions, the Patriots, who overcame season-ending injuries to Jerod Mayo and Stevan Ridley to win 10 of their final 12 games and streak all the way to their fourth Lombardi Trophy. Several players stepped up to help New England overcome those losses, including Jamie Collins, Deontae Skinner, LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray.

This serves as just the latest reminder that it takes outstanding depth to accomplish the ultimate goal. And with training camps set to open around the league in just a couple months, it is time to look at which teams are blessed with that kind of depth as they gear up to make a run at Super Bowl 50.

With that in mind, here is a look at the league’s best backup players. We’re not including quarterbacks on this list because, more often than not, if a franchise quarterback goes down so do his team’s Super Bowl aspirations. We’re also leaving rookies off this list because they have not yet had a chance to prove themselves in the big leagues.

RB Giovani Bernard, Bengals

Bernard missed three games last season with a hip injury, which opened the door for rookie RB Jeremy Hill to move into the starting lineup and absolutely dominate. As a result, Bernard is now relegated to a backup role for which he is quite overqualified. Bernard has averaged better than 4 yards per carry during his first two seasons, while also catching 99 passes. He averaged 7.5 receptions in Cincinnati’s two postseason games, as well, showing how he will make his money going forward. He is a dominant third-down back who can handle the starting role if Hill goes down for a few games during the season.

TE Luke Willson, Seahawks

The Rice product had a nice second season, catching 22 passes for 362 yards and three touchdowns. But what makes Willson special is he is at his best when the stakes are highest. He finished with 139 yards and two scores in a Week 16 win over the Cardinals, which was the game that finally catapulted Seattle to the top of the NFC West standings. Three weeks later in a playoff game against the Panthers, Willson finished with four catches for 68 yards and a TD. He is now Seattle’s second tight end after the addition of Jimmy Graham, but his ability to stretch the seams will ensure he is still a big part of the offense.

C A.Q. Shipley, Cardinals

On the offensive line, the words “depth” and “versatility” go hand in hand. Arizona realized that when it signed Shipley to a two-year deal this offseason, bringing him in to provide depth at center and guard. Head coach Bruce Arians is familiar with Shipley — they were together in Indianapolis during the 2012 season — and speaks highly of him. Shipley has started at least five games in each of the last three seasons, so his experience bodes well for an offensive line that also added Mike Iupati and D.J. Humphries this offseason.

Shipley could push for the starting center job, but it was Ted Larsen working with the starters on the first day of OTAs.

“Q knows the offense inside out so it’s not hard for him to jump right in there,” Arians said.

OT Joe Barksdale, Chargers

For the second straight offseason, the Chargers stole a talented veteran late in the free-agent period. After signing CB Brandon Flowers as a free agent last June, GM Tom Telesco added RT Joe Barksdale as a free agent just over a week ago. A powerful right tackle who can move the line of scrimmage and hold his own in pas protection, Barksdale gives the Chargers some options on the offensive line. While he could start at right tackle, kicking D.J. Fluker inside to guard, the more likely scenario is Fluker remains at right tackle, Johnnie Troutman stays at right guard and Barksdale provides enviable depth behind Fluker.

DT Nick Fairley, Rams

The Rams signed Fairley away from the Lions with a one-year, $5 million deal that includes another $2.5 million in incentives. Despite the significant payout, Fairley is expected to come off the bench behind behind Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, who like Fairley are former first-round picks. There are certainly questions surrounding Fairley, ranging from his conditioning to his work ethic to his ability to stay healthy. However, this prove-it contract should keep him motivated. If Fairley plays up to his potential, the Rams will have the best defensive line in the league.

“I feel like it’s a perfect fit for me,” Fairley said. “The guys in this group, the D-line, they’re young, they’re moving forward and I want to be a part of it.”

OLB Dee Ford, Chiefs

This was supposed to be the season Ford was set free. Instead, Tamba Hali restructured his contract and Justin Houston received the franchise tag, meaning another season coming off the bench for the 2014 first-round pick. Ford was effective in limited playing time last season; playing just 122 snaps, he posted two sacks and five quarterback hurries. And while he won’t get the playing time he desires in 2015 (barring injuries), he will ensure the Chiefs possess the league’s top trio of edge rushers. In a division with Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr, the importance of that cannot be overstated.

CB Dee Milliner, Jets

It’s tough to separate starting cornerbacks from the backups, as teams often spend up to 70 percent of the game with three corners on the field. But Milliner, who began last season at New York’s No. 1 cornerback, is definitely a backup now after the Jets signed Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine as free agents. That is not the only challenge facing Milliner, either, as he is working his way back from ACL surgery that could see him start the season on the PUP list. However, look at his 2013 game film (when he had three interceptions and 17 pass breakups in just 13 games) and you’ll see a player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can get his body right, that shutdown corner could be New York’s dime back in the league’s deepest secondary.

About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.