A number of NFL teams receive boosts from unheralded players with each passing week. Week 9 of the NFL season appears to be no different, as a handful of X-Factors will emerge to shift momentum in their team’s favor, providing the necessary spark to push their squad over the hump.
Here’s a look at 10 players likely to step up as difference-makers for their team on Sunday.
Seahawks WR Paul Richardson
In his fourth NFL season, wide receiver Paul Richardson has finally developed into the player the Seahawks envisioned when they drafted him in 2014. Richardson, along with Russell Wilson, came up big when the team needed it most with a career game in last week’s shootout victory over the Texans. Richardson hauled in six receptions and two touchdowns, including a few spectacular catches.
Listed at 6’0″ and weighing 183 lbs., Richardson often makes contested catches in tight coverage like one might expect from a larger receiver. Against Houston, he also showed that he has great hands and tremendous body control.
Though he’s been somewhat lost in the shuffle as far as the battle for playing time is concerned, given the caliber of talent that sits ahead of him on the depth chart, that could soon change. Following last week’s performance, no one will be surprised if his target count goes up over the rest of the season. Expect head coach Pete Carroll to look to Richardson again this week in search of a spark to keep the offense going if it sputters during the game.
Titans FS Kevin Byard
In his second NFL season, Titans safety Kevin Byard is asserting himself as a leader in the Titans’ secondary, and establishing himself as a genuine playmaker.
Over the last four weeks, the second-year safety has been unstoppable, recording 21 tackles, four picks and a fumble recovery. Over that time span, no defensive back has been more productive in producing turnovers. Byard has played a critical role in the Titans’ two-game winning streak, which has them right back in the thick of things in the battle for the AFC South title.
For those inclined to believe that Byard’s recent flurry of big plays is a fluke, one only needs to watch the tape to realize he’s the real deal. Byard demonstrated an ability to read Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer and also beat the receiver to the ball on this play against the Browns in Week 7. Look for Byard to continue coming up with big plays, forcing turnovers and making things more difficult for opposing quarterbacks this week when the Titans take on the Colts this Sunday.
Eagles WR Mack Hollins
At 6’4″ and weighing 220 lbs., 2017 fourth-round draft pick Mack Hollins out of North Carolina possesses the perfect blend of size, speed and athleticism that teams covet in a wide receiver prospect. Somewhat raw coming out of college, Hollins has had to be satisfied with contributing on special teams and fighting for playing time behind a trio of talented veterans ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s flashed tremendous potential in limited playing time though, finding a way to produce nearly every time he’s been targeted on offense.
Hollins may have a way to go yet in terms of development, but head coach Doug Pederson says finding ways to get him more involved on offense is part of the plan. Given his production, the Eagles might consider finding more playing time for Hollins regardless of who’s ahead of him.
Either way, Hollins seems destined for an expanded role in the Eagles offense sooner than later, and should provide second-year quarterback Carson Wentz with a reliable vertical threat downfield for years to come.
Rams DT Tanzel Smart
In an effort to improve their run defense, which struggled early in the season, the Rams promoted rookie defensive tackle Tanzel Smart to start alongside All-Pro Aaron Donald heading into a Week 5 game against the Cowboys. The sixth-round draft pick out of Tulane has not disappointed since that time.
The move paid off right away, as the Rams were the last team to limit running back Ezekiel Elliot to under 100 yards in a game. A week later, the Rams held Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy to only 39 rushing yards combined, and, two weeks after that, in a Week 7 match-up with Arizona, Los Angeles held Adrian Peterson to just 21 yards.
Smart isn’t likely to rack up a large number of sack totals or lead the team in tackles, however, he should continue to soak up blockers on running downs, freeing up teammates to make plays in their opponent’s backfield. The Rams are clearly much better against the run with Smart in the lineup, and that won’t change this week when Los Angeles takes the trip back east to take on the Giants in New York.
Ravens RB Alex Collins
After being released by Seattle in September, second-year running back Alex Collins was signed to the Ravens’ practice squad just three days later. Baltimore activated him just a few weeks after that, and he’s seen his touches increase steadily each week since while he continues to get a better grasp on the playbook.
Collins has made the most of his opportunities — running for 478 yards on 80 carries. Though he’s yet to score his first touchdown with the Ravens, it shouldn’t be too much longer before he finds the end zone. For Collins, there’s no better time than this Sunday, when Baltimore goes on the road to face off against the Titans.
