The midseason mark of the 2017 NFL season hasn’t even occurred yet, but even so, a number of marquee players have already suffered season-ending injuries.
Their voids on the depth chart have forced teams to face what sometimes amounts to a worst-case-scenario. The loss of irreplaceable players like Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt and David Johnson, among others, has made the potential path to the playoffs a much steeper climb for some teams. As coaches look to fill the void by shuffling personnel and attempting to come up with complex and effective gameplans — seeking help from both in and outside of the organization to do so — ultimately, another player is forced to have to step up in their absence.
It’s nothing new, either. Part of what makes the NFL great is how a handful of relative unknowns come out of obscurity to make a major impact in keeping their team’s playoff hopes alive every year. On that note, here’s a look at 10 NFL’ers that are poised to make a difference in Week 7, and will be worthy of being dubbed an X-Factor for their performances.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE, Jets)
Leading all NFL tight ends with 23 receptions over the last four weeks, it’s safe to say that Austin Seferian-Jenkins is on the verge of breaking out. Now, in his fifth season as a pro and second with the New York Jets, he has already surpassed his career-high for total catches (21) — with 10 games still remaining.
Seferian-Jenkins credits overcoming alcoholism, losing weight, reshaping himself and taking better care of his body for the rejuvenation of his career, which appeared to be in serious jeopardy at the end of last season. The lifestyle changes he made during the offseason have resulted in a leaner, meaner, more determined version of the same player. As a result, Jets quarterback Josh McCown has found a safety valve in the veteran tight end, which could help the team compete in the AFC East (where only one game separates first and last place).
Bennie Fowler (WR, Broncos)
With both Emmanuel Sanders and Isaiah McKenzie ruled out for the Broncos’ key upcoming divisional matchup against the Chargers, reserve receiver Bennie Fowler is the likely candidate to line up opposite Demaryius Thomas this Sunday.
Targeted eight times off the bench last week in a losing effort against the Giants, Fowler should expect to be on the field for the majority of the Broncos’ plays this weekend. With Thomas likely to receive more than his fair share of attention from the defense, Fowler should see a lot of single coverage, and could be primed for a big day as a result
Shaquill Griffin (CB, Seahawks)
Former UCF Knight cornerback Shaquill Griffin has held up well after initially receiving a lot of criticism, and appears set to play his way into a starring role in the Seahawks’ 2017 campaign. Taken 90th overall in this year’s draft, Griffin was pressed into action following the loss of cornerback Jeremy Lane, who went down with a groin injury in Week 4.
Playing opposite perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman, Griffin has been picked on by opposing quarterbacks who’ve largely opted to steer clear of Sherman’s side of the field. Griffin, though, has held his own despite being forced into a difficult situation, and could end up winning the starting job even when Lane returns to the lineup. Either way, Griffin’s performance thus far should translate into an expanded role and more opportunities to make plays for Seattle’s defense going forward.
Pharoh Cooper (KR/WR, Rams)
As if having one of the coolest names of all current NFL players wasn’t enough, return man Pharoh Cooper has been a key contributor in the Rams’ success this season. Though the second-year speedster out of South Carolina may not get many reps at wide receiver, Cooper has made his impact felt by consistently providing second-year quarterback Jared Goff and the Rams’ offense with excellent starting field position.
Averaging a jaw-dropping 31.7 yards per return, including one that went for 103 yards and a touchdown, no one else is close to matching Cooper’s special teams production this season. The value to the offense in terms of winning the field position battle from week to week cannot be understated. Expect the Rams’ offense to continue to be one of this season’s biggest surprises, with Cooper helping to shorten the field and putting the team in a position for success.
Trevor Williams (CB, Chargers)
Chargers cornerback Trevor Williams likely expected to get the chance to perform this season, given the lack of talent listed ahead of him on the depth chart. After beating out other more experienced players for the starting job, and attempt to be a serviceable replacement for Pro Bowl cornerback Jason Verrett, the former UDFA has played well under fire since taking over in Week 2. He may not have the prototypical measurables that scouts look for in a defensive back prospect, but the second-year pro has proven he belongs in this league, with very steady play in the Chargers’ secondary. Playing across from last year’s interception leader on the team, Casey Hayward, opposing quarterbacks have, predictably, tested Williams, who’s since established he’s no easy target.
There’s no reason to believe this trend won’t continue, either, as Williams will continue to be tested as the season progresses, which projects a high upside for him. He should expect to see a lot of single coverage this week when the Broncos come to town, and will have ample opportunities to further cement his case for being a starter on the Chargers’ defense as a result.
Jaylen Hill (CB, Ravens)
Though few outside of the Baltimore area have heard much talk about rookie cornerback Jaylen Hill, it may not be much longer before the rest of the league gets to see what all the excitement is about.
Undrafted out of Jacksonville State, Hill made an impression during the preseason before going down with a hamstring injury just before the start of the regular season. Inactive for the first six weeks of his rookie campaign, Hill has been practicing and might see some playing time on special teams, and perhaps even at nickel in the near future. Though Baltimore’s secondary may seem pretty well set, Hill’s speed could help the Ravens get faster on defense, and allow Lardarius Webb to move back to safety. The team could really use some depth on defense right about now, to help bail out a woeful offense.
Evan Engram (TE, Giants)
The rookie tight end out of Ole Miss has wasted no time in beginning to deliver on the investment the Giants made when they drafted him 23rd overall in this year’s draft. Evan Engram has been one of the few Giants displaying a model of consistency so far this season, with at least four receptions in all but one game this year.
Given the number of injuries suffered by the Giants’ receiving corps, Engram has and should continue to see even more targets as the season progresses, setting him up for a stellar rookie campaign. He caught five passes (on seven targets) for 82 yards, leading the team in receiving against the Broncos last Sunday.
Kyle Fuller (CB, Bears)
Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller may finally be hitting stride, in what is now his fourth season in the NFL. Drafted 14th overall in 2014, Fuller has struggled to meet the expectations that prompted Chicago to take him in the first round. After spending nearly all of the 2016 season on injured reserve, Fuller was thrust into the starting lineup to replace Prince Amukamara, who suffered an ankle injury back in August.
Though shaky at times early on this season, Fuller’s shown signs of improvement in recent weeks, having what was, arguably, his strongest performance in a Week 6 victory over the Ravens. Playing in the final year of his rookie contract, Fuller has every incentive to perform well, and will be given plenty of opportunities to make a case as to why he’s worthy of a lucrative contract in the near future.
Laquon Treadwell (WR, Vikings)
Vikings receiver Laquon Treadwell appears ready to take the next step in his development. Following a rookie season in which he recorded just one reception, the former first-round pick already has eight so far this season, and should expect to play an increasingly expanded role as the season progresses.
Taken 23rd overall by the Vikings in the 2016 NFL Draft, Treadwell will be given the opportunity to prove worthy of the high draft pick the team used to select him. His snap count has steadily increased over the last three weeks — an indication of the coaching staff’s confidence in him and stage of his development process. More importantly, he’s earned the trust of his quarterback, a sure sign of good things to come for the second-year pass-catcher.
Jason McCourty (CB, Browns)
One of the few bright spots on the 0-6 Browns this season, veteran cornerback Jason McCourty has proved to be a solid offseason acquisition through the first six games of 2017. With three interceptions already, he needs just one more to match his career-best.
McCourty signed with the Browns during the offseason, following eight years as a member of the Titans. McCourty would like nothing more than to prove that his former team made a mistake in letting him go. Look for the savvy veteran to let it all hang out when the Titans travel to Cleveland to play the Browns this Sunday.