Whether or not Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco can play in the game, expect Baltimore to lean on Collins a bit more again this week as he continues to prove he has what it takes to be an X-Factor.
Dolphins QB Matt Moore
Don’t put too much stock into quarterback Matt Moore’s woeful first start of the 2017 NFL season. Even great quarterbacks have bad games now and then, and Moore is no different. Nor should you be misled by the fact that the veteran backup has spent the vast majority of his 10 years in the league holding a clipboard on Sundays. Though opportunities have been limited, Moore has proven that when given the proper tools, he can produce at a very high level and win games for the Dolphins.
Playing in five games last season — starting in three of those — Moore went 2-1 with a 63.2 percent completion percentage, and tossed eight touchdowns to only three interceptions. He also posted a passer rating of 105.6. Two weeks ago against the Jets, in relief of Jay Cutler, he proved that last season’s performance was no fluke, turning in a solid outing. Moore finished that game with two touchdowns to only one interception, and a passer rating just shy of 103. Look for the veteran signal-caller to bounce back this week when the Dolphins face off against the Raiders at home on Sunday.
Redskins LB Zach Brown
Now playing in his sixth year in the league, everything is finally coming together for veteran linebacker Zach Brown. Though he’s shown flashes of greatness at times throughout his career, he’s somehow failed to find a home in the NFL and catch on with a lucrative long-term contract.
After four fairly productive years in Tennessee, Brown later became a free agent, which led to him signing a one-year deal with Buffalo in 2016. Despite being invited to his first Pro Bowl that year, racking up four sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles and leading the Bills’ defense in tackles with 149, Buffalo elected not to offer Brown a new contract.
He signed a one-year deal with Washington during the offseason, an investment that has paid immediate dividends for the Redskins’ defense. With 75 tackles already this season, he’s on pace to at least match last season’s effort in Buffalo. Brown seems primed to continue being an unheralded difference-maker for the Redskins this season.
Buccaneers LB Kwon Alexander
Third-year linebacker Kwon Alexander has the type of measurables that are hard not to get excited about. Still, it’s been tough for the team in waiting for the young defensive star to return from a nagging hamstring injury, but Alexander proved worth the wait.
Last season, in only his second year in the league, he was named a Pro Bowl alternate after recording 145 tackles, three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in 2016. He’s seen limited time on the field this season so far, but Alexander has wasted no time in making his presence felt in the middle of the Buccaneers’ defense since returning from injury. In the two games since his return, he’s wreaked havoc on opposing defenses — tallying 12 total tackles.
The complete package, Alexander has demonstrated the kind of versatility, football IQ and physical presence teams look for in a “Mike” linebacker. The return of Alexander could provide the spark that Tampa Bay needs to get hot and make their way back into the playoff picture.
49ers CB Ahkello Witherspoon
49ers’ 2017 third-round draft pick Ahkello Witherspoon is already ahead of schedule in San Francisco. Inactive for the first four weeks of the season, he’s since played his way into a starting role, collecting his first career interception last week against the Eagles. He’s been a noticeable upgrade to a secondary that has struggled this season.
Witherspoon will likely get ample opportunities to make plays when the 49ers take on the Cardinals at home on Sunday. If Arizona decides to go after the rookie defensive back, as offenses often do, Witherspoon could turn in a big performance.
Texans QB Tom Savage
With Texans rookie sensation Deshaun Watson now ruled out for the season after suffering a torn ACL on Thursday, veteran signal-caller Tom Savage is the next man up in Houston. Savage will be tasked with keeping his team’s playoff hopes alive in the AFC South, a division that is very much up for grabs.
Savage hasn’t seen much playing time in his career thus far, but has shown that he can be effective in limited action. Near the end of last season, Savage relieved former starter Brock Osweiler during a Week 15 game against the Jaguars. Savage demonstrated exceptional poise and leadership in overcoming a 13-point deficit, and ended up leading the team to victory.
While he’s not likely to make anyone forget about Watson anytime soon, if he plays within himself and continues to build on what he’s already accomplished, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Savage can lead the Texans to a playoff berth this season. And he appears set to show the world that he has something to prove against the Colts on Sunday